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NBA Rookie Ladder: Cade Cunningham is making a push for the top spot

We are over a month into the NBA season and rookies are beginning to find their footing at the next level.

Some hot starts have cooled off, some surprising starts have come back down to Earth and other first-year players are still establishing their roles on their team.

And then there’s No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, who missed the first four games of his rookie season with an ankle injury before needing a few games to shake off the rust and get adjusted, now looking like the player he was projected to be.

He is in hot pursuit of the top spot of this week’s Rookie Ladder, putting some pressure on some of his classmates who stole the headlines to start the year.

Where did Cunningham end up? Take a look and find out below.

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2021-22 NBA Rookie Ladder

5. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

(NBA Getty Images)

Stats: 14.0 PTS, 3.1 REB, 2.3 AST, 38.2 FG%, 27.8 3P%

Best game: Oct. 24 vs. BOS – 30 points (11-18 FG, 8-10 3PT), four rebounds, three assists, two blocks, one steal

One thing to know: As you would expect for a No. 2 overall pick playing on one of the worst teams in the league, Green is seeing every team’s best defender.

According to NBA stats, his four most frequent matchups to this point in the season (in terms of matchup minutes and partial possessions) have been Avery Bradley, Luguentz Dort, Marcus Smart and Mikal Bridges. While Bradley is past his prime, he and Smart are both still two-time All-Defensive Team members, and Dort and Bridges are widely renowned as two of the best perimeter defenders in the league today.

Green is struggling in a few areas that were considered weaknesses heading into his rookie season – like shooting consistency and efficiency, shot selection and defence – but he also doesn’t have much help around him and is playing without a true point guard to set him up for better looks.

Even though Green isn’t off to the Rookie of the Year-calibre start most people expected, he’s still had some extremely promising flashes and it would’ve felt wrong to leave him out of the top-five on this ladder because of the attention he’s getting from opposing defences on a nightly basis.

The best is still yet to come from the 19-year-old.

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Stats: 10.8 PTS, 7.3 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 40.7 FG%, 28.6 3P%

Best game: Oct. 27 vs. LAL – 18 points (7-13 FG, 2-5 3PT), 10 assists, two rebounds, one steal

One thing to know: Giddey is the best passer in this draft class.

The Australian guard was already known as an elite playmaker after leading the NBL with 7.4 assists per game last season, taking home Rookie of the Year honours. Early on in his NBA career, he’s looking like a lock for the assists crown among his rookie classmates.

Giddey has 105 assists through 18 games, the most by a mile among first-year players (Davion Mitchell is second with 68). With his hot start as a passer and rebounder, Giddey has placed himself in elite company in NBA history.

The only other teenagers to tally at least 100 assists and 100 rebounds in their first 20 NBA games? LeBron James and LaMelo Ball.

Dishing out passes like this one below, it’s not hard to see just how gifted Giddey is when it comes to setting up his teammates.

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Stats: 13.1 PTS, 6.2 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 33.9 FG%, 25.0 3P%

Best game: Nov. 19 vs. GSW – 19 points (6-12 FG, 3-8 3PT), six assists, six rebounds, three steals, two blocks

One thing to know: Cunningham is just getting started.

An ankle injury held the No. 1 overall pick out for the first four games of his NBA career and he didn’t look 100 percent upon his return, either. Some really poor shooting performances – like a 1-for-21 start to his career from 3 – destroyed his splits early on, but Cunningham is beginning to find his groove.

He had a five-game stretch where he averaged 16.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game, looking like the No. 1. pick. He notched the first triple-double of his rookie class, going for 13 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers, showcasing his do-it-all ability.

He’s since had a few more poor shooting performances, which is typical for a rookie, but Cunningham is still looking more poised with each passing game.

The 20-year-old may have started the Rookie of the Year race behind the 8-ball, but he’s in hot pursuit of the award moving forward.

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Stats: 14.8 PTS, 8.4 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 48.6 FG%, 26.3 3P%

Best game: Oct. 22 at BOS – 25 points (11-17 FG, 1-2 3PT), 13 rebounds, two assists

One thing to know: Barnes is the only rookie to rank in the top-five in points (1st), rebounds (1st), assists (5th), steals (T-5th) and blocks (T-5th) per game.

The No. 4 overall pick got out to a roaring start to his career, recording two 20-point double-doubles in his first seven games. Since missing a pair of games due to a thumb sprain, the 20-year-old has cooled off a bit, but it’s also worth noting that during that span, All-Star forward Pascal Siakam returned to the lineup.

Scottie Barnes’ rookie season splits
  PPG FG% RPG APG SPG BPG
First 10 games 17.0 53.3 8.5 2.6 1.1 0.6
Last seven games 11.6 40.7 8.3 4.3 0.9 0.4

Barnes is still affecting the game in other ways with his versatile, high-level defence, his effort on the glass and his uptick in assists, but his scoring and efficiency have dropped off. He was in an early-season battle with Evan Mobley for Rookie of the Year and had an opportunity to gain some ground with Mobley sidelined, but Barnes didn’t do much to capitalize and now, Cunningham is right on his tail.

The rookie forward has still been stellar and plays a vital role for the Raptors, but he didn’t keep the top spot on this week’s ladder.

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

(Getty Images)

Stats: 14.6 PTS, 8.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.6 BLK, 1.0 STL, 49.4 FG%, 30.8 3P%

Best game: Oct. 23 vs. ATL – 17 points (7-12 FG), 11 rebounds, four blocks, two steals, one assist

One thing to know: Mobley is one of four players in the NBA this season – joining Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns – to average at least 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal per game.

Now, of course, the rookie is averaging the fewest points per game out of the bunch by a significant margin, but it’s still impressive company nonetheless.

Mobley was tremendous for the Cavaliers before his injury, making Cleveland look like a competitive team in the Eastern Conference. According to NBA stats, when Mobley is on the floor, the Cavaliers own a defensive rating of 99.6, which would be the best defence in the NBA. When he’s off the floor, their defensive rating inflates to 108.8, which would be a bottom-10 defence in the NBA.

Mobley’s ability to protect the rim but also step out to the perimeter and hold his own has made it a seamless transition between he and Cleveland’s other franchise cornerstone big man, Jarrett Allen.

As of Nov. 16, the 20-year-old is expected to miss two to four weeks with an elbow sprain, which gives these other rookies time to catch up in the award race, but no one has done so thus far.

Honourable mentions

Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic: Wagner has been a jack-of-all-trades for a struggling Magic team, averaging 12.4 points per game while also providing some playmaking and scrappy defence.

Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers: Duarte has cooled off from his blazing start but the rookie is also dealing with a role change, now coming off the bench upon the return of Caris LeVert. He’s still averaging 13.3 points while shooting a sharp 37.9 percent from 3.

Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings: Mitchell cracks this list strictly for his defence, taking on tough assignments for the Kings such as Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard.

Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans: Jones also gets a shoutout because of his defence, providing a skill set that not many other players on the Pelicans possess. According to NBA stats, New Orleans is 22.0 points per 100 possessions better when the defensive specialist is on the floor.

2021-22 NBA Rookie Leaderboard

Category Player Team Stats
Points per game leader Scottie Barnes Raptors 14.8 PPG
Rebounds per game leader Scottie Barnes Raptors 8.4 RPG
Assists per game leader Josh Giddey Thunder 5.8 APG
Steals per game leader Herb Jones Pelicans 1.3 SPG
Blocks per game leader Evan Mobley Cavaliers 1.6 BPG

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