If this was any other year, Cade Cunningham would be the consensus Rookie of the Year.
After all, the star of the Detroit Pistons has the profile for it and is having the typical campaign that is expected from a first overall pick. He is averaging an impressive 17.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game on the season and was named the Most Valuable Player of this year’s Rising Stars game.
After an ankle injury forced him to miss the first four games of the season and put him on a minutes limit for his first few appearances, the 6’6 guard has made a significant statistical leap post All-Star break as he has acclimated himself to the NBA. In the 17 games since, he is averaging 22.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 6.6 assists while improving his offensive rating from 92 to 106 and true shooting percentage from 48.9% to 54.3%.
The 20-year-old has met the lofty expectations put upon him, but in a season like this, it is not enough.
Cunningham has rightfully taken a back seat all year long to Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes who were picked third and fourth, respectively. While Cunningham has put up numbers, his Pistons team is once again lottery bound unlike those of Mobley and Barnes.
These two multi-faceted forwards, still only 20 years old like Cunningham, have helped rejuvenate their teams from the lottery a year ago back into playoff contention. What strengthens their case even more is that they are contributing greatly to their teams and are not limited to bit roles behind more senior teammates.
Mobley has started in all 67 of his appearances for the Cleveland Cavaliers, currently the seventh seed in the East with a 42-35 record despite an early season injury to last year’s leading scorer Collin Sexton.
Much has been said about Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, his two teammates who made their NBA All-Star debut at this year’s game held in Cleveland, so it is easy to take for granted the impact that Mobley has had. Last January, there was a reasonable case to be made that Mobley deserved an All-Star nod just as much as his two teammates given his contributions this season.
The product of USC is averaging 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.6 blocks though the numbers do not tell the full story here. It was initially believed that the 7’0 Mobley would have a difficult transition to the NBA given his lithe 215 lbs frame, but he has put those doubts to rest and his quality two-way skillset has seamlessly transitioned to the professional stage.
Mobley drew pre-draft comparisons to Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, and Kevin Garnett–an elite group of forwards with modern skill sets–yet he is proving to be much more refined than them at this early point of their careers, especially on offense. He can put the ball on the floor and attack from either inside or the perimeter. His perimeter shooting still needs work, though he has shown a fundamentally sound form coupled with the ever-important awareness of when and when not to shoot it.
On defense, Mobley has proven to be extremely mobile and switchable which makes his shot blocking prowess even more valuable. He will only grow more dangerous as he grows into his frame and with the Cavaliers fast approaching their first playoff appearance in over 20 years without LeBron James on their roster, it is safe to expect that there will be many more to come over the next decade and beyond.
Scottie Barnes has had quite a similar impact on the Toronto Raptors this year. The team struggled last season in a year where they had to play their home games in faraway Tampa Bay and were struck hard by COVID-19 down the stretch.
Their misfortune quickly turned into a blessing in disguise as they were able to snatch Barnes in the lottery. He has immediately found a niche with the remnants of their 2019 NBA Champion team as they have bounced back nicely. Toronto is currently sixth in the highly competitive East with a 45-32 record and are only four games out of the top seed in the conference.
The 6’9 Barnes has been a major reason for their success this season. He was heavily likened to Draymond Green prior to the draft and has proven that those statements were not hyperbole. The forward plays with the maturity of a seasoned player and has proven to be unafraid of any match-up or situation.
Barnes is already built like a veteran with a 227 lbs frame and has slowly become one of the primary playmakers for the Raptors following the offseason departure of their franchise icon Kyle Lowry. Furthermore, his rare ability to capably play every position fits perfectly with team president Masai Ujiri’s vision of forgoing a traditional line-up and deploying as many versatile forwards as possible.
Playing alongside Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby has accentuated his all-around skillset and allowed him to flourish right out of the gates. Barnes is averaging 15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game this season. He has made a strong push for the Rookie of the Year award over the past few weeks, bumping up his averages to 17.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists following the All-Star break.
The forward out of Florida State might very well wind up winning the award, given how he has found another level during this home stretch of the regular season coupled with the recent ankle sprain suffered by Mobley. While the circumstances surrounding his rival from the Cavaliers are unfortunate, that does not discount Barnes’ winning of the award if he eventually does so.
The numbers back up his case and he, like Mobley, has made an essential contribution to a winning situation which is quite rare for a 20-year-old rookie. It can be reasonably argued that both Toronto and Cleveland would not have been as successful without their prized rookies this season. Ultimately, Barnes’ momentum heading into the end of the regular season may be the crucial factor that tilts the scales in his favor.
Regardless of the outcome, this year has been a bumper crop for rookies. Beyond the three aforementioned rookies, several others have also made waves on their respective teams. The Houston Rockets’ Jalen Green, Josh Giddey from the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Franz Wagner of the Orlando Magic could have easily won the award with the seasons that they have had if they were in another class.
With a handful of the league’s iconic stars inching closer and closer to retirement, a new batch of talented players has come in to help fill the void. This rookie class is further proof that the league’s future is in good hands and it will be fascinating to watch them grow into the superstars that they are destined to be.