The 2021 NBA Draft was expected to produce one of the strongest draft classes in years. So far, many of the rookies are substantiating that claim.
As usual, there are a few players outperforming their draft spot. But the success of this class will ultimately boil down to the success of the top five players selected last July.
Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, and Jalen Suggs were the first five players to hear their name called last summer. All of them have impressed to various degrees, though a couple have definitely risen above the pack. So as we enter the final 30 or so games of the regular season, how would these particular rookies rank? And would their respective teams opt for a different selection if given the option today?
5. Houston Rockets SG Jalen Green (2nd overall)
After trading James Harden and fully committing to the rebuild, the Rockets were “rewarded” with the second-overall pick. To little surprise, they made Green their newest cornerstone.
Green, who turns 20 on Feb. 9, was always going to be a bit of a project. The 6-foot-4 guard forwent the traditional college route and instead played a season with the NBA G League Ignite. And while he has shown occasional promise in his featured role in Houston, the guard is currently delivering well below his lofty draft slot.
Through 38 games, Green is averaging 14.4 points per game with a career-high 30 in just his third pro contest. But he has yet to score efficiently, hitting just 37.6% of his total attempts and 29.0% of his threes. He is also a non-contributor in other categories, averaging 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists across 30.1 minutes a night. Additionally, his 119 defensive rating makes him one of the biggest defensive liabilities in the league, let alone rookie class.
It’s not as if there isn’t any hope for Green, who has a positive plus-minus in only six career games. But the 15-38 Rockets are 8-7 when the former G Leaguer hasn’t suited up, a sign his play isn’t leading to winning basketball yet. He still has a long way to go until Houston starts to feel it made the right choice.
4. Orlando Magic PG Jalen Suggs (5th overall)
The Magic were thrilled to come away with Suggs on draft night. The Gonzaga star was paired with Franz Wagner to form an exciting 1-2 punch for years to come. Yet Wagner, taken three picks later, has been head-and-shoulders above his point guard throughout their first pro season.
Suggs, like Green, has been incredibly inefficient. In 34 games, 31 of which as a starter, the 6-foot-4 guard is averaging 12.6 points on 36.8% shooting with a dismal 24.8% clip from beyond the arc. Yet to his credit, he’s been able to average 4.3 assists and 1.2 steals in only 28.6 minutes per game.
The 20-year-old has arguably been one of the worst offensive players in the NBA, registering an offensive rating of 88. But he has made some strides in recent games, coming off of back-to-back 17-point outings against the Memphis Grizzlies and Boston Celtics. And he hasn’t been a terribly awful defender for the 12-43 Magic, currently the worst team in the league.
Orlando’s point guard of the future has been just a few ticks better than Green, but he hasn’t looked the part of a top-five pick either. Though once he starts to find some consistency on offense, that could change in a hurry.
3. Toronto Raptors PF Scottie Barnes (4th overall)
One year after the Chicago Bulls took Florida State freshman Patrick Williams fourth overall, the Raptors took the Seminole Barnes in the same spot. The move was considered a risk at first, especially with Gonzaga’s Suggs available, but Toronto is hardly regretting its decision.
Barnes isn’t just the third-best option out of this group; he very well could be the third-best rookie of the entire class. The 6-foot-9 forward has filled a variety of roles for the Raptors, from low-post defender to point forward. Through 43 games, the 20-year-old is averaging 14.8 points on 47.3% shooting, 7.8 rebounds,1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks.
With a PER of 15.2 and VORP of 0.8, Barnes has been a slightly above-average NBA player. Considering he made just seven starts in his one year at Florida State, that’s hardly a bad thing. And he’s only getting better, shooting 53.8% or higher in four of his last seven contests.
Barnes is leading all rookies in offensive rebounds and displays an elite basketball IQ on a nightly basis. Without him, the Raptors wouldn’t be 29-23 and just a handful of games out of a top-four seed. If given the choice for a do-over, Toronto would politely decline.
2. Detroit Pistons SG Cade Cunningham (1st overall)
It was all-but-assured that the Pistons, armed with the top pick for the first time since 1970, were going to make Cunningham the face of the franchise. After a rough start to his career, the 6-foot-6 guard is firmly in the running to take home Rookie of the Year honors.
Many people remember the beginning of Cunningham’s career. In his first three contests, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy went just 7-of-39 from the field and 1-of-21 from three. Yet now, after 41 games, the top pick is averaging a solid 15.8 points on 39.7% shooting along with 5.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.3 steals.
Cunningham’s recent outing against the Cleveland Cavaliers was a perfect embodiment of his career. After going 0-of-10 in the first half, the 20-year-old shot 6-of-11 in the second half and hit a pair of clutch triples late to help Detroit snap a four-game losing streak. He finished the game with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, his second triple-double of the season.
Given his lofty preseason expectations, you could say Cunningham has been a bit of a disappointment. But he has showcased an ability to bounce out of shooting slumps and take control late in games. Eventually, the 12-41 Pistons are going to reap the rewards of their prized rookie.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers PF Evan Mobley (3rd overall)
Many rookies go through significant growing pains, even top selections. Yet it feels Mobley has been ready for the pros ever since he made his debut last October.
The 7-footer out of USC is a vital part of the Cavaliers’ resurgence. Through 46 starts, the big man is averaging a cool 14.9 points on 50.1% shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks. And that’s with All-Star guard Darius Garland and breakout center Jarrett Allen eating into some of his production.
Beyond the basic stats, there’s a reason teammate Rajon Rondo said Mobley might be “the most talented rookie I’ve ever played with.” The 20-year-old has 11 double-doubles, more than fellow bigs Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner. He also recently put together a 17-game streak with double-digit points in which he averaged 17.1 points on 55.7% shooting.
For every occasional dud, Mobley has immediately bounced back. And while Cunningham is putting up numbers for a rebuilding club, the former Trojan is playing a whopping 34.2 minutes a night for a 33-21 Cavs team just 1.5 games out of the one-seed.
From his dominant post play to strong defense to overall athleticism, Mobley is a star in the making and the top player of the draft class, let alone last year’s top-five picks.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.