We’re approaching the next big milestone in the season: the Feb. 10 trade deadline. While that won’t mean much for rookies in this class in terms of getting traded, it could potentially mean more opportunity for a few. As teams across the league assess how they would like to approach the rest of the season, some franchises may decide to focus on playing the younger talent more in an effort to see what they have with them, while also positioning themselves for a better draft pick. It remains to be seen who those teams are, as everyone has been holding their cards close to their chest with a little over two weeks until the deadline, but as we get closer we’ll see which rookies benefit from trades made around the league.
Moving on to this week’s rankings, remember 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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The Indiana Pacers took it to the Golden State Warriors last week and were rewarded with a 121-117 win at Chase Center. The Pacers can thank Duarte for that W, as the rookie looked like the best player on the floor after finishing with 27 points, seven rebounds and three assists. He also shot 62.5 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from deep, as he got his points in a variety of ways against the Warriors.
It was a glimpse of what the Pacers would look like with an offense centered around Duarte, as Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert were all sidelined against one of the best teams in the league. The rookie was getting to the rim with ease, shirking off every Golden State defender placed in front of him. He can switch speeds in an instance, which often catches defenders on their heels when he switches back on the acceleration to get to the basket.
His efficiency as a jump shooter also makes him dangerous when he’s out on the perimeter with the ball. He’s gotten the step-back 3-pointer down, and when you mix that with his ability to change direction at a moment’s notice, it results in looks like this:
That’s some classic rookie-on-rookie crime right there. It’s refreshing to see Duarte handle the ball a bit more with several key players out of Indiana’s lineup, because you’re reminded of the variety of ways in which he can make an impact, instead of just being a spot-up shooter. Depending on what the Pacers decide to do by the trade deadline, perhaps we’ll see Duarte get more touches and gain more control of the offense over the remainder of the season.
First, let’s just take a moment to appreciate this insane dunk by Suggs.
The crowd was too stunned to speak. It’s been two weeks since Suggs has returned from a thumb injury that sidelined him for a month and a half starting back in December, and since his return he’s been playing perhaps the best basketball of his rookie season so far. He’s been a rebound or assist shy of a double-double twice, including a 22-point, nine-assist, four-rebound performance against the Los Angeles Lakers this past week. He also flirted with a triple-double in his first game back from the injury back on Jan. 14 against the Charlotte Hornets.
The Magic have only gone 2-4 since he’s been back, but you can see how Suggs is positively impacting the game on both ends of the floor for Orlando. On defense, Suggs is always aggressive, which sometimes may burn him if he’s overplaying on a passing lane from time-to-time. Yet there’s also the times when it pays off. Like this:
Suggs has struggled with his jump shooting this season, but he makes up for it by being a legitimate threat in transition, which is fueled by his impressive defense.
What’s becoming an underrated part of Mobley’s game is his passing ability. In the month of January he’s averaging three assists a night, which is his highest monthly average of the season so far. He’s making these passes that you wouldn’t expect from a 7-footer, which feels like something we say a lot about him in general. But it’s true, we’re not used to seeing guys this big make outlet passes like this:
Mobley’s court vision and passing ability is part of the reason why he and big man Jarrett Allen work so well together in the starting lineup. Cleveland’s two-big lineups have opponents struggling to match up adequately against them, because how are you supposed to guard this when Mobley’s initiating offense to give it to Allen down low in the post?
Answer: It’s difficult. Mobley was projected to be one of the best players in this draft years from now, but no one could’ve expected for him to be this good in so many areas of the game this early. The Cavs are benefitting from it this year, and its accelerated their timeline significantly.
Let’s look at this filthy play Cunningham had against the Utah Jazz:
Rudy Gay totally bit on the half-spin move and almost forgot where he was for a second. Just brutal. That Cunningham’s pulling that off so casually in a game as a rookie is just next-level confidence. That mid-range jumper he knocks down at the end of it is also something that’s become rather lethal for him this season. Each game Cunningham is showing why he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, and after a slow start to his career, he’s looking like the real deal for the Pistons.
In my most recent piece on the Rookie of the Year race, I mentioned that while Barnes isn’t getting as much burn as a scorer since the Raptors have everyone back healthy, he’s been impacting the game in other ways. I also said that just because he isn’t getting the same touches he had at the beginning of the season doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of lighting up the scoreboard every now and then.
Well, that happened this past week, when Barnes went for his career high in a win over the Washington Wizards. He finished with 27 points and eight rebounds in an effort where he absolutely dominated coring in the paint. Because of Barnes’ size and impressive handle, he can get downhill with ease, and he has the strength to finish some tough shots. These performances, where Barnes just takes whatever he wants, is going to be a secret weapon for the Raptors if they manage to sneak into the playoffs this year.
Honorable mentions: Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic (14.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists); Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls (13.5 points, 5.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds); Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder (11.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists)