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The otherwise inconsequential contest between the Detroit Pistons and the Houston Rockets Wednesday night (7:30 ET, ESPN) would seem to offer at least a sideshow to draw in NBA fans: the first official showdown of the No. 1 and No. 2 picks in the 2001 Draft.
“Seem to” is the operative phrase, however, because the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham and the Rockets’ Jalen Green have had too much work on their plates to devote much time to what each other has been doing early in their professional careers.
The fact that, three weeks in, neither has cracked the Top 5 of the Kia Rookie Ladder here at NBA.com simply verifies the slow, zig-zagging starts both have had.
The Pistons arrive at Toyota Center as the Eastern Conference’s bottom feeder, with a 1-8 mark and a four-game road losing streak. The Rockets are both worse and better – marginally – by ranking 14th of 15 in the West at 1-9 thanks only to New Orleans’ 1-10 struggle.
Cunningham, 20, only has played four games, sidelined by injury through much of the preseason and five of Detroit’s first six games. Green, 19, has been mired in Houston’s losing, forcing shots and plays, and being inefficient overall (13.3 shots per game for his 13.6 points) in 10 appearances.
Disappointing? Sure, that’s fair. The two were considered preseason favorites to vie for Rookie of the Year, simply due to their draft positions. But busts, as some on social media already have grumbled? Hardly.
The top two picks’ underwhelming stars got the Ladder committee wondering about other young phenoms’ earliest showings. Specifically, how did some of the NBA’s greatest players ever – Top 75 guys – fare through their first 10 games?
Not surprisingly, a sizable group of legends hit the hardwood running, statistically speaking. In their first 10 games in the league, they were almost as good or – especially in Wilt Chamberlain’s case – even better in some categories as they were later. Here are a dozen examples (stats via Basketball-Reference.com):
• Wilt Chamberlain: 37.1 ppg, 31.2 rpg, 1.5 apg.
• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 27.8 ppg, 15.7 rpg, 3.6 apg.
• Michael Jordan: 27.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.5 apg.
• Oscar Robertson: 25.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 9.2 apg.
• Elgin Baylor: 24.1 ppg, 17.4 rpg (assists not available)
• Shaquille O’Neal: 23.8 ppg, 15.8 rpg, 1.5 apg.
• Allen Iverson: 22.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.8 apg.
• Isiah Thomas: 21.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 7.0 apg.
• Kevin Durant: 20.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.8 apg.
• Hakeem Olajuwon: 19.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 1.6 apg.
• Magic Johnson: 18.9 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 6.9 apg.
• Larry Bird: 18.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 4.4 apg.
Nine of those 12 went on to win Rookie of Year, with only Johnson, Thomas and Olajuwon missing. But another group of all-time greats arrived offering more modest glimpses of what they would become:
• LeBron James: 16.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 6.4 apg.
• Tim Duncan: 16.0 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 2.1 apg.
• Charles Barkley: 13.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.1 apg.
• Jerry West: 12.9 ppg (rebounds, assists not available)
• Karl Malone: 9.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.0 apg.
Curious yet about some names that haven’t appeared? That’s because their production over the first 10 games of their NBA careers was meager at best. Oh, they were doing fine according to the “eye test” – that’s what got them drafted high in the first place. Some had limited roles dictated by cautious coaches. But whatever the reason, those initial 10 games were slow going for:
• Steph Curry: 8.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.7 apg.
• Dirk Nowitzki: 7.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.1 apg.
• Kevin Garnett: 6.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 apg.
• James Harden: 5.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.1 apg.
• Kobe Bryant: 4.9 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 0.4 apg.
Anyone considering any of those five to be busts so early in their first seasons wisely would clam up about it now.
And just to bring things up to date, here are the first-10-game samples of the past five No. 1 picks (who had a few false starts and other hiccups mixed in):
• Anthony Edwards: 13.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.0 apg.
• Zion Williamson: 22.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.2 apg.
• Deandre Ayton: 15.9 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 3.4 apg.
• Markelle Fultz: 6.5 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 3.3 apg.
• Ben Simmons: 17.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 8.0 apg.
So enjoy however much Cunningham vs. Green plays out as some head-to-head duel. But don’t read too much into it for long-term implications. Meanwhile, appreciate the work of the some of the top-rung players on this week’s Ladder.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, Nov. 8)
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
The Ladder’s No. 1 and No. 2 guys from last week faced off Friday in Toronto. They have flipped spots now, but that’s no indictment of Barnes. Mobley simply has been too good, rising to become the Ladder’s third different top-rung rookie in three weeks. The Cavaliers’ young big was up to the spotlight at Madison Square Garden, posting 26 points, nine rebounds and five assists in Cleveland’s fourth consecutive victory. He also leads the league – not just the newcomers – with 16.1 contested shots per game. An indication of the Cavs’ and Cleveland fans’ quick embrace of Mobley: The Athletic sports media site has created “Mobley Mondays” to track the 7-footer’s rookie season in highlights, stats, outsiders’ assessments and anecdotes.
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Season stats: 16.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
A sprained thumb limited Barnes to just two games since this week’s stats cutoff. He failed to score in double-figures Sunday against Brooklyn, finishing with eight. And along with the other Raptors, he had to adapt to the return of frontcourt mate Pascal Siakam from shoulder surgery. The key, though, is that coach Nick Nurse didn’t move the rookie to the bench. Barnes didn’t budge, continuing to start alongside similarly sized Siakam and OG Anunoby. After the Nets game, foe Blake Griffin said of Barnes: “Body-wise, he’s NBA-ready. Confident. Can score in a variety of ways. I do love that he sets hard screens, rolls, rebounds. … He’s going to be good for a long time.”
Jheeez… Scottie really said ‘GIMMIE DAT’ pic.twitter.com/MkrnYDFYzr
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) November 7, 2021
3. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 16.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Duarte, like Barnes, is navigating the changing personnel around him. Last week it was the return of Caris LeVert, who had been out with a back problem. In another month or two, the Pacers anticipate forward T.J. Warren coming back from his foot injury. Both impact Duarte’s role, as far as the almost-green light he had to shoot and score to boost Indiana’s attack. Consider: He took 28 shots in his past three games vs. 124 in his first eight. That’s part of the reason for Duarte’s notable early stats, but his maturity and pliability in doing what’s needed should still serve him and his team well.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) November 3, 2021
4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 13.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Wagner’s scoring dropped off and the gap between him and Giddey at No. 5 narrowed almost to a coin flip. In three games, Orlando’s 6-foot-9 forward looked more like the versatile glue guy he was projected to be than a top points option. He averaged 30.9 minutes and shot 35.5% last week, including 2-of-13 from 3.
Coach Mose on Franz Wagner:
“𝐇𝐢𝐬 𝐛𝐚𝐬𝐤𝐞𝐭𝐛𝐚𝐥𝐥 𝐈𝐐 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐡𝐢𝐬 𝐤𝐧𝐨𝐰𝐥𝐞𝐝𝐠𝐞 𝐨𝐟 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐠𝐚𝐦𝐞, 𝐭𝐡𝐞 𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠𝐬 𝐡𝐞 𝐬𝐞𝐞𝐬, 𝐢𝐭 𝐦𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐬 𝐡𝐢𝐦 𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐜𝐢𝐚𝐥.” pic.twitter.com/hsotvyiUt0
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) November 3, 2021
5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season stats: 10.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 6.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Giddey’s scoring was down and his shooting still lags – he was 5-of-19 and 1-of-8 in the Thunder’s two games. But the 6-foot-8 shooting guard continued to show his vision and creativeness, helping OKC beat the Lakers and the Spurs in those two games. His 5.9 assists lead all newcomers by a wide margin and his rebounding is up, but so are his turnovers (4.0 for the week).
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) November 5, 2021
The Next 5:
6. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 13.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.5 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Unremarkable bad team/high pick results: 0-4 week, minus-8.3.
7. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 10.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.8 agp
Since last Ladder: 13.7 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Double-double in third game = Pistons’ fastest since Grant Hill in 1994.
8. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Per 36: 17.0 points, 8.2 boards, 4.5 assists vs. Green’s 15.2, 3.5, 3.4.
9. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 9.9 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 9
Averaged 11.2 FGA in five games after taking 9+ just once in first six.
10. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 12.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Cole Anthony’s rise might be slowing Suggs’ development.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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