Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: NBA's 2021 rookie class ready to debut

Top picks from the class of 2021 will look to make their mark on the NBA's 75th Anniversary Season.'s Steve Aschburner explains why Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and others should be on your radar this season.

It’s post time for the 2021-22 Kia Rookie Ladder, and that has nothing to do with some newcomer big man such as Cleveland’s Evan Mobley getting the ball on the low block.

Post time in this case is a term lifted from the horses, the designated starting time for those thoroughbreds to run their race. So, get your bets down because as of Wednesday night when the vast majority of NBA teams open the season, the chase for the league’s 2022 Kia Rookie of the Year Award will have its “They’re off!” moment.

With scant evidence beyond small sample, hard-to-evaluate preseason statistics, this week’s Ladder will be an accounting, rather than a ranking, of the likeliest ROY candidates. Thus we’ve got the lottery picks from the 2021 Draft in July, which all but assures us of capturing next spring’s award winner.

Look back at all of the best moments from the 2021 NBA Draft.

Consider: Only once in the past 15 years has a player drafted outside the lottery been named Rookie of the Year. That happened with 2017 winner Malcolm Brogdon, the No. 36 pick in the 2016 Draft who rose to the top as a sometimes-starting rotation player with an above .500 Milwaukee team. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick, missed that season with a foot injury, Sixers teammates Joel Embiid and Dario Saric split votes and no other lottery rookie started quickly enough to block Brogdon’s route to the honor.

In 2014, Michael Carter-Williams snagged the ROY from his No. 11 spot in the previous offseason’s draft, shining for a 19-63 Philadelphia team and taking advantage of No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett’s flop for Cleveland.

The other winners in the past 15 years weren’t just lottery picks – they were drafted No. 6 or higher. That’s 87% (13 of 15). A full 40% (six) of the past 15 ROY awards went to No. 1 overall picks.

Why? That’s where we typically find the sweet spot of talent and opportunity. The neediest teams draft highest by design, and the 2021 lottery followed form with four Play-In Tournament hopefuls (Charlotte, Golden State, Indiana, San Antonio) but no actual playoff teams sneaking in. (No. 10 pick Ziaire Williams wound up with first-round participant Memphis via a subsequent summer trade.)

Which rookie will have the biggest impact on his team’s record? Good question. The Warriors improved by 24 victories last season from their 15-50 mark in the 2019-20 “bubble” year, but no one attributed that to No. 2 pick James Wiseman, since he played only 39 games (18-21) due to injury and virus protocols.

Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, the 2021 winner, helped the Hornets improve by 10 victories. Chicago’s Patrick Williams was part of the Bulls’ nine-victory improvement. ROY runner-up Anthony Edwards helped the Timberwolves squeeze out four more victories – and four more losses, with their schedule bumping from 64 to 72 games.

Here is a recap of the lottery picks, their new teams’ 2021-22 opener and a few words about each player’s preseason experience:

1. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

• NBA debut: TBD

Cunningham suffered an ankle injury early in Detroit’s training camp and did not participate in preseason games. He will also miss Detroit’s opener vs. Chicago. Pistons coach Dwane Casey has been adamant that the 6-foot-8 combo guard – slated for a starting role – won’t be rushed back.

2. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

• NBA debut: Wednesday at Minnesota (8 ET, NBA League Pass)

Green’s light should be just that – “green” – in a needy Rockets attack. He needs to learn the intricacies of coach Stephen Silas’ offense after averaging 13.3 points on 11.8 shots in the preseason, shooting 23% from the arc and 34% overall.

3. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

• NBA debut: Wednesday at Memphis (8 ET, NBA League Pass)

Mobley has the Cavs and their fans excited at both ends, given his defensive work as a helper and rim defender and his offensive ability to move with or without the ball. He’s part of a lanky, lengthy front line now with Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen.

4. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

• NBA debut: Wednesday vs. Washington (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass)

Barnes led all 2021 rookies in assists in the preseason (5.6), impressive for a 6-foot-9 forward, and added 4.6 rebounds. Toronto put the ball in his hands and didn’t sweat his 9.8 ppg on 9.4 shots, not with his demonstrated ability to guard bigs and smalls.

5. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic

• NBA debut: Wednesday at San Antonio (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass)

A stomach issue zapped Suggs’ final preseason appearance and a schedule of six road games in Orlando’s first eight will test his early professionalism. Suggs’ two-way play and leadership potential have draw comparisons to Sacramento’s Tyrese Haliburton, who finished third in 2021 ROY voting. And sure enough, oddsmakers have the Magic guard third to win the award after Cunningham and Green.

6. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

• NBA debut: Wednesday at Utah (9 ET, NBA League Pass)

Giddey, the native of Melbourne, Australia, thrilled Thunder fans in the preseason by averaging 13.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists and making 40% of his 3-point attempts. Area for improvement: finishing at the rim, defense and getting to the foul line.

7. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

• NBA debut: TBD

Kuminga’s season debut still is to be determined due to a strained right knee that sidelined him for Golden State’s final three preseason games. The bonus pick drafted with Minnesota’s lottery selection saw limited action in the Warriors’ first two tune-up games, which could persist in the team’s mix of veterans and slightly more established youth.

8. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

• NBA debut: Wednesday at San Antonio (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass)

The 6-foot-9 wing from Michigan improved through the preseason, and even did some heavy lifting at both ends in the fourth quarter over a victory over Boston. His shooting lagged, but defensively, Wagner was active with deflections in stints guarding both backcourt spots.

9. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

• NBA debut: Wednesday at Portland (10 ET, NBA League Pass)

From coach Luke Walton on down, the Kings are talking defense this fall, an obvious need based on finishing last in points allowed per 100 possessions and opponents’ field-goal percentage. Mitchell has embodied that with his sturdy on-ball work. At 52.6%, he also was one of only five rookies to average more than three 3-point attempts and shoot better than 40% in the preseason.

10. Ziaire Williams, Memphis Grizzlies

• NBA debut: Wednesday vs. Cleveland (8 ET, NBA League Pass)

The only lottery pick to wind up with a playoff team (thanks to the Memphis-New Orleans-Charlotte trade), the Grizzlies expected Williams to be raw and he looked the part in the preseason. He shot 32.5% overall, including 18.8% on 3s and will have plenty of work just to crash Memphis’ top 10 rotation.

11. James Bouknight, Charlotte Hornets

• NBA debut: Wednesday vs. Indiana (7 ET, NBA League Pass)

The UConn product ranked third in scoring among rookies in the preseason (15.8 ppg), showing his greatest promise inside the arc and at the rim (including a memorable slam). There are minutes to be had, too, with Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk gone from the Hornets’ backcourt.

12. Joshua Primo, San Antonio Spurs

• NBA debut: Wednesday vs. Orlando (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass)

The 2021 rookie class’s youngest player – Primo won’t turn 19 until Christmas Eve – he averaged 9.7 minutes while playing in all five Spurs preseason games. He was judicious in his shooting and aggressive in his defending, brimming with confidence against more experienced foes.

13. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

• NBA debut: Wednesday at Charlotte (7 ET, NBA League Pass)

Duarte, drafted one spot after Primo, was the oldest player (24) in the Draft. His mature game and Indiana’s nagging injury issues (T.J. Warren’s foot, Caris LeVert’s back, Edmond Sumner’s Achilles before he got traded) will have him on the floor a lot. He is aggressive enough to make the most of the opportunity.

14. Moses Moody, Golden State Warriors

• NBA debut: 2 points, 2 rebounds vs. Lakers

Moody was limited to 14.1 minutes per preseason game, and could get squeezed for time between the Warriors’ veteran – Steph Curry, Andrew Wiggins, Klay Thompson when he returns – and a crop of young players moving along their own learning curve. But he has the shot (46% from the arc in the preseason), the awareness and the athletic ability to fit in when opportunity arises.

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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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