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Column: The NBA Rookie of the Year race was heated in 2022

This illustration is a basketball with fire on it.

Justice Rose
Oxford Stories
jcrose1@go.olemiss.edu

The strange trends of this NBA season continue and leak all the way into the 2021 rookie class. Many rookies came in with a noticeable pompous and maturity to their game: Chris Duarte of the Indiana Pacers, Scottie Barnes of the Toronto Raptors, and Evan Mobley of the Cleveland cavaliers dominated headlines earlier this season. 

As the season continued it seemed a new face emerged every week. Fans around the league have seen rookies take tremendous strides from month to month, something that is unusual for the NBA. Generally, players make year-to-year strides. It’s not often you see a tenured player turn their season around, let alone a rookie. 

Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons may be the best example of a cold start. It’s not uncommon for a new player to take time to adjust.

Coming off an injury, Cunningham had a predictably cold start. It only took an unimpressive debut for fans to dub him as overrated and a bust. After the new year, Cunningham’s game began to reach new heights.

I suggest fans go back and watch games from earlier in his rookie campaign and compare the footage to his current evolved form. You can quite literally see his game slow down on offense. He’s taken the reigns as the Piston’s lead playmaker, and clearly has the traits of a leader. Before his game came around on the pro level, Cunningham made up for his poor offensive play with respectable defense and undeniable hustle. 

Of all the first-round picks I’ve seen in the past five years, Cunningham seems to genuinely enjoy basketball the most. In all his interviews, he has praised Detroit as a city, and Detroit has returned the favor. Cunningham may have not been chosen as Rookie of the Year because of his slow start. He is by far one of the most impactful rookies, as he holds the most responsibilities on his team. To keep it simple, he’s ready for the league. 

Leading up to the draft, Cunningham and another top pick candidate, Jalen Green, sent slick shots at each other in a subliminal war to win the pistons over. Green ended up going second to the Houston rockets. 

Green had perhaps the coldest start of all lottery picks. He didn’t have a legitimate excuse of the injury that Cunningham experienced. So, what was the issue? Well…he’s a rookie. I think NBA fans have been spoiled with high-level play from top picks in recent years. That high-level play is the outlier, not the other way around. 

Green was viewed as a three-level scorer who would quickly translate to the NBA level due to his experience with the G-League Ignite. Ignite was founded to be a transitional route for amateur players and directly challenge the NCAA. Ignite would compete against other G-League teams, the NBA’s developmental organization. Green was a member of the Ignite’s inaugural class. 

One of the main reasons Green started off so slow was his eagerness to play-make and show how talented he was. At times, it came off as forced ,and he would break the little flow the Rockets had. He would have spurts where he pulled out these wicked dribble moves, but then got stone-walled and took a really difficult shot. 

The glaring issue to me was him not relying on his athleticism so much. As the year progressed, I think Green realized how quick his first step really is. One move, then go. He’s got that type of athleticism. 

Early on in his season, I think he would be surprised at how much space he would create on simple moves like this, expecting pro defenders to read and react. Of course, this is all speculation about a guy who’s been playing basketball his whole life. 

Green’s shooting woes were his biggest inhibitors early on. He’s got all the moves in the world; the shot just wasn’t falling. Young players often settle for more difficult shots, Green is no exception. It was only a matter of time before Green started converting on the looks, though. 

In the past 17 games, Green has converted 41% of his three-point shots, opening up his rim attack even more. Now, defenses are forced to play Green tighter, giving him the opportunity to display his shiftiness and generational leaping ability. Green looks to be a crowd-pleaser and walking highlight reel for years to come. 

Green has also been on a scoring tear in the past month, currently on a five-game streak of 30 or more points. This feat hasn’t been accomplished by a rookie in 25 years, since Allen Iverson. 

Much of Green’s emergence comes from the Rockets letting go of the leash. The Rockets had too many chefs in one kitchen. As talented as point guard Kevin Porter Jr. is, I don’t think he was well prepared for a lead distributor role. A disgruntled Christian Wood demanding looks didn’t help either. 

Head coach Stephen Silas made Green the focal point of the offense to close out the season, and serious strides were made. 

At times, it seemed like it was all going to fall apart in Houston. Other close wins that made this team look well prepared for the future. Fellow Rockets rookie Alperen Sengun was another bright spot in an otherwise mediocre season. 

Scottie Barnes of the Toronto Raptors was named the 2021-2022 NBA Rookie of the Year this weekend. He is the type of player I always made in NBA 2k video games – the type of player who could stop your best player, play team defense, and then do everything on offense. I’m talking shooting off the dribble, passing, rebounding, cutting, vertical lob threat, and spotting up. 

From day one in the league, Barnes has proven to be a valuable young piece on a deep Toronto squad. Despite his quick adaptation to the pro game, Barnes’s value wasn’t always so obvious. When he was selected fourth overall ahead of Jalen Suggs, draft experts were confused. Some likened the pick to the Raptors’ previous blunder with Bruno Caboclo.

Raptors president Masai Ujuri has become known for his sleeper picks, optimizing Toronto’s late first-round picks and early second-round picks during their seven-year playoff streak.

In hindsight, Barnes is the type of player that Ujuri and head coach Nick Nurse are historically attracted to; long, rangy, versatile athletes who buy into defense and understand the offensive philosophy. 

Barnes has consistently put up good numbers throughout the year and looks to play a key role in the Raptor’s upcoming playoff run. It will be interesting to see how playoff defenses choose to guard his three-point shot. The floor shrinks in the playoffs as teams gamble that average shooters will fail to capitalize on open looks, instead choosing to load up the on-ball defensive pressure. However, Barnes has shaken all expectations to this point. 

Barnes per game statistics of 15.5 points, 3.5 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and a block firmly placed him as a front-runner for Rookie of the Year race. 

Evan Mobley probably had the most immediate impact of any rookie listed before him. The twin tower pairing of him and Jarrett Allen gave Cleveland the most formidable rim defense in the league. 

Coming into the draft, Mobley was viewed as a potential superstar-level talent. He had all the tools, but could it translate against NBA athletes? At USC, Mobley and his brother Isaiah dominated with their length and skill. Scouts questioned Mobley’s motor and whether or not his guard skills would carry over into the next level.

Undoubtedly, Mobley’s rim protection instincts aren’t going anywhere. He and Jarrett Allen had a Rudy Gobert-like effect in the lane; thwarting off penetrators and encouraging the kick out. The difference between a traditional rim protector like Gobert and a player like Mobley is his mobility on the perimeter.

Mobley has shown he can navigate fluidly outside the lane on both offense and defense. This allows for creativity in the coaching schemes and gives Mobley the freedom to roam around on defense, wreaking havoc with his length. 

Jarrett Allen suffered injury along with other key pieces in Cleveland’s rotation. What looked like a top-four seed in a strong east will now be scratching and clawing in the play-in race. Mobley has maintained his stellar play, but he can only do so much as the lead guy on defense. 

On offense, Mobley has shown solid footwork and touch, and is a serious lob threat, leaving fans curious about the heights his game could reach. I think he projects to be a Kevin Garnett type of player if his playmaking comes around. That is seriously high praise for a rookie. 

I heard a fan compare him to Greg Oden if he never got injured. I never saw Oden play at any level, but that was intriguing nonetheless. 

In the first two months of the season, the 7’1 center was hitting his three-point attempts at a nearly league-average 34% clip. Since then, he’s fallen off earth shooting at 17% from deep in his last 40 games. 

Mobley’s defensive presence helped bring excitement and winning to Cleveland not seen since LeBron’s departure. That shift alone was worthy of rookie of the year consideration. 

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