Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Cade Cunningham rises to No. 1 for 1st time this season

The No. 1 overall pick overtakes Cavs forward Evan Mobley for the top spot after a strong week of action.

No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham and No. 3 pick Evan Mobley faced off in Detroit last week.

Sometimes accidents happen on ladders.

Sure enough, Detroit’s Cade Cunningham got injured just as he earned the top rung on the Kia Rookie Ladder for the first time this season. Ouch!

Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 Draft last summer, suffered a right hip pointer injury in the third quarter of the Pistons’ game Tuesday against New Orleans. He left in the third quarter and, though he did return to the bench later in the game, he never got back on the court. The 6-foot-6 guard from Oklahoma State made it from the trainer’s room to the bench but that was it.

In this ladder accident, Cunningham brought the paint can and brushes tumbling down with him: Detroit was in front 76-65 when he exited but got outscored 46-25 over the final 17:25 once he left.

The injury also pre-empted a tendency by the Pistons’ rookie floor leader: his grasp of games as they play out. Consider Cunningham’s production against Cleveland – and Ladder/Rookie of the Year rival Evan Mobley – Sunday: In the first half, Cunningham was scoreless with five rebounds and five assists. But in the second half, he scored 19 points, with another five boards and five assists.

Just as he has adapted to the NBA game after his hobbled-by-injury start, eye tests have shown Cunningham’s knack for adapting within NBA games. But that possibility got snuffed when the guard’s night ended early. He left with six points, five rebounds and one assist in 21 minutes, while shooting 3-for-8 overall and missing his two 3-point attempts.

No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham reaches the top of the Kia Rookie Ladder for the 1st time this season.

Cunningham reportedly is considered day-to-day heading toward the Pistons’ home game Thursday vs. Minnesota (and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards). He’s listed as rung-to-rung here on the Ladder, pending any upcoming absence or dip in performance once he’s back.

But that shouldn’t get in the way of noting Cunningham’s long, diligent climb to the top. No draft pick faces more pressure and scrutiny each year than the guy selected No. 1 overall and the impatience in current sports culture can quickly draw out critics chirping “bust!” Some of that was directed at Detroit and its rookie as Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner, Chris Duarte and a few more started more quickly this season.

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Granted, Cunningham is benefitting individually from all the opportunity pushed at him through the Pistons’ dreary 12-38 season so far. His usage rate of 25.9 tops all rookies who have appeared in 30 games or more, and ranked No. 1 for Detroit when Jerami Grant was out.

But Cunningham’s ability to influence the outcome of games is growing. It’s not reflected in his on/off numbers yet but Pistons coach Dwane Casey would rather have him out there than not.

The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, Jan. 31)

1. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 16.1 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 7.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

By the way, Cunningham wasn’t just scoreless in the first half against Cleveland Sunday – he was 0-for-10 before roaring back after halftime for the second triple-double of his young career. He made six of his 11 shots in the second half, with two late 3-pointers to nail things down. “He’s a clutch player. He has ‘it’ down the stretch,” coach Dwane Casey said. “The bigger the moment, the better Cade steps up in those moments.” Casey has taken to starting veteran guard Cory Joseph alongside Cunningham over the seven most recent games to bail out the rookie on what they hope are increasingly rare occasions. “If Cade’s having a tough time or a tough way, ‘Go get the ball!’ Get the ball and be aggressive,” the coach said. “And he’s got the green light to shoot the open 3.” In addition to the stats listed above, Cunningham averaged 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks last week.

2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 14.8 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Mobley’s string of 17 consecutive games scoring in double digits (he averaged 17.1 points on 55.7 shooting) was snapped against New Orleans Monday when he finished with four points on 1-for-7 shooting. Consider that a blip. Rajon Rondo, the veteran guard who joined Cleveland only a month ago, called Mobley the other day possibly “the most talented rookie I’ve ever played with.” Fans on social media have thrown around comparisons and projections to legends such as Kevin Durant, Tim Duncan and Bill Russell – premature obviously, but not so bad as to require muting. Heck, even Mobley doesn’t shy from invoking big names. He recently said to Sports Illustrated, “My favorite player growing up was Kevin Durant. I also like Giannis [Antetokounmpo] a lot, too. I definitely take bits and pieces from different players like Anthony Davis and Kevin Garnett. I’m my own player still, but I take things I can learn from them when I can.”

3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 14.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Barnes checked another box in his multi-faceted development when he sank a pair of free throws late in regulation at Miami Saturday to tie what became 15 extra minutes of hoops and an eventual triple-OT victory for the Raptors. Veteran guard Fred VanVleet gave the Florida State product high marks afterward. “He is a young star in the making,” VanVleet said. “He’s shown a little bit of everything – he’s playing center for us, I’m not sure that’s his natural position. And he can do it all – score, assist, make plays, defend. He was guarding Bam [Adebayo], he was guarding Jimmy [Butler].” Barnes has been caught up in coach Nick Nurse’s minutes crush, too, totaling a Wiltian 98 minutes in two games against the Heat.

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 6.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, 4.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Logged some major minutes and grabbed some major rebounds for the week. That’s become a Giddey staple, bubbling up unexpectedly in this or that category as his versatility expands. Good thing, too, because Giddey will have his hands on the Thunder’s controls more than ever with backcourt mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s right ankle sprain projected to keep him out past the All-Star break. Giddey had 14 points, 12 rebounds and four assists as OKC flipped an 18-point deficit into a 19-point victory Monday over struggling Portland. In the process – admittedly in one of those gerrymandered achievements – he became “the youngest player since LeBron James to log 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists” in his first 45 games.

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Arguably the second-most savvy, un-rookie-like rookie behind Mobley. The Magic forward keeps mistakes to a minimum, picks his openings and, of course, shows up every night. Wagner has played in every game, at least eight more than any Orlando teammate. Leads all rookies in total minutes, points, field goals, free throws made and attempted, while ranking top 5 in rebounds, assists and steals. Teammate Mo Bamba lavished praise recently: “Franz is years ahead of his status as a rookie. … I think it is mainly because of the preparation that he puts into it. He is always working on different aspects of his game. He is just so multidimensional that if he isn’t able to slash, then he is off to the 3-point line. If he is not on from the 3-point line, then vice versa.”

The Next 5:

6. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Confidence roaring for net-plus rookie on net-minus Pelicans.

7. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 7.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 6.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 38 overall

Not Swiss, but he’s been Billy Donovan’s Army knife filling roles.

8. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 13.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Rough minutes (minus-50) in Pacers’ 2-2 week.

9. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 12.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Fiery D (vs. Cunningham, notably) balances shooting, scoring dip.

10. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 6.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Draft pick: No. 7 overall

Fitting with and helping a good team is a valued rookie skill.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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