Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Evan Mobley's injury opens door for a wild finish

A recent ankle injury to Ladder leader Evan Mobley could give those behind him new life as we review the latest rookie rankings.

A somewhat-clear Kia ROY chase led by Evan Mobley may be getting a bit more hazy.

At a point in the season when we’d normally expect to have seen separation, we’re instead getting convergence.

Which hopefully won’t lead to confusion as the Kia Rookie Ladder heads into its final two weeks.

A race for the Kia Rookie of the Year award that was starting to look like so-called settled science has had an infusion of new data. The case for Cleveland’s Evan Mobley had been made week upon week by his reliability and his nuanced if rarely pulse-quickening game both offensively and defensively. He performed like a veteran almost from his debut on the Cavaliers’ front line, providing a boost beyond expectations for the No. 3 pick in the 2021 Draft.

But with Mobley’s sprained ankle Monday in Game 75 that could jeopardize his appearances — never mind his play — in the Cavs’ remaining games, the door to that ROY has been kicked open for Detroit’s Cade Cunningham or even Toronto’s Scottie Barnes to slip through.

• Rookie stats leaderboard

Voters for the annual award might not budge off their assessments of the first five months, but they surely are obliged to take another look.

This is the time of year when team PR staffs slice and dice their prize rookies’ seasons to make compelling cases.

Sometimes baubles and trinkets get sent to voters’ homes as part of the campaigns (none of them ever seems to think of cash, alas). That typically is more of a show to the player and his peeps, that the team has his back, rarely flipping ballot order.

Then again, with Mobley, Cunningham and Barnes so tightly grouped on a tier distinctly above the rest of this unusually deep class, who’s to say an insightful stats or comps breakdown might not persuade as surely as a red-hot finish by one or more candidates.

After Cunningham’s 34-point night at Brooklyn Tuesday — including a Paul Pierce-like return from the trainer’s table for 29 in the second half — Kevin Durant gave the Pistons point guard one of those blurbs we usually see on movie posters. “You got a 6-7 point guard … it’s a good start, you know?” Durant said. “Somebody that can wreck a whole defensive game plan with his size and timing and skill, so it’s a great start.”

Supporters of the three will cite (or already have cited) Mobley’s mature, two-way game vs. Cunningham’s need to carry a bad team vs. Barnes’ knack for providing his crew whatever it needs on a given night. Critics will talk about Mobley’s inability to create offense vs. Cunningham’s erratic shooting vs. Barnes’ spot on a roster only one year removed from seven consecutive playoff appearances.

Here at the Ladder, the committee was tempted to rank them 1a, 1b and 1c this week, until we got a stern reminder about men this size sharing rungs. So an unusually close ROY race heads into the home stretch with only one certainty for now: two-thirds of the supporters will be disappointed.

The Top 5 this week on the 2021-22 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, March 21)

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

This was probably the worst week of Mobley’s otherwise consistent season, with losses against Toronto and Chicago, a 4-for-13 night against the Bulls, and then the ankle sprain against Orlando Monday that ended his evening after just 13 minutes with six points and three rebounds. That put Mobley out for Wednesday’s game vs. Dallas and possibly longer. Playing without Jarrett Allen at his side has been a challenge for Mobley and the Cavs. But his impact defensively relative to other rookies is what has kept the Clevelander on the top rung.

2. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 17.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 19.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 8.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Cade Cunningham went for 34 points in a loss to the Nets.

For the stats listed with each rookie’s weekly entry, Monday night is the cutoff. But in this case, in this space, the Ladder committee is allowing Cunningham’s performance in Brooklyn for consideration. Heck, just the second half would be persuasive — he scored 29 of his 34 points after halftime, having returned from a banged tailbone in the first half. Afterward, he earned congrats from Durant and Kyrie Irving, even though Detroit fared better before the break (64-58) than after (59-72) in the 130-123 loss. Cunningham’s 22.5 ppg in March have come on 47% accuracy on his 19.3 shots nightly.

3. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Mobley, Barnes trade powerful slams in Cavs-Raptors matchup.

You wake up Wednesday, look at the East standings and see that the “contributing a lot to a winning team” criterion that favored Mobley all season — and it’s a worthy filter for rookies — currently tips in Barnes’ direction. The Raptors’ versatile newbie helped them to a 3-0 week, shooting 53.1%, averaging only 1.3 turnovers and posting a plus-6.3 in his 32.3 mpg. Barnes edged ahead of Mobley by becoming the first Class of 2021 member to reach 1,000 points and 500 rebounds.

4. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 16.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

Jalen Green piles up 30 points against the Spurs on March 28.

This doesn’t qualify as a scoop given how likely it seems, but you’re looking at a new Rookie of the Month in the Western Conference based on two things: injured Josh Giddey’s absence in March and Green’s play that might have ended the OKC trickster’s stranglehold on the award anyway. With one game to go, Green was averaging 20.1 points on 48.8% shooting (39.3% on threes). He even has cinched up his pesky plus/minus (a plus-2.5 week). Dunks like this against San Antonio Monday? He’s always had those.

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Being able to write Wagner’s name into the starting lineup every night has to be a joy for coach Jamahl Mosley given that every other Magic player has missed or sat more than 10 games so far. The super-reliable forward shot 1-for-11 from the arc last week but he also was a plus-26 as his team went minus-22. The Berlin-by-way-of-Ann Arbor product is on pace for the highest scoring average by a No. 8 pick in the past 25 years, dating back to Kerry Kittles’ 16.4 ppg in 1997.

The Next 7:

6. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.4 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Season’s over (hip) but four Rookie of Month honors in West spoke loudly.

7. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 35 overall

His defense and “glue” game could help almost every contender.

8. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 22.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 8.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Draft pick: No. 9 overall

Averaging 21.6 ppg, 7.2 apg, 41 mpg starting for injured De’Aaron Fox.

9. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 38 overall

Hits 45.2% of 3FGA in victories, 28.9% in losses; 16-19 as starter.

10. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 10
Draft pick: No. 7 overall

Starting again as coach Kerr separates Green and Looney.

 11. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Season stats: 9.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 12
Draft pick: No. 26 overall

One of reigning Kia MVP Jokic’s most surprisingly helpful teammates.

12. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder’s rung: 11
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Injury-marred finish, but Pacers are 4-17 in games he has missed.

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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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