Just a hair past the midway point of the 2021-22 season, we’re seeing a bit of a hierarchy established in the race for Rookie of the Year. Frontcourt standouts Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes appear likely to duel for the award down the stretch, while point guards Cade Cunningham and Josh Giddey eye first-team All-Rookie spots. It’s still too early to assess the ceilings for each player in this impressive class, but as for rookie honors, the cream is beginning to rise to the top.
Let’s hand out some midseason awards, highlighting the best of this deep class of contributors.
Rookie of the First Half: Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
It’s hard to give this honor to anyone but Cleveland’s center. Mobley is a fringe All-Star candidate at the moment, standing as one of six rookies since 2000 to average 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists per game. He leads all rookies with 3.4 win shares, and his 51.1% mark from the field ranks third out of the 23 rookies to play at least 500 minutes.
Mobley’s future as a potential All-Defense selection is already in clear focus. He handles guards on the perimeter with ease and rotates down low with aplomb. Meanwhile, his feel and touch on the offensive end are better than advertised. The future is bright in Cleveland with the Mobley-Jarrett Allen-Darius Garland trio shredding teams to the tune of plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions. Mobley is a clear franchise anchor.
Pleasant Surprise Award: Herb Jones, Pelicans
The 35th pick in the draft, Jones entered the league with modest expectations. But through his first 41 games, the first-year forward is starting to gain some attention.
Jones is a ferocious on-ball defender with a 7-foot wingspan and light feet. He sports some of the league’s most active hands as he darts into passing lanes and bothers oncoming drivers. Jones’s offensive game is still limited aside from his impressive cutting. But the value is undeniable. Jones leads all rookies in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. Only Mobley and Barnes have tallied more win shares. Not exactly a bad return for a second-round pick.
Grown-Man-Performance of the First Half: Scottie Barnes, Raptors
Barnes’s defensive prowess was well-documented entering the draft, but his evaluation out of Florida State featured plenty of question marks on offense. It didn’t take long for Barnes to dispel those notions. The 6' 9" forward notched three 20-point performances before Halloween, earning an early lead in the Rookie of the Year rankings. One week later, Barnes further solidified his standing as a potential franchise-changing piece.
Barnes hounded Kevin Durant and James Harden throughout a matchup against the Nets at Scotiabank Arena on Nov. 7. And while Toronto ultimately couldn’t keep up with the high-powered Nets, who won 116-103, Barnes’s brilliance was clear. He finished the night with five steals, including three in two minutes. The performance drew plaudits from Durant postgame, who was the victim of one swipe-and-score from Barnes in the third quarter.
Barnes is still adjusting to the NBA three-point line and his scoring has taken a dip over the last month. But focusing on a brief shooting sample is missing the forest for the trees. Barnes is perhaps the best athlete in his class. He’ll wreak havoc on both ends of the floor for years to come.
Patience-Is-a-Virtue Award: Jalen Green, Rockets & Jalen Suggs, Magic
It’s understandable for Rockets and Magic fans to have a touch of frustration regarding their top-five picks, especially considering the dominant showings from Mobley and Barnes early on. But it’s important to remember growth for players comes in various forms and timeframes. Any snap judgments on the current class are little more than conjecture.
Looking for optimism amid the fits and starts? Green leads all rookies in transition points per game and is an absolute blur. He’s also beginning to turn the corner and get downhill in the half-court with relative ease. The potential of a 25-point-per-game scorer is still present. As for Suggs, his rookie year was halted due to a thumb injury, but he’s looked far more comfortable over the last week. Suggs has finished in double-digits in each of his last four games, and he sports the third-best defensive RAPTOR rating among rookies.
Quiet Riser Award: Josh Giddey, Thunder
Giddey isn’t the Thunder’s best player, though halfway through his rookie year, you could argue he’s their most important. Giddey has largely excelled at taking the reins of Oklahoma City’s offense, handling true point guard duties as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander slithers his way to the rim at every opportunity. Giddey’s 2.13 assist-to-turnover ratio is second among all rookies. His assist percentage has crept up in three consecutive months, as has Oklahoma City’s offensive rating with him on the floor. And it’s not just Giddey’s playmaking that’s improved over time. He’s hit multiple triples in seven of his last nine contests, and he’s shown legitimate range at 35% on shots past 25 feet. Giddey seems to add a new wrinkle to his game every week, looking increasingly confident as a shooter and lead playmaker. The Thunder are a sneaky matchup most nights, in part due to Giddey’s advanced performance as a rookie.
League Pass Darling of the First Half: Alperen Şengün, Rockets
The secret is out regarding Sengün. No longer simply the love of NBA draft nerds and Summer League hyperbolists, Şengün has gone full mainstream with his dips, spins and dunks delighting fans on a nightly basis. And the highlights aren’t simply outliers amid a stream of miscues. Şengün is the most exciting player in Houston at the moment, a shining star at what has been a difficult season.
Şengün is averaging 0.98 points per post-up, a better mark than Mobley, Jonas Valanciunas and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He ranks third among all rookies in assist percentage, and he’s one of four rookies (joining Jones, Barnes and Mobley) to tally 30 blocks and 30 steals. The 19-year-old big man plays with his head on a swivel on both ends, and Houston’s best half-court offense often stems from Şengün reading the floor from the block or high post. Even with the Rockets sitting comfortably at the bottom of the Western Conference, Şengün’s brilliance makes them worth watching on a given night.
Mental Makeup Award: Cade Cunningham, Pistons
The No. 1 pick hasn’t been able to lift Detroit from the dregs of the East as a rookie, with the Pistons sitting at 11–33 entering Friday night. While Cunningham has shown moments of All-NBA potential, he has faced the usual pitfalls that await most rookie point guards. He has tallied four-plus turnovers 19 times in 35 games and he’s shooting 39.6% from the field. The burden of carrying a shaky supporting cast is a different animal at the NBA level compared to the Big 12.
Yet Cunningham is dazzling in spurts, most notably a 29-point performance to beat the (Rudy Gobert-less) Jazz on Jan. 10. He makes skip passes and throws quality lobs in the pick-and-roll with ease, and his large frame allows him to cover plenty of space without a speedy first step. More encouraging than his pure skill set seems to be his competitive drive. Cunningham has taken the mantle of Detroit’s de-facto leader. He earned an ejection against Phoenix after he tried to fire up his team following a reverse dunk. And despite his early struggles, Cunningham still believes he’s the best player in his class.
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