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NBA Rookie of the Year rankings: Why Evan Mobley has firm grasp on award midway through the season

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We’ve reached the midway point of the 2021-22 NBA season, so it’s only right to check in on the Rookie of the Year race to see who our top five candidates are. This crop of rookies has been filled with promising talent across the board, and with COVID surging across the league we got to see many first-year players shine in bigger roles. Players like Omer Yurtseven, Duane Washington Jr. and Cam Thomas all made the most of increased minutes on their respective teams while key players were sidelined. 

Although this Rookie of the Year ranking will only focus on the top five players right now, there’s a few guys who just missed the cut for this list who still deserve attention. Houston Rockets rookies Alperen Sengun, and Jalen Green have both impressed this season, with the latter showing his All-Star potential as the season wears on. Chris Duarte continues to be a steady presence for the Pacers on both ends of the floor, and Jalen Suggs has shown improvement in Orlando. 

Moving on to the top five rookies at the halfway point, these guys have stood out amongst the rest of their peers, and should be the finalists for Rookie of the Year at the end of the season. 

You turn on any Thunder game and chances are you’re going to leave thinking that Giddey is the most exciting rookie to watch this season. That’s not a wrong thought to have, by the way, because when this kid is slinging no-look passes or ridiculous skip passes to the other side of the court, it’s difficult not to get amped up watching him play. 

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Giddey leads all rookies in assists per game (6.3) and ranks third behind Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley in rebounds per game (7.3). He’s the latest in the new wave of jumbo guards, who can dish these insane passes to teammates, while also getting down low to fight for boards. 

His shooting efficiency needs some work, as he’s converting on just 40 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep, but it’s not like he’s incapable of knocking down shots. On a nightly basis he’s getting to rim, finding open spots to pull up from mid-range or left open out on the 3-point arc, he’s just not hitting them right now. When that happens, he’ll be the complete package on offense which should be exciting for this young Thunder squad.  

Considering Cunningham started the season injured, and had an incredibly slow start out of the gates where he had the lowest-scoring debut for a No. 1 overall pick since Anthony Bennet in 2013, he’s in great shape at the halfway mark of the season. The Pistons aren’t winning games, but really who thought they would? What’s important is Cunningham has shown all those traits that made him the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, which is important for Detroit’s future.

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What’s even better is Cunningham is positively impacting the Pistons when he’s on the floor. Detroit’s point differential is plus-4.8 better when Cunningham is on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass, as his command of the offense helps Detroit. The rookie’s ability to manipulate the defense and survey the floor before dropping off a perfectly placed ball has been one of the signature highlights of his through the first half of the season.

Like this:

Cunningham’s IQ as a passer is off the charts, and his ability to stay cool when multiple defenders are surrounding him is an ability not many rookies have. He attracts so much attention when he has the ball in his hands that you’re dumbfounded when he squeezes a pass like this through two defenders for a bucket.

There were doubts heading into the draft about Cunningham’s ability to get to the rim given his methodical approach in pace instead of lightning quick speed — think of Luka Doncic — but he hasn’t had an issue getting there as 26 percent of shots come at rim. His efficiency once there isn’t where it needs to be, but that will come with time.

Cunningham’s also shown traits on the defensive end that should make him a solid defender in the league. Despite being a 6-foot-6 guard, the former Oklahoma State product has shown a knack for deflecting shots either at the rim our out on the perimeter. He ranks in the 83rd percentile among wings in block percentage, and his hands are always active to come away with steals or just be disruptive to opposing teams.  

Don’t let Barnes’ dip in scoring fool you to believe that he hasn’t been one of the best rookies this season. That’s no fault to him, but rather speaks to the talent surrounding him in Toronto. Now that Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby are back in the lineup, it’s meant less touches on offense for Barnes which has led to a dip in his scoring average. 

But Barnes is on a team that is built to make the playoffs, and he fits seamlessly in with what Toronto is trying to accomplish. He’s still a tough defender, capable of guarding all five positions, is a terror in transition and can hurt you when needed as a scorer, especially in the paint.

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Notice anything similar about all three of those possessions? Perhaps the fact that none of the teams in those clips are aware of how dangerous Barnes is as an offensive rebounder. He’s averaging 2.8 offensive boards this season, which tops all rookies and ranks 15th in the entire league. Barnes’ aggressiveness as a rebounder is the main reason the Raptors rank second in the league in second-chance points (16.8). He’s just absolutely relentless crashing the boards, whether it’s off his own miss or following off a miss of a teammate.

While Toronto’s need for Barnes to be a scorer first has subsided with the number of guys in the starting lineup who can get them a bucket, he has stepped up considerably as a secondary playmaker behind Fred VanVleet. He’s moving the ball, making smart plays and picking his spots as a scorer wisely as his place in the hierarchy of Toronto’s offense is different now than it was at the beginning of the season. But that doesn’t mean Barnes isn’t capable of popping off for a 20-point game, which will come in handy if the Raptors sneak into the postseason.

Consistency should be the word most associated with Wagner’s name this season. Whether we’re talking about scoring, crashing the boards or always being tasked with drawing the toughest defensive assignment, the Magic have asked a lot of their rookie through the first half of the season. What’s crazy is he’s delivered on whatever Orlando asks of him. You could honestly call him the glue of this team on both ends of the floor because of how much he impacts the game. The Magic’s point differential is plus-10.4 better when Wagner is on the floor compared to when he sits, which ranks in the 90th percentile in the league, per CTG.

When you look at how he impacts the game, it’s easy to see why. Despite being a forward, and not having the ball as much in his hands compared to the guards on his team in Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs and Gary Harris, Wagner has the second-most assists on the team. He’s not routinely delivering flashy passes like Giddey and Cunningham are, but he makes smart passes that lead to assists. 

Wagner’s passing is something that’s seen great improvement over the course of the season. He’s not just looking to score himself, but to making the highest percentage play that’s gonna put points on the board. Like here:

His passing aside, Wagner’s versatility as a scorer and defender also shine through when you watch him play. He can score off the dribble, move effortlessly without the ball in his hands to get open and act as a spot-up shooter when needed. On defense, here’s a great example of what he brings on that end of the floor:

Typically Miles Bridges has no issue using his strength to get by defenders, but Wagner made it tough on him. Wagner cut Bridges off as the Hornets forward thought he had an angle to deliver another ferocious dunk, but instead he gets tied up by the Magic rookie at the rim. It’s just the latest example of Wagner showing how integral he is on defense.

To be honest, I don’t think there’s anyone who is going to catch Mobley in the Rookie of the Year race, he’s just been that good. Even better, he’s playing incredibly well on a team that’s actually winning games where he’s impacting that outcome on both ends of the floor. He’s easily going to be a guy mentioned regularly in the Defensive Player of the Year race in the future, and he’s already amongst one of the best young defenders in the league. For being a 7-footer, Mobley moves with ease on defense, allowing him to get out and guard guys on the perimeter and not get get killed like most bigs do. 

Just look at how he denies Kyrie Irving space even as the Nets guard goes into his endless bag of crafty handles. Even when Irving does catch Mobley with a crossover, his ridiculous length allows him to recover well and get a hand in Irving’s face.

Mobley’s switchability as a defender makes him incredibly valuable to what the Cavaliers do on that end of the floor, and he’s played a significant role in Cleveland’s defense going from 25th in the NBA a season ago, to third in the league now. 

But while Mobley’s defense has been the standout factor since the start of the season, what’s really started to come along nicely his his versatility on offense. There’s a reason Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma compared him to George Gervin after this play:

Mobley moves so gracefully and light for someone of his size, it’s just absurd. Cleveland is calling for his number a bit more on offense now, and he’s delivering both as a scorer and as a passer. With half the season in the books, Mobley’s got a firm grasp on the top spot for Rookie of the Year. But that doesn’t mean one of the players mentioned can’t challenge him for it, we’ll just have to wait and see how the second half unfolds. 


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