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Breaking: This Kia Rookie Ladder is biased.
Biased, that is, in favor of opportunity. When it comes to assessing the cream of the 2021 NBA Draft crop (and assorted other newcomers), quantity often reveals quality. Or lack thereof.
It’s no coincidence that eight of the 10 players on this week’s Ladder rank in the Top 10 among rookies in minutes played. Only Houston’s Alperen Sengun (19.3) and Denver’s Bones Hyland (16.5) are averaging less than 26 minutes per game.
That might make the Ladder committee susceptible to overvaluing counting stats, as the slide-rule set calls them. Hate to break it to them, but pretty much everything in the NBA is driven by counting stats: public recognition, peer status, All-Star berths, nine-figure contracts, Hall of Fame enshrinements and Top 75 selections. “Glue guys” and ultra-efficient role players are nice to have, sometimes indispensable. But the guys who can hang 20 points, grab 10 rebounds and dish eight assists, night in and night out, are the ones who get paid.
When it comes to rookies, two reasons for a minutes correlation to Ladder runs are clear: First, they earned the minutes. Only the lousiest teams hand over playing time to players solely due to their Draft position. And second, the exposure lets us see them, warts and all. You can only go by who’s actually on stage, no matter how allegedly promising the lead actor’s understudy is said to be.
So we start gawking at Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and Cleveland’s Evan Mobley and stop only when injuries intervene. We get impatient when a camp injury delays No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham’s debut, impact and development for Detroit. We keep watching and waiting for Houston’s Jalen Green to show consistency and eradicate some repeated mistakes. And so on.
The X factor in this is, it might not be entirely fair to promising rookies on stronger teams. Players such as Hyland and Chicago’s Ayo Dosunmu have been bright lights for their clubs. But the Bulls have too much going their way at 10-4 to dwell on Dosunmu’s first-year progress. The rookie has carved out his own niche in the rotation by handling much of what’s been thrown at him, including bench scoring duties with Coby White sidelined.
Hyland has been in a similar situation, capitalizing on injury-opened opportunities for a Nuggets team that isn’t focused on newcomers’ day-to-day learning curves. Take out Denver’s 9-5 record and the W-L of the other nine players on this week’s Ladder is a combined 40-73, a .354 winning percentage.
Which is pretty much built into the whole Draft process: to the losers go the spoils.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, Nov. 15)
1. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Season stats: 16.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
You want poise? Barnes has been even better on the road (19.6 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.6 apg, 54.2% shooting) than at home. That and more earned him high praise from Brooklyn coach Steve Nash: “He can impact the game in a lot of ways. Offensively, I think there is a player that has a high ceiling but is still going to continue to develop. Defensively, he is very versatile and can guard multiple positions, skill sets and actions.” And a slightly less nuanced but more audacious compliment from TNT’s Charles Barkley, predicting the No. 4 pick in the Draft will be Rookie of the Year.
Get yourself a hype man like @ScottBarnes561 pic.twitter.com/fNFsUsiDYc
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 12, 2021
2. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Season stats: 14.6 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Through his 14th game, the Cavaliers’ two-way big man had achieved something even the great LeBron James didn’t manage, becoming the first Cleveland rookie to reach 200 points and 100 rebounds so early in the season. In Game No. 15, though, Mobley’s exciting story hit the rocks – he got tangled with Boston’s Enes Kanter and suffered a sprained right elbow that is expected to sideline him for 2-4 weeks. Missing 15 games wouldn’t necessarily ruin Mobley’s shot at Rookie of the Year – LaMelo Ball won it last season despite missing 21 of Charlotte’s 72 – but it could tear quite a hole in the Cavs’ ambitions in the East.
3. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 13.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Wagner is the first of two rookies on the Ladder who were drafted after a more heralded new teammate, only to get more traction early in the season. In this case, the 6-foot-9 forward got picked at No. 8, three spots behind guard Jalen Suggs. But while Suggs has spun his wheels a bit playing with and behind Cole Anthony, Wagner has seized on the team’s injury openings to work himself into the Magic’s starting lineup and is averaging more minutes, points, rebounds and even steals while shooting better than Suggs.
.@franzboogie last night:
50% FG pic.twitter.com/gaBAZIusHU
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) November 16, 2021
4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season stats: 9.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 6.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
One of the bigger questions coming out of Thunder camp was how Giddey was going to mesh with holdover guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the backcourt, given the latter’s preeminence in 2020-21. So far, so good on that front: SG-A has seen his assists drop from 5.9 to 4.2, but he still tops OKC in usage (27.7% compared to last season’s 27.8%) and he’s launching the most 3-pointers of his career. Giddey’s ball skills make him must-see, and his 19.9% usage rate ranks sixth on the team. He did struggle from the field this week, making only 11 of 38 shots overall and 4 of 16 from the arc.
What a pass, what a finish!@joshgiddey ➡️ @luthebeast pic.twitter.com/sinVcDF3Ar
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 13, 2021
5. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 13.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.6 agp
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Good for Cunningham, cracking the Top 5 here for the first time this season.
An ankle injury that kept him out as the regular season began, followed by a minutes ramp-up, made for slow going early. But he has asserted himself lately, and when he notched 25 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and five 3-pointers against Sacramento Monday, he joined Steph Curry (twice), Trae Young and Jason Kidd as the only rookie to hit those thresholds in a game. One concern his ankle might still be bothering him: More than half his shots have come from 3-point range, with less than 15% coming inside three feet.
Cade Cunningham (20 yrs, 51 days) became the youngest player in NBA history with at least 25 pts, 8 rebs, 8 asts and 5 3FGM in a game. He is followed by LeBron James (20 yrs, 100 days), Trae Young (20 yrs, 163 days) & Luka Doncic (20 yrs, 248 days). #Pistons
— Pistons PR (@Pistons_PR) November 16, 2021
The Next 5:
6. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 14.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Slips due to right shoulder injury, 10-of-29 shooting for week.
7. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 9.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Sengun is Houston’s more consistent, efficient newbie on Ladder.
8. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 13.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Force-feeding not paying off (personal minus-87 for week).
9. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Energy guy from VCU posted scoring highs 3x in 3-1 week.
10. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.3 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 5.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Of those drafted later, only Duarte tops Mitchell in minutes, scoring.
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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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