yesterday, it was for the defensive player of the year. today, our nba award ticket reveals the rookie of the year race through the eyes of a voter, plus rookie first-team and second-team picks:
1. evan mobley, cleveland cavaliers
2. scottie barnes, toronto raptors
3. cade cunningham, detroit pistons
It’s long been said in nba circles that at the end of a player’s first season, he’s really no longer a rookie. After 82 games (give or take) and a full cycle of training camp, preseason, regular season, rookie wall, the new guys are ready to put their donut-hunting days behind them.
however, with cleveland’s evan mobley, it took maybe half a dozen games. Before the schedule reached November, Mobley had recorded two double-doubles and scored 23 points on the Lakers’ floor. His early averages (15.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 53% shooting) essentially held up until the end.
It was that consistency, in fact, as well as his impact on the Cavaliers on offense and defense that earned him the top spot here out of a rookie class as deep as any we’ve seen in years.
As challenging as it was differentiating Nikola Jokic from Giannis Antetokounmpo from Joel Embiid at the top of the MVP race, splitting the cases ridden by Mobley, Toronto’s Scottie Barnes and Detroit’s Cade Cunningham was just as difficult.
• Rookie Stats Leaderboard
I could go back through the last 15 years of roy voting and find three or four winners who would have finished fourth or lower this time. It’s not even clear that someone like Jalen Green, Josh Giddey, or Jonathan Kuminga won’t rise up in time to surpass even Mobley, Barnes, and Cunningham as the brightest gems in the class of 2021.
but for now, with this trophy, it’s mobley. he hit the ground as a veteran of a team with a clear generation gap between those who have done things and those who are still waiting to do it. He brought the demeanor and rough contours of Hall of Fame big man Tim Duncan to the Cavs, a plug-and-play solution for Cavs coach J.B. bickerstaff beyond all expectations.
final #mobleyroty regular season stats:
1,034 pts570 reb (#1 rookie)174 ast115 blk (#1 rookie)56 stl21 double-doubles (#1 rookie)#mobleymonday pic.twitter.com/2g0knq38np
– cleveland cavaliers (@cavs) April 11, 2022
“If he continues to progress and stays healthy, I really think he has hall of fame talent,” cleveland assistant coach greg buckner told the bell for a story this week on mobley. “And he has a hall of fame brain. a basketball mind most newbies, you try to keep it really simple and basic with them. but with him, it’s just on another level.”
yeah yeah yeah, we know most teams talk about their best rookies, especially when the votes are cast. But Mobley’s instincts, work ethic on and off the court, understanding of fundamentals, athletic skills, and lanky height and wingspan put him in the middle of everything Cleveland did this season.
He was terrific in the high post, finding cutters or shooters on goal. he was slippery going to the rim himself, excellent guy. His hands are good, as is his shooting touch, with future work to extend his range.
mobley’s adaptability was arguably the biggest key to bickerstaff’s ability to play big three, with lauri markkanen and jarrett allen, on the front line. Given the cavs’ injuries, he handled the hiccups well, whether working with spin guards or plugging holes in the front end.
From a defensive standpoint, Mobley was frequently referred to as a “one man zone” for his ability to control his man, cut passing lanes, rotate when needed, and provide emergency assistance. like the no. 3 overall after a year at usc, there was nothing he didn’t like apart from the 13 games he missed (the cavs went 4-9).
Shooting guard Darius Garland, one of the MVP candidates, praised Mobley last month after an overtime win against Denver. “He does everything for us,” Garland said after his teammate scored 27 points (nine in overtime) with 11 rebounds off Jokic. “defensive-wise, offensive-wise. he is a 7 foot unicorn”.
Barnes probably heard that word a few times this season too. Her numbers gave Mobley nothing—15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 3.5 apg—and her ability to fill different roles for coach Nick Nurse was only surpassed by her willingness to do so. considered a minor range by casual fans at no. 4 out of Florida State, the 6-foot-9 wing could end up leading her class in the all-star picks.
so why mobley over barnes on this ballot, especially with toronto winning four more games to secure a playoff spot? defensive impact. consistency (barnes had a dip in January). help available (pascal siakam had a season worthy of the entire nba as did fred vanvleet). minor differences, but still.
Cunningham, like Houston’s Jalen Green, found his afterburn in the All-Star break. looking like no. was the No. 1 pick overall, the 6-foot-6 point guard averaged 21.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists in his last 20 games, shooting 45.7% compared to 39.4% in his first 44. His mastery of pace and passing They grew month by month. after that eventful October/November. obviously he had the ball in his hands (27.9% usage rate) more than mobley (20.7%) or barnes (19.2%).
As for the Pistons’ 23-59 record, it wasn’t the team’s lack of improvement from last season (Cunningham just had a little control over that), it was playing a succession of games that didn’t they meant nothing.
now my picks for rookie teams (which are not position specific):
first rookie team
• evan mobley, cleveland knights
• scottie barnes, toronto raptors
• Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
• franz wagner, the magic of orlando
• jalen green, houston rockets
2nd rookie team
• josh giddey, oklahoma city thunder
• herbert jones, new orleans pelicans
• ayo dosunmu, chicago bulls
• hyland bones, denver nuggets
• jonathan kuminga, warriors of the golden state
Honorable Mentions: Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings; Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets; chris duarte, indiana pacers.
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Steve Aschburner has been writing about the NBA since 1980. You can email him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.
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