Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Ayo Dosunmu continues to rise as 2021 Draft class shines bright

Chicago's 2nd-round pick has made the most of recent opportunities to climb the ladder, which Evan Mobley sits atop.

Ayo Dosunmu, the 38th overall pick, has thrived in a starting role with Chicago as the team deals with injuries.

You give them as much rope as they can handle.

That was the way late Flip Saunders coached rookies in his lifetime on the sidelines for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Detroit Pistons, the Washington Wizards and squads at various levels prior to his NBA days. Some young guys need to be reined in when the responsibilities get to be too much, others run with it and grow their games thanks to increased opportunities.

Ayo Dosunmu has established himself as one of the latter with the Chicago Bulls this season.

Dosunmu – his name is pronounced “I-o Doe-SOO-moo” – was the No. 38 pick overall in the 2021 draft. Obviously, he wasn’t a hot commodity coming out of the University of Illinois, with questions about his shooting range and ball handling through much of his three seasons in Champaign. But he was Chicago’s only Draft pick — no first-rounder — which gave him an improved chance at sticking.

Cade Cunningham moves up the Rookie Ladder and Herb Jones makes a surprise appearance as well.

Now Dosunmu is a vital part of the Bulls’ rotation. The 6-foot-5 wing was helpful enough off the bench as a spot defender and surprisingly reliable shooter in the season’s first half. But after two spot starts in early December, Dosunmu has been thrust by injuries — to Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and until recently Zach LaVine — into a bigger role, starting the past six games and shouldering some point guard duties.

As a starter, he has averaged 13.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists, hitting better than 64% of his shots and 54% of his 3-pointers. His minutes jump from 18.7 off the bench to 38.3 when he starts, and his defense has earned that extra time as much as his offense.

To demonstrate how much opportunity figures into some rookies’ development, consider Miami center Omer Yurtseven. The 7-foot lad from Turkey had a bit role until Heat starter Bam Adebayo got hurt. Yurtseven, undrafted in 2020, started 10 games for Miami, averaging 13.6 points, 13.9 rebounds and 30.9 minutes. But Adebayo is back now and the rookie plays off the bench, where he averages a mere 3.6 points, 3.5 boards and 9.1 minutes.

Dosunmu — a native Chicagoan who split his high schools years at Westinghouse and Morgan Park, plus his Illini roots — is a United Center favorite. But for the Bulls, being local has little to do with their fondness for him.

After the Bulls’ loss in Boston over the weekend, center Nikola Vucevic said of Dosunmu: “For a young guy like him to play with so much poise and not get rushed into making quick decisions and just playing smart ball, it’s impressive at that age. Especially in only his third start. He played really well on both ends of the floor. On one end, he’s guarding their best players. And on the other end, he has the ball in his hands and has to make plays.”

Teammate DeMar DeRozan burned an off night in the Bulls’ schedule early this month to travel to Champaign to see the rookie’s college jersey retired. “It was definitely an honor for me to be here and see him make that happen,” DeRozan told reporters. “It’s just fun. I know what it means, I know what it feels like.”

One thing the Bulls like about Dosunmu is his resiliency. Rookie highs and lows are inevitable – bounce-back ability is vital. After going scoreless against Golden State on Jan. 14 on 0-for-5 shooting, Dosunmu fired back 24 hours later in Boston for 21 points on 9-for-10 from the field with 10 assists — a first for NBA rookies.

He managed only 12 points in a combined 79 minutes at Milwaukee and Orlando over the weekend, then shot 10-for-14 for 24 points at Oklahoma City, chipping in five rebounds and eight assists in 35 minutes.

“It’s been different these last couple of games from the beginning of the year when we had all our guys,” Dosunmu said recently. “And it’s a role that I’m taking on well. Definitely, it’s room for improvement that I know after watching film … But that [playmaking] was my natural position. So just getting back to playing that position, it’s been going well.”

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

(All stats through Monday, Jan. 24)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 15.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Isiah Thomas and Candace Parker analyze the rise of Evan Mobley this season.

We’ll step aside and allow our colleague at NBA TV, Channing Frye, to gush on Mobley’s behalf. An all-rookie selection himself in 2006, the former center/forward knows a thing or two about the positions Mobley plays. “It’s crazy for a young guy like that to have timing the way he does, whether he’s deflecting shots, switches,” Frye said. “I watch a lot of the Cavs. … For me, Evan is everywhere. Where you would expect him to make more rookie mistakes, he’s making veteran plays. He’s really good facing the basket and making plays for the other big men, which is how they can play two other 7-footers. And for me, his aggressiveness towards the rim is uncanny. He’s looking to dunk on people consistently. Now, where he’s gonna build is obviously his strength, but this kid is special, and I haven’t seen somebody like this in a long, long time.”

2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 16.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Cade Cunningham scored 34 points against the Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Cunningham has yet to take the top rung on the Ladder, but if he keeps going the way he has lately, that is a real possibility. This means the ROY race is tightening, based on the Oklahoma State guard’s play. Let’s not forget he spotted the rookie field about a month due to his preseason ankle injury. Toss out his first seven appearances as he played catch-up and Cunningham’s averages bump to 17.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.8 apg and 35.9% 3FG. His 34 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four blocks and two steals against Denver Tuesday didn’t figure into this week’s stats sample, but reportedly only 14 players in league history have hit those totals (or more) in a single game.

3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 14.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Scottie Barnes scored a career-high 27 points against the Wizards last week.

Barnes went from a career-best 27 points with eight rebounds against Washington to nine points against Portland to missing Tuesday’s game vs. Charlotte with a swollen right wrist. After that performance against the Wizards, the rookie from Florida State earned praise from foe Bradley Beal. “[He is] special,” Beal said. “He’s always been a special talent. … He was killing us. It’s crazy because he was making jump hooks all night. It wasn’t like he was breaking us down, he wasn’t hitting us with anything crazy. Kept his game simple and efficient.”

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 6.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Josh Giddey and his family discuss his basketball journey.

Recently, Giddey explained his increased comfort as a shooter to reporters: “At the start of the year I was kind of worried about what people think and stuff like that. But now it’s out of my head. I’m just shooting the ball freely.” It shows. In December the Australian combo guard made 38.3% of his field goals overall and 22.5% of 3-pointers. This month, he’s at 44.3% and 30.5% respectively, a trend that has him averaging 13.1 points (with 8.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists) in January. He has similarly settled in and stopped “overthinking” the rest of his game, though Giddey’s flair for passing the ball has been evident from the start.

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Wagner’s 3-point eye has wandered on him — he had made only 5 of his last 29 shots from the arc in the 10 games through last weekend (while shooting 56% inside the arc). His January numbers have sagged some compared to December, when he was named the East’s top newcomer. From 19.5 ppg and 40.4 accuracy on threes last month, he’s at 14.3 and 18.8% this month. Still, the 6-foot-9 forward has led Orlando in scoring 10 times, with 40 games of 10 points or more and 10 of 20 points or more.

The Next 5:

6. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Offense grows and gets love from our John Schuhmann.

7. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 13.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

West Coast trip: 18.6 ppg, 50.7% FG and return to starting lineup.

8. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 7.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: Unranked
Draft pick: No. 38 overall

As starter: 13.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.1 apg, 64.2% FG, 54.2% 3FG.

9. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 12.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 7.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: Unranked
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Presence felt despite impact on shooting after R thumb injury.

10. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 14.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 5.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

Rough bend in learning curve: 12.5% FG, 11.1% 3FG last week.

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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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