In this article, check out the top 5 best rookies in the NBA 2022. Evan Mobley showcased a special blend of size, movement skills, touch, and basketball IQ from the moment he took the floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
5. Herb Jones, F, New Orleans Pelicans
Jones was named SEC Player of the Year as a senior at Alabama but still fell to the second round because scouts were concerned about his limited shooting ability and overall lack of potency offensively. There’s no doubt that Jones would be a lottery pick if the league did a re-draft today. The 6’8 wing was elite defensively all season, using his strong chest, long arms, and quick feet to frustrate all types of opposing scorers. He finished the year in the 92nd percentile of all defenders according to EPM, and should be an annual threat to make the All-Defense team moving forward. Jones’ offense was a little more advanced than anticipated, as well. He put up 9.5 points per game on 57.5 percent true shooting that rates slightly better than league average. His three-point shot also showed signs of improvement — he hit 57 threes this year at a 33.7 percent clip. With 69 starts under his belt as a rookie, Jones has already proven to be valuable for his defense, versatility, and athleticism. If the outside shot comes around, he’ll level up again.
4. Franz Wagner, F, Orlando Magic
Wagner’s college career ended with a dud when he shot 1-of-10 from the field in the Elite Eight for Michigan. His tremendous rookie year in Orlando is a good example of why you shouldn’t put too much stock into one bad game in March Madness. The Magic selected Wagner at No. 8 overall, and he was immediately productive on both ends of the floor. At 6’10, 220 pounds, Wagner combines the size of a big man and the skill of a guard. He averaged 15.2 points per game this season while hitting 51.1 percent of his two-pointers, 35.4 percent of his threes, and 86.3 percent of his free throws. He ranked in the 75th percentile of all offensive players and the 79th percentile of all defensive players by EPM. He was also the most durable of the first-year players this season, leading all rookies by playing 79 games. Orlando’s rebuild is in a much better place after grabbing a big wing like Wagner who can space the floor, provide some secondary creation juice, and credibly defend all over the court.
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3. Cade Cunningham, G, Detroit Pistons
Cunningham went No. 1 overall in a loaded draft because he was the safest bet to become a lead offensive engine while also being a plus defender. His rookie season started slow as he recovered from a sprained ankle in training camp, but by mid-season he was starting to resemble the future star he was widely expected to be. A strong 6’6, 220-pound guard, Cunningham led all rookies at 17.4 points per game and finished second in assists at 5.6 per game. He struggled to score efficiently for most of the year, but his 50.4 percent true shooting can partially be explained by the lack of three-point shooting around him (the Pistons finished No. 29 in three-point percentage). The most encouraging thing for Detroit is that Cunningham got better and better as the season went on, and by March he was averaging 22 points and seven assists on 55 percent true shooting for the month. Those numbers should be a baseline for Cunningham moving forward. While he may not end up as the best player in this draft class like we predicted (the guy at No. 1 on this list has something to say about that), he’s still on track to be a potential All-NBA guard at some point in his career.
2. Scottie Barnes, F, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors pulled the first surprise of draft night when they selected Scottie Barnes at No. 4 overall ahead of Jalen Suggs. A year later, it looks like a brilliant move. Barnes is an incredibly versatile talent on both ends of the floor, and Toronto used him in so many different ways as a rookie. Offensively. Barnes had the freedom to create off the dribble as a 6’9, 227-pound forward, and impressed with his aggressive driving, accurate finishing, and ability to make advanced passing reads. Defense was supposed to be his calling card early in his career, and he was excellent on that end, too. Barnes is quick enough to hound guards on the perimeter on traps or switches, and still has the size and strength to hold up defending the paint. His three-point shot remains a weakness, but the Raptors likely feel good about his long-term projection as a shooter after he hit 58 threes at a 30 percent clip this year. Barnes combines efficient scoring inside the arc with good passing ability and potentially very good defense. Toronto probably won’t be picking in the top five again any time soon, but they made this pick count with Barnes.
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1. Evan Mobley, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mobley showcased a special blend of size, movement skills, touch, and basketball IQ from the moment he took the floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His two-way versatility was the key to the Cavs’ three-big lineup, and one of the biggest reasons the team blew past preseason expectations to win 44 games (it would have been more if they weren’t hammered by injuries). The 7-foot big man was immediately one of the league’s best defenders, blowing up pick-and-rolls with his length and quickness and showing exceptional timing on his rotations and shot contests. On offense, Mobley flashed a bit more shot creation ability than expected, and established himself as a skilled finisher who made 73 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. His ability to play on the perimeter and make passing reads helped unlock Jarrett Allen’s breakout season, and should be a huge part of his game moving forward. Given that he’s already elite defensively (he finished in the 96th percentile on that end, per EPM) and his offense is just scratching the surface, we’d now move Mobley from No. 2 to No. 1 in this class after such an impressive rookie year.
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