Basketball

NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham claims top spot; Josh Giddey shows off his all-around capabilities
NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham claims top spot; Josh Giddey shows off his all-around capabilities

06 Dec 2021 | 09:31

By this time next week all rookies will have played at least 20 games, officially marking the quarter point of the 2021-22 NBA season. That’ll give us a legitimate sample size to work with to start forming some more concrete opinions on these first-year players we’ve observed for several weeks. So far we’ve learned the 2021 NBA class is pretty deep, as we’ve got second-round picks in Ayo Dosunmu and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl making an impact on their teams early in the season. The first round is also littered with quality talent from top to bottom, which has made this season an exciting one to watch all the rookies. With that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s NBA Rookie Rankings.

Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.

After starting the season slow in part because of an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for five of the first six games of his rookie campaign, Cunningham has started to consistently show flashes of why he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick. This past week he was doing a little bit of everything: scoring, grabbing rebounds, dishing out assists and being engaged on defense, which resulted in some timely steals. His 13-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double — the first of his young NBA career — against the Lakers was overshadowed by the altercation that broke out between LeBron James and Isaiah Stewart, but Cunningham had a solid all-around game:

He’s shown a great deal of improvement as the season chugs along, but his efficiency remains the area that needs the most work, as he’s shooting just 35 percent on the season and 25.3 percent from deep.

Giddey’s been one of the most entertaining rookies to watch this season, and he’s quickly shown himself to be a reliable backcourt mate next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The way he processes the game has been a delight to watch because he never seems rushed or sped up by the defense, and he’s always poised when he has the ball in his hands — something that can’t be said about a lot of rookies. He’s had games where he’s come close to putting up triple-doubles on several occasions, showing that as time goes on he has the potential to rack up those stats with regularity. But his passing specifically has been the standout gem of his game this season so far:

He would probably be averaging a double-double with ease in points and assists if more of his well-placed passes were converted by his Thunder teammates as he averages 11.5 potential assists a game, which ranks 21st in the league.

Don’t let those raw numbers fool you; Barnes might’ve had a down week in terms of scoring, but he’s still one of the most impactful rookies in his class on both ends of the floor. There’s also some context here in regards to Barnes’ recent dip in those stats, with the main reason being the return of Pascal Siakam. While Siakam was out, the Raptors gave Barnes the green light to go and get his every night, and he averaged 14.6 shot attempts a night. Since Siakam’s return, that’s dipped slightly to 10.6 shot attempts, which is to be expected.

But Barnes has still done an incredible job even with the decrease in touches he’s getting. He’s still been as efficient as he was at the start of the season, aside from the two games this past week where he shot 12 percent and 27 percent from deep, respectively. But Barnes’ abilities extend beyond just putting the ball in the basket. His performance against the Sacramento Kings is a perfect example of that. He went 1 of 8 from the field in that contest, but still put up seven rebounds, six assists, a steal and one block. He finished that game with a plus/minus of plus-2, indicating that while he wasn’t scoring well at all he still made a positive impact on his team in that win.

Watching Green play is like watching an X-Men character that’s still trying to harness their powers. The pieces are there for Green — athleticism, explosiveness, playmaking and he’s racking up the numbers. Yet he’s doing so in an inefficient way and it’s not resulting in Houston winning games. But with each game you watch he’s taking positive baby steps in his development. Just look at these three plays from this past week:

He was doing this stuff at the start of the season, but it wasn’t as controlled and it often resulted in a bad finish either from a block from a defender or just a missed shot after trying to finish off-balanced. He’s getting better at knowing where to place the ball so it’s not a doomed shot attempt, and he’s also improving at utilizing his explosiveness to shed a defender on his way to the rim. Just look at that possession against the Celtics, observe how quickly he rids himself of Marcus Smart and then look at how much ground he covers in just a couple steps. So while there’s still many aspects of Green’s game that are unrefined, he’s shown progress in each game.

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