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Kia Rookie Ladder: Evan Mobley holds No. 1 spot as season enter 2nd half

The Cavaliers' dynamic forward is one of many rookies making a strong case for Kia Rookie of the Year.

No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley has been a steady force for Cleveland all season.

We’re solidly past the halfway point of the 2021-22 NBA season, which gives us reason to offer this week’s Ladder as a midpoint projection of the ROY race, rather than another weekly update on each rookie’s latest performances. The order in which you find the Top 5 here is the order in which they’d be written on the ballot in April, all else being equal.

Rarely, of course, do all things stay equal. Some rookies will soar from now till the finish, others will swoon. Their teams will rise or fall, leaning on them more or relying on them less. Injuries always loom, as does that fabled rookie “wall.” And just when a fella thinks he’s got things figured out, this league has a way of humbling him in a hurry.

One good thing about the field so far is that they all are pushing onward. And none would have to apologize if he walks off with the trophy.

Cleveland’s Evan Mobley is the solid favorite due to his performance at both ends, the understated maturity of his game, and the surprising rise of the Cavaliers in the East standings.

Cade Cunningham is looking like a No. 1 overall pick now, overcoming a training camp injury that hobbled him into the season and started his clock after others already were running. The Pistons are playing for lottery balls but that means heavy reps and learning opportunities for their young primary ball handler.

Scottie Barnes isn’t shying away from the accolade either. Just this week the Toronto forward, who made a mini-leap to the No. 4 spot in the Draft, was honest about his ambitions. “It’s important for me to try to win Rookie of the Year to start my legacy off right,” he said. “That’s been a goal of mine since the start of the season. It’s something we should all be trying to achieve.”

It is, and from all appearances, they are.

Orlando’s Franz Wagner, whose play so far qualifies him at least as the lottery’s biggest sleeper (No. 8 pick) if not the Draft’s, apparently has picked up a nickname from some Magic teammates: “ROY” they call him, in a nod to the award for which he’s contending.

After Wagner was honored as December’s top rookie from the Eastern Conference crowded with candidates, Orlando guard Cole Anthony said: “I told him I’m going to start calling him ‘ROY’ because that’s what he’s going to be. I’m speaking it into existence. I just want to keep seeing him get better and I think he has a chance to be a heckuva player.”

Hey, nicknames have stuck for less.

Then there’s Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey, who might get votes from those impressed by history. As noted last week, the Australian with passes as slick as his peripheral vision is vast is on pace to join only Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Ben Simmons as rookies who averaged at least 11 points, seven rebounds and six assists. He already has a highlight reel for which the Thunder can provide campaign links, and he’s the best of the West’s rookies by a good margin (including a teammate or two).

• Rookie stats leaderboard

How about the Next 5? Could one of them – or someone not even holding onto a regular Ladder rung, like Brooklyn’s Cam Thomas, Chicago’s Ayo Dosunmu or recently reactivated Magic guard Jalen Suggs – push all the way to the top in what’s left of the season?

You can tell them no, because the committee isn’t about to. Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards nearly did that in 2021 in what basically was a two-man ROY field. This year, with a deeper pool of candidates, the differences in snagging the award or not figure to be even slimmer.

For now, this is a snapshot of where many of them stand.

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

(All stats through Monday, Jan. 17)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Evan Mobley scored 20 points against Oklahoma City over the weekend.

Mobley’s team went 4-0 in the latest Ladder sample (and 5-1 on its West Coast trip), with the rookie making 55.1% of his shots and blocking 1.3 nightly put up by Cavs foes. Increasingly, he has shown a knack for facilitating late in close games, too. Said coach J.B Bickerstaff, who never seems to run out of new ways to praise the former USC big man: “It may not seem that way because of his demeanor, but he’s got a burning desire to do whatever it takes to win basketball games. And he knows that he’s got the skill to go get it done.” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault told reporters over the weekend that Mobley’s mobility impresses him. Many big guys use their length defensively to make up for lateral movement but with Mobley, he adds those traits rather than compensates.

2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Cade Cunningham scored 21 points against the Suns on Sunday.

Comparing Cunningham’s weekly stats with his season-long numbers suggests consistency, which is an important part of his development in Detroit. He’s responsible not only for his own results but the results from teammates to whom he has to deliver the basketball. His shooting has perked up – 52.9% true shooting in January – and his turnovers (persistent at 3.7 per game) look to be a function of how much the ball is in his hands. Just as important as learning what he can do as an NBA rookie is learning what he cannot do – notably, getting trapped in the air with the ball but without a shot or a pass. “I was jump passing too much,” Cunningham told reporters recently. “If you don’t find a receiver in that little window you’ve got [while in the air], that’s a turnover. Coaches have been on me about that and we’ve repped that out.”

3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 14.5 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

After missing two of three games, Barnes returned with a vengeance at Miami Monday, contributing 16 points, eight boards and six assists with one steal and a pair of 3-pointers in the Raptors’ road loss. A lot of Toronto fans were equally focused on his impact when he got fouled on a breakout sprint-and-dunk and slammed into a woman seated on the baseline (they both were fine afterward). The versatile newcomer from Florida State continues to check a lot of boxes for his team: scorer, point forward, on-ball defender, paint protector, starter, second-unit leader.

4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 5.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Franz and Mo Wagner helped Orlando end its losing streak last week.

The rookie’s older bro Mo grabbed some of the spotlight over the weekend when he scored 26 points against Charlotte while prized rookie Franz added 19. Their combined 45 points equaled the record for two brothers in the same game, matching what Markieff (31) and Marcus Morris (14) scored for Phoenix back in February 2015. And while Franz is generating more excitement for the Magic’s hungry fans – who are delighted to have rookie Jalen Suggs back on the court – don’t cry for Mo: he has been helpful off the bench, besting his brother’s per-36 numbers with 22.0 points and 7.3 boards, and he’s having fun. “As far as us, we always say we finesse life somehow,” the older Wagner told reporters. “We’re in a very privileged situation, and we’re very happy every day.”

5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 6.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 5.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

As you can see, there’s an Eastern tilt to the top of the Ladder. That means Giddey might be on his way to his third straight Western Conference rookie of the month award. In his first eight games this month, he’s averaging 13.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists (more than triple any other candidate), while shooting 48% overall and 41% from three. Closest competitors: Houston’s Jalen Green (15.4, 3.8, 1.9, 39.5%, 28.6%) and New Orleans’ Herbert Jones (13.0, 3.8, 2.1, 55.3%, 46.2%). Giddey has improved each month, particularly as a shooter.

The Next 5:

6. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Defensive ace flirting with 50% FG (40% 3FG) as 6-foot-8 center.

7. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 15.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

A better fit, more well-rounded since his hamstring layoff.

8. Omer Yurtseven, Miami Heat

Season stats: 6.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Draft pick: Undrafted (2020)

His impact off the bench will be key with Adebayo back.

9. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 13.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

One of few Pacers whose agenda remains the same: Provide hope.

10. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 6.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 0.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 19.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Draft pick: No. 7 overall

Good things happen when you run the floor and play defense.

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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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