Friday, June 14, 2024

NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham puts shooting slump behind him; Scottie Barnes continues to impress

Some first-year players are starting to creep up to that proverbial “rookie wall” where things start to get a little more difficult, and performances may not be as consistent as they were at the start of the NBA season. You also have guys like Cade Cunningham who seem to be just hitting their groove to climb further up in the Rookie of the Year race. It’s important to remember that inconsistency is to be expected from every rookie in the league, because it’s part of development and growth. So while some of these raw numbers don’t look as gaudy as they once did, that doesn’t mean any of these players are busts. There’s still plenty of basketball left to be played this season, and regression in both directions is natural for these young players, so just keep that in mind. 

Moving on to this week’s rankings, remember that these 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. 

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Cunningham had perhaps his best week of the season, primarily because of his efficiency from just about everywhere on the floor. He shot 55.8 percent from the field and a ridiculous 60.9 percent from 3-point territory on over seven attempts a game. After several weeks of poor shooting numbers, Cunningham appears to be finally hitting a groove, which is great news for the Pistons. Against the Thunder, he had a career-high 28 points, while racking up 11 rebounds and five assists, and became the first rookie in Pistons history since Greg Monroe in 2010 to record a 20-10-5 game. 

Diving a bit deeper into those shooting numbers, it appears Cunningham is just finally connecting on the good looks he’s getting. Prior to this week, the No. 1 overall pick was shooting 20.9 percent on 3s when he was open, yet over the course of three games last week he shot a significantly improved 55.6 percent on open 3-point attempts. He’s also connecting more on shots inside the arc where he had a defender in front of him, shooting 65.2 percent from the field with a defender 2-4 feet from him. Those percentages aren’t sustainable, but it’s encouraging to see that Cunningham’s shooting is starting to catch up to his playmaking and rebounding ability.

If you want a snapshot of Barnes’ impact on the Raptors this season, look no further than his performance against the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks last week. Against the Wizards, he only put up 11 points and six rebounds, but those numbers aren’t indicative of just how much of an impact he made in that win. Barnes was tasked with guarding All-Star guard Bradley Beal for most of the evening, to which he held him to three points on 1 of 5 on the night. He also held his own when he got switched on Montrezl Harrell down in the paint:

Against the Wizards, Barnes’ defense shone through and he finished the game with a plus-11, the highest of any starter on the team. Against the Bucks, his 3-point shooting and playmaking ability highlighted his performance, showing off the different facets of his game. Barnes went 3 of 6 from deep, which continues a trend from the last two weeks of his improved shooting from beyond the arc. If that becomes a consistent weapon in his arsenal, it will only make him that much more impactful on offense. 

In an impressive win over the Denver Nuggets last week, Wagner was getting it done on both ends of the floor. Not only did he finish with 15 points on a supremely efficient 6 of 9 from the field, but he finished the night with three steals, once again proving to be a key cog in Orlando’s defense. He put up the same stat line against the dominant Golden State Warriors, where he came up with some heads-up steals in a losing effort. 

It wasn’t his best defensive performance, which is to be expected when you’re going against a dynamic offensive team like the Warriors where Andrew Wiggins is knocking down eight 3-pointers. But Wagner did his best to fight through endless amounts of screens, and he still made an impact on that end of the floor. As far as offense goes, Wagner didn’t let Golden State’s league-leading defense stop him from getting his shots in the paint, where he’s making over 54 percent of his shots this season.

Mobley recorded his sixth double-double of the year against the Utah Jazz, which is the most of any rookie this season. Aside from Barnes, there isn’t a more impactful rookie in this class in regards to their team’s wins. Despite being just 20 years old, he essentially anchors Cleveland’s defense with his versatility, which is why he may only have six points and seven rebounds in a win over the Washington Wizards, but still finish the game with a plus-21.

Duarte was moved back to the starting lineup in place of Justin Holiday who is in health and safety protocols, and he took advantage of the opportunity. As the Pacers have gotten healthier this season, Duarte’s role has shifted on offense, as he’s used more as a spot-up shooter, than being able to put the ball on the ground and create for himself. It’s understandable, given Indiana has a slew of talented players in Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert and Domantas Sabonis that certainly take precedent over him in terms of touches and the amount of time they have the ball in their hands, but with every crossover into a step-back jumper and crafty drive to the rim Duarte shows us, it gives a glimpse into what a different role could do for him outside of just being a spot-up shooter. While his offensive role changes, he’s still been a solid defender on the other end of the floor, making him an essential player in whatever capacity head coach Rick Carlisle wants to use him.

The second-round pick from Chicago got his name called in the starting lineup for the first time this season when Bulls star forward DeMar DeRozan entered the league’s health and safety protocols just two hours before tip off against the Nuggets. With that came a rush of emotions from the rookie and the crowd, and once the excitement of starting for the first time in his young NBA career wore off, Dosunmu made sure to show that head coach Billy Donovan made the right decision in trusting him.

The rookie put up an all-around performance against the Nuggets, finishing with 11 points, eight assists, six rebounds and a steal to top it off. He had some expected rookie mistakes that resulted in three turnovers, primarily on fastbreak opportunities where you could tell his brain was just moving too fast for his body, but aside from those missteps, Dosunmu showed incredible value on a night where the Bulls had to adjust quickly without DeRozan.     

During training camp, Rockets big man Christian Wood said of Alperen Sengun: “He has great footwork. He’s great at using his body. He reminds me of a smaller [Nikola] Jokic.” While it may seem blasphemous to compare a 19-year-old rookie to the reigning MVP, Wood’s not far off with his assessment. You watch Sengun and you see him directing plays like a guard would, but without the ball in his hands. Like this directive he gave to Garrison Mathews to pass the ball to Wood in the post, only for Sengun to set a screen to get Matthews open for a 3-pointer, which he drilled.

He’s doing stuff like this every game, which is very similar to what Jokic does with the Nuggets. Sengun’s court vision is incredibly impressive for someone of his size and age. 

Mitchell had an incredibly inefficient week, with a 20-point performance sandwiched between an eight-point dud and two-point stinker to begin and end the week. At his best, Mitchell is knocking down 3s like he was against the Clippers en route to 20 points, while playing pestering defense on the other end. But those other two performances of the week indicate that he’s not yet consistent enough to be impactful every night for Sacramento. Time will tell if that 20-point performance or those other two outings are more in line with what to expect from him on a regular basis.

After that barn-burning game the Thunder played against the Grizzlies in which Memphis beat OKC by an NBA-record 73 points, Mann responded by having a far better performance in a win over the Pistons. It’s hard to fault Mann for that embarrassing loss to the Grizzlies when he’s not used to being a starter and has split time this season with the G League. But in a more comfortable role where he’s coming off the bench, he is more impactful, which resulted in a seven-point, three-rebound performance for the rookie.  

Smart got signed by the Bucks on Nov. 29, and five days later he was playing 28 minutes for the defending champions where he finished with eight points, six rebounds and four assists. That’s the definition of taking advantage of the opportunity you’re given, and he earned more playing time in the following game against the Cavaliers last week where he made all three of his shot attempts. He’s making hustle plays for the Bucks, and is making a positive impact when he’s on the floor. 

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