The Rookie class from the 2021 NBA Draft has taken its lumps and predictably is on a sharper learning curve with 2 years of COVID having affected player’s college careers and in some cases high school as well. A number of players are beginning to contribute and make a name for themselves at the NBA level. This list is obviously fluid, and doesn’t even consist of a guy who may end up the best player from the entire draft class, 7th pick Jonathan Kuminga. Granted, he is on a team (Golden State) that is contending for a title making minutes and opportunities harder to come by. Here is a look at the top rookie performers through the first month of the NBA season.
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
What a start for the 6’11 big man. Mobley is tied for first among all rookies, averaging 14.6 points per game. The USC product has also pulled down the second most rebounds among first year players (8 per game) and has more blocks per game than any other rookie. The 20-year-old has been a force on both ends of the court for a front court oriented Cavalier squad. For Mobley, it’s not just about the numbers he is putting up, although they are impressive, it’s the way he looks on the court. He already looks so confident and comfortable just a handful of games into his NBA career. Mobley has such an advanced skill set for a player his size, and has the ideal ball handling, shooting and shot blocking for the modern big man. A menace on the defensive end, Mobley has long arms and quick feet, which he uses to evaporate pick and roll opportunities. The California native looks like one of the most adept centers at guarding on the perimeter and can switch onto any assignment necessary. His positioning and agility stand out, and he is constantly making life difficult for opposing offenses. His offensive prowess is where his true potential lies. With his size he can create chances around the rim and in transition. He has also dabbled in an outside shot, hitting 31% of his triples. Having the ability to knock down threes will really open up the floor for Cleveland and can help Mobley develop into one of the league’s premier bigs. There really is nothing that Mobley can’t do. The Cavaliers have a franchise centerpiece, and potential a full-blown superstar, in Mobley.
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
It came as a bit of a shock when Barnes was taken fourth overall over Jalen Suggs. Drafting the ACC Sixth Man of the Year has paid immediate dividends, with Barnes already living up to his potential as a two-way scoring wing. The 6’9 Barnes has the ability to run the offense with the size and strength of a power forward. He is leading all rookies in points and rebounds per game, with 14.6 and eight, respectively. While his shooting efficiency has fallen off recently, the former Seminole has used his athleticism and speed to generate easy chances in transition, as well as attack the hoop in half court. Fifth in assists per game (3.3) among rookies, Barnes has also flashed potential as a passer, further cementing his raised offensive ceiling. He also has prototypical size for a versatile defender, with a seven-foot-three wingspan and weighing 225-pounds. Barnes is quick on the perimeter, with active hands, and the strength to tangle with forwards inside. The 20-year-old is a dream in modern defenses, where switching is so important. The one difficulty for the young Raptor has been from behind the arc, where he is hitting a paltry 18% of his chances. If he can improve as an outside shooter over time, he will become an extremely valuable, complete all-around player.
3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Cunningham was unable to meet his sky-high expectations during his first few games after suffering an ankle injury in training camp. It was clear he wasn’t himself, and that was evident with a couple of forgettable performances, including an 0-18 stretch from behind the arc. It is safe to say that Cunningham is feeling like himself again, and is averaging 14 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. The future of the Pistons, Cunningham has used his 6’8 frame, vision and shooting to great effect. The Oklahoma State product makes everything look effortless, whether it’s creating an opening for a teammate, or creating havoc on defense. He once again looks like the future superstar that was so evident when he was a member of the Cowboys. Cunningham is so smooth with the ball in his hands, and he reads the court incredibly quickly. He hits cutters before they are open and is basically a forward playing point guard. Even without elite speed or athleticism, Cunningham makes winning plays consistently. He can beat defenders with ease and can finish through contact. An offensive engine, Cunningham also has the size and agility to defend positions 1-4. As he continues to grow, and become a better three-point shooter, Cunningham could still become the culture changing centerpiece they drafted him to be.
4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
With two picks in the first eight selections, the Magic had a chance to add some pieces to their seemingly never-ending rebuild. While nabbing Suggs drew the headlines, Wagner has been a revelation for a Magic team without a clear direction. The 20-year-old forward is averaging 13 points, four rebounds and two assists per game. While those numbers don’t pop out, he is doing that while shooting 37.5% from deep and playing stellar defense. Wagner has also added a lot to his game since joining the Magic. While at Michigan he seemed awkward with the ball and was often without purpose. Now the German is creative, crafty, and decisive. He has a great handle for his 6’9 frame and has used it to generate his own offense around the rim. Wagner is a great finisher through contact and has the athleticism to jump over defenders. On an Orlando team that will struggle mightily to win games, Wagner should have plenty of opportunity to continue showcasing his talent on both ends of the court. Between his shooting touch, defensive abilities and steady improvement from college, there is a lot for Magic fans to be excited about.
5. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
A 24-year-old rookie, Duarte needed to be able to produce as soon as he hit the professional hardwood. The good news for the Pacers and for Duarte is that he has. He has scored 14 points per game and added four rebounds and two assists as well. The former Duck star has lived up to his reputation as extremely efficient. The former Oregon star is connecting on 43% of his field goals and 40% of his triples. He is the only rookie with consistent minutes hitting above 40% of his threes. A smart and disciplined player, Duarte makes smart reads and decisions. He plays within himself and takes good shots. He won’t make the highlights with flashy dunks or ankle-breakers, but he has quietly been one of the most effective, and efficient rookies.
6. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder won’t win much this season, but they do have one of the League’s most tantalizing young backcourts. Giddey joins Gilgeous-Alexander, where they have made quite the pairing. Giddey is averaging nine points, seven rebounds and six assists per game. He hasn’t scored as much as other top rookies, but he makes up for it with his incredible passing ability. He is so dynamic with the ball in his hands, and seems to know what the defense will do, and which teammate will pop open. The former NBL star has been by far the best passer of the rookies, as he can whip passes anywhere on the court with either hand. His vision and ball-handling, in combination with his 6’8 size make his passing so difficult to defend. Giddey is simply a wizard with the ball at his fingertips. One of the better defenders in the class too, the Australian has the frame and length to guard multiple positions. He has the second most blocks and third most steals of the class, further highlighting how good he can be on that end. Giddey is still finding his way shooting the basketball but has shown the ability to knock down off-the-bounce shots. If he can become a threat from behind the arc, his already lethal mix of passing and defending will become even more potent.
7. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
The incredible athleticism, leaping ability and offensive creation that made him the second player off the board have been on full display. He is second on the Rockets with 14.4 points per game and has done so by often generating his own looks. Green can develop into a multiple time All-Star thanks to the way he can score from every area of the court, paired with physical gifts that make him difficult to stop on the fast break. However, it hasn’t been perfect in Space City, with Green hitting just 36% of his field goals and 28% of his threes. Some of that can be attributed to few other sparks on offense, so defenses can focus their attention on limiting the dynamic rookie. Still, shot selection and decision making have been a big problem for the young shooting guard. He has 45 turnovers on the year and 39 assists. Green still has a ceiling that only a handful of the rookie class can reach, with his one-on-one game giving hope for a tremendous scoring threat in the future. The young Rockets will take the good and the bad, believing that Green will gain valuable experience playing through the highs and lows.
8. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
The 6’10 center from Turkey is making a solid first impression with Houston after being drafted 16th overall. He is averaging nine points, five rebounds and two assists per game. His efficiency has been the biggest surprise, as Sengun is connecting on 47% of his field goals and 37.5% of his threes. His role should continue to increase on a dreadful Rockets team. He has earned the added minutes, with his shot selection and prowess on the offensive glass. Sengun has also been impressive on the less glamorous end of the court, nabbing 18 steals and blocking eight shots. The former Beşiktaş star has active hands and seems to be constantly making it tough on opposing offenses. Sengun also has shown glimpses of a post-game and passing chops. He has played fewer than 300 minutes this season, but he has shown the ability to stay on the court for longer stretches. His shooting touch, passing and defense are great, and the 19-year-old has started off his career well. Seen more as a project coming into the draft, Sengun is quickly shedding that label and is already a capable NBA player. He needs to limit his turnovers, but there are so many encouraging signs for the Turkish center.
9. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
A key member of Baylor’s amazing title run, the 6’0 guard brought his incredible quickness and pace to the NBA. He is scoring nine points a game, and is tied with Cunningham for the second most assist per game with 3.9. A blur with the ball in his hands, Mitchell is so tough to guard because of his tight handle and shiftiness. He has a rocky situation on the Kings, who start two small guards, but Mitchell has shown enough on both ends of the court to justify taking him at number nine. He can blow by defenders, finish at the rim and shoot off-the-bounce. The Georgia native is 23-years-old, so it was critical that he was ready to produce immediately, and he has. He built a reputation for being one of the best defenders in college last season, capped off by winning the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. He attacks ball handlers with ferocity and hounds them into poor decisions and mistakes. Constantly engaged on defense, Mitchell seems to always be locked to the hip of his man. Like most other rookies, his shot has fallen at the same rate it did last year, but his ball handling, passing and defense balance out some of the poor shooting. On a separate note, if this list was purely based on nicknames, Mitchell would be number one by a mile. “Off-Night”, given to him for his ability to give opposing ball handlers an off night, is already one of the coolest nicknames in all of sports.
10. Nah'Shon Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Coveted for his sweet shooting stroke, and ability to hit tough shots, the former VCU Ram has been a steady presence for the Nuggets. The lanky 6’2 guard is 11th among rookies in points and 10th in assists per game. Hyland has only committed eight turnovers and makes good decisions when passing. “Bones” is hitting 34% of his threes and has been solid on the defensive end too. He may not have the name brand that other rookies in the class bring, but he makes sound decisions, takes care of the ball and stays positioned well on defense. The 26th overall pick has played fundamentally sound basketball, and has he gains more experience, his silky-smooth stroke should help him raise his shooting percentage from deep.