The 2021 NBA Draft happened more than six months ago, and the prospects selected are making an impact as they begin their professional careers. If anything, this rookie class is performing at a better level than expected, with several players making positive waves in meaningful situations and others showing flashes of what is to come. With that in mind, the race for the 2021-22 NBA Rookie of the Year award is also heating up.
In this space, we’ll highlight the top candidates in alphabetical order, along with a few honorable mentions, and project what might take place in the second half of the season. A lot can change with more than a quarter of the season remaining, but the early returns are promising, and the candidates are intriguing.
In similar fashion to another prospect we’ll discuss in this space, Barnes is contributing to a good team. He is a starter for the Raptors, playing well over 30 minutes per game, and fits in snugly with Toronto’s innovative approach. He is disruptive on defense. He is shooting better than expected. He is rebounding and passing at a high level by rookie standards. It’s going very well, and he could crash the top three by the end of the season. That’s not too bad for a pick at No. 4 overall that surprised many people.
Since Nov. 28, Cunningham is averaging 17-5-5 for the Pistons while shooting more than 37 percent from three. That seems like a typical profile of a No. 1 pick that entered the league with sky-high expectations. Unfortunately for Cunningham’s ROY candidacy, he had a slow start and a couple of injuries along the way, in addition to team struggles. If he maintains this recent baseline in terms of production, Cunningham should have the inside track to a top-three spot.
When a prospect is garnering frequent comparisons to Tim Duncan, that is probably a good sign. Mobley isn’t on Duncan’s level just yet, to be fair, but he is the best defender in the class and he is also putting up numbers on a good team. Mobley is shooting 50 percent from the floor, averaging nearly 15 points and eight rebounds per game, protecting the rim, defending in space, and filling in the gaps like a veteran. It also helps that Cleveland is a very good team, and he is a big part of the team’s success. Mobley is the clear favorite to win the award right now, both in perception and in the betting market.
Wagner has played in every single game for the Magic, and his numbers are startlingly good. After a rough Summer League performance, expectations were low, but Wagner’s shooting percentages have been rock solid, and he’s been quite aggressive in hunting his own shot. On top of that, the former Michigan standout has keen instincts on the defensive end, pairing anticipation and awareness with great size at the forward spots, and Wagner is also a willing passer. He really should be in the top-three mix, even if the other candidates are more prominent names.
Chris Duarte – The second half of the season might be an “all you can eat” scenario for Duarte with the Pacers finally in a rebuilding mode. Even before that, Duarte was firmly in the rotation for a team that featured several key veterans, and he doesn’t look out of place. That was one of the positives about the Oregon product in the draft, and he is already quite solid.
Josh Giddey – He isn’t an efficient scorer yet, and that needs to develop in the future. However, Giddey’s size and passing vision are tremendous, and he has flashed in the morass that is Oklahoma City.
Jalen Green – It isn’t a big surprise that Green is off to a slow start, both because he missed time with injury and because rookie scorers sometimes need some seasoning. His efficiency will (or at least should) keep him out of the top spots right now, but the talent is undeniable.
Herb Jones – Jones isn’t going to have the offensive stats that get noticed, but he’s been the second-best defender in the class behind Mobley. That is earning him a ton of minutes for the suddenly vibrant Pelicans, and Jones has managed to post solid shooting efficiency based on a moderate shot diet. He’s a fun player.
Davion Mitchell – Mitchell has a long way to go as a primary option on the offensive end, but there is more playing time available for him in the absence of Tyrese Haliburton. The lottery pick is also very good at bothering opposing guard with his on-ball defense, and that is his calling card at this stage.