The Six Most Impressive Rookies So Far

Image via Sporting News

The 2021–22 season has seen a plethora of surprises around the league, from role players having the game of their lives to injury bugs plaguing championship contenders. There have also been notable moments from the youngins of the league, this year’s rookie class, from top picks putting up significant numbers to the forgotten ones reemerging and surprising us all.

Here are six rooks turning heads early on this season.

Josh Giddey

A surprising selection at sixth overall, the 6’8” Aussie guard has shown a lot of promise on a young Thunder squad that is looking to do the same. At the time of writing, Giddey has averaged 10 PPG, 6 RPG and 5 APG, doing just enough to help his team as the starting shooting guard.

Giddey has shown his ability to dish the ball rather well, with eye-popping passes that have invigorated OKC’s offense. Being paired next to superstar point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has also helped, as the two have earned an offensive rating of 105.2 and a defensive rating of 115. Giddey’s height and skill set make him a versatile player capable of playing both guard slots and the wing position, and his exceptional playmaking, coupled with a steadily-improving three-point shot and impeccable defense (1.4 SPG), is enough to make him a legitimate two-way threat.

Chris Duarte

Image via The Rookie Wire/USA Today

The 6’6” sharpshooter has been turning heads in Indy, playing a significant amount of minutes while Malcolm Brogdon dealt with a hamstring injury and a non-COVID-related illness. Duarte, drafted 13th out of Oregon, has averaged 16 PPG, 4 RPG and 2 APG while shooting an amazing 42% from deep. His debut was one for the books, recording 27 points on 9-of-15 shooting with six triples in the process, the most made by a Pacers rookie in his debut.

Duarte’s red-hot shooting has been critical for a Pacers team that is currently 4–7 with an average margin of victory of -0.36. He’s currently the third-highest PPG scorer behind Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. At the same time, however, there have been questions surrounding his defensive abilities as a wing, with his 6’7” wingspan being a disadvantage and the fact he is averaging one steal per game and two fouls per game. Still, he provides immense value as a shooter, being a big reason why the Pacers are 13th in three-point percentage (35%) and fifth in field-goal percentage (46%). Duarte, categorized as a 3-and-D specialist, has an amazing offensive talent that has captivated Pacers fans and NBA fans alike. His game is certainly fun to watch, especially for fans of the long ball.

Scottie Barnes

Image via NBA.com

The 6’8” wing has taken The North by storm, putting up 16 PPG, nearly 9 RPG and 2 APG on 52–20–71 splits; on the defensive end, he has averaged 1.2 SPG and 0.7 BPG. Barnes recently dueled with Cavs rookie Evan Mobley (more on him later), where he recorded 14 points, 9 boards (six offensive), and two swats in a nail biting 102–101 loss.

Selected fifth overall by the Raptors, Barnes has provided a lot of help at the forward slot for Nick Nurse. In a frontcourt crowded by OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Pascal Siakam, Barnes has impressed the coaching staff so much that he is currently their starting power forward. His scoring punch has been key for Toronto and only adds to their plethora of offensive talents such as Siakam, Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet. Based on his play early on, it is clear that Barnes has won over the hearts of Raptor fans and will be another name to look out for in years to come.

Evan Mobley

Image via Cleveland.com

The 7’0” bruising big man is anything but your traditional center. Known for his ability to block the rock and score at ease at USC, Mobley’s game has translated well in an era where bigs are asked to do much more than stand in the paint with their backs to the basket. In The Land, he has put up nearly 15 PPG, 8 RPG and 2.5 APG while shooting 52% from the field, 23% from deep, and 80% from the free-throw line.

Mobley has served as the starting power forward in Cleveland’s youth movement, taking over for Kevin Love, who now serves as his backup. Pairing an offensive talent like him with a stifling defender in Jarrett Allen has given the Cavs a boost in their frontcourt on both ends of the floor; the two bigs have recorded offensive and defensive ratings of 100.2 and 99.4, respectively. Putting him next to the electrifying Darius Garland has made opposing defenses stop in their tracks, as the two currently have an offensive rating of 112.8 and an assist percentage of 66.3. As time goes on, Mobley, like some of the other rookies, will need to improve his three-point shot. For now, however, he is doing a great job as a young two-way big, holding his own against other premier 4s and 5s in the league.

Franz Wagner

Image via NBA.com

The younger brother of Moritz Wagner, who is also on the Magic, Franz has sought to follow in his brother’s footsteps and make his own mark on the league. He is averaging nearly 14 PPG, 3.5 RPG and 2 APG while shooting 47% from the field, a blistering 39% from three, and 71% from the line.

Franz is currently the starting wing for Orlando and has made a measurable impact on the team so far. Amid a roster armed with numerous talented guards, Wagner has been an asset to Jamahl Mosley’s frontcourt. He is currently second behind Cole Anthony for three-point makes per game (1.9) and one of five Magic players shooting better than 35% from distance with at least three attempts per game. On the flip side, he is averaging one steal and 0.5 swats per game, respectable defense for a 6’9” wing. It is safe to say that Wagner has played his role pretty well so far, and he will continue to develop as a three-and-D forward capable of contributing to winning games in the future.

Davion Mitchell

Image via NBC Sports

Considered by several to be the steal of this year’s draft, Mitchell’s impact on the floor has been with his smothering defense, earning him the nickname “Off-Night.” Not many rookies can say they held Damian Lillard to 8–24 shooting from the field and 0–9 from three or made Steph Curry, one of the greatest shooters ever, go 9-of-23 from the field and 4-of-15 from deep. But Mitchell can.

Selected ninth overall by Sacramento, Mitchell came in as one of — if not the best — defenders in his draft class. Aside from his current averages of 0.6 SPG and 0.3 BPG, Mitchell has put up nearly 10 PPG, 2 RPG and 3 APG on 40–31–63 splits. Granted, stats do not tell the whole story, and the reason why I noted him clamping up Dame and Curry was to show his true impact on the floor: a defensive juggernaut capable of guarding the other team’s best player and holding them to, as his nickname suggests, an “off night”. Playing in a crowded back court with De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Tyrese Haliburton may not be helping his case now, but Mitchell has all the tools to be a standout defender in this league and a great combo guard as well. Like everyone else on the list, Mitchell has played to his strengths and fulfilled his role effectively, and he is going to be a key defensive player for a Kings team that has its eyes on the play-in tournament.

These six are some of the names that could be at the top of the ballot for All-Rookie Teams at season’s end. For now, though, it’s best to live in the present and enjoy seeing these youngbloods ball out in a league that’s soon to be theirs.

*All stats via: https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2022_rookies-season-stats.html

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