NBA Rookie Rankings: Cade Cunningham claims top spot; Josh Giddey shows off his all-around capabilities

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By this time next week all rookies will have played at least 20 games, officially marking the quarter point of the 2021-22 NBA season. That’ll give us a legitimate sample size to work with to start forming some more concrete opinions on these first-year players we’ve observed for several weeks. So far we’ve learned the 2021 NBA class is pretty deep, as we’ve got second-round picks in Ayo Dosunmu and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl making an impact on their teams early in the season. The first round is also littered with quality talent from top to bottom, which has made this season an exciting one to watch all the rookies. With that in mind, let’s dive into this week’s NBA Rookie Rankings.

Keep in mind that these rankings 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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After starting the season slow in part because of an ankle injury that kept him sidelined for five of the first six games of his rookie campaign, Cunningham has started to consistently show flashes of why he was taken with the No. 1 overall pick. This past week he was doing a little bit of everything: scoring, grabbing rebounds, dishing out assists and being engaged on defense, which resulted in some timely steals. His 13-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double — the first of his young NBA career — against the Lakers was overshadowed by the altercation that broke out between LeBron James and Isaiah Stewart, but Cunningham had a solid all-around game:  

He’s shown a great deal of improvement as the season chugs along, but his efficiency remains the area that needs the most work, as he’s shooting just 35 percent on the season and 25.3 percent from deep.

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Giddey’s been one of the most entertaining rookies to watch this season, and he’s quickly shown himself to be a reliable backcourt mate next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The way he processes the game has been a delight to watch because he never seems rushed or sped up by the defense, and he’s always poised when he has the ball in his hands — something that can’t be said about a lot of rookies. He’s had games where he’s come close to putting up triple-doubles on several occasions, showing that as time goes on he has the potential to rack up those stats with regularity. But his passing specifically has been the standout gem of his game this season so far:

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He would probably be averaging a double-double with ease in points and assists if more of his well-placed passes were converted by his Thunder teammates as he averages 11.5 potential assists a game, which ranks 21st in the league.

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Don’t let those raw numbers fool you; Barnes might’ve had a down week in terms of scoring, but he’s still one of the most impactful rookies in his class on both ends of the floor. There’s also some context here in regards to Barnes’ recent dip in those stats, with the main reason being the return of Pascal Siakam. While Siakam was out, the Raptors gave Barnes the green light to go and get his every night, and he averaged 14.6 shot attempts a night. Since Siakam’s return, that’s dipped slightly to 10.6 shot attempts, which is to be expected. 

But Barnes has still done an incredible job even with the decrease in touches he’s getting. He’s still been as efficient as he was at the start of the season, aside from the two games this past week where he shot 12 percent and 27 percent from deep, respectively. But Barnes’ abilities extend beyond just putting the ball in the basket. His performance against the Sacramento Kings is a perfect example of that. He went 1 of 8 from the field in that contest, but still put up seven rebounds, six assists, a steal and one block. He finished that game with a plus/minus of plus-2, indicating that while he wasn’t scoring well at all he still made a positive impact on his team in that win.

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Watching Green play is like watching an X-Men character that’s still trying to harness their powers. The pieces are there for Green — athleticism, explosiveness, playmaking and he’s racking up the numbers. Yet he’s doing so in an inefficient way and it’s not resulting in Houston winning games. But with each game you watch he’s taking positive baby steps in his development. Just look at these three plays from this past week:

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He was doing this stuff at the start of the season, but it wasn’t as controlled and it often resulted in a bad finish either from a block from a defender or just a missed shot after trying to finish off-balanced. He’s getting better at knowing where to place the ball so it’s not a doomed shot attempt, and he’s also improving at utilizing his explosiveness to shed a defender on his way to the rim. Just look at that possession against the Celtics, observe how quickly he rids himself of Marcus Smart and then look at how much ground he covers in just a couple steps. So while there’s still many aspects of Green’s game that are unrefined, he’s shown progress in each game. 

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So Suggs had a pretty ridiculous first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets this past week, where he went off for 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 from deep.

He cooled off considerably as the game went on, finishing with 21 points, but it was a welcome sight to see that Suggs has the capabilities of cooking a defense. Especially since he’s shooting just 25 percent from deep and 32.4 percent from the field this season. But he’s also impacting the game in other ways, so when his shot isn’t falling he’s still engaged on defense.

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Wagner’s week started with throwing down clutch dunks like this in a win over the Knicks:

… and it ended with having to guard Khris Middleton in back-to-back games to which he did a decent job of playing team defense and not getting burned. It wasn’t the most exciting end to Wagner’s week, especially since he went a combined 1 of 13 from the field in both matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks, but when you’re so concentrated on not letting the Bucks roast you — which they absolutely did do in the second meeting after being up by 51 points (!!!) at one point — the offense tends to take a backseat. But those first two games of the week from Wagner are far more indicative of what we’re used to seeing on both ends of the floor from the rookie.   

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Dosunmu’s been floating under the radar for most of the season, but if you’ve been watching Bulls games then you can see the impact he has when he checks into the game. He’s acted as a spark plug on multiple occasions for Chicago, knocking down timely 3s and being a pest on defense. For as much depth as the Bulls have this season, it says a lot that coach Billy Donovan has stuck with keeping Dosunmu in the rotation as the roster’s started to get healthy. He leaves his fingerprints on the game each time he checks in, and has been a welcomed surprise to the Bulls after being a second-round draft pick.  

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Robinson-Earl has been in and out of the Thunder’s lineup this season, but he’s shown that it doesn’t matter where he is in the rotation — he’s still going to take advantage of the opportunity. He put up his second double-double of the season when he started against the Hawks with 13 points and 10 rebounds. In the game prior to that, where he was coming off the bench against the Celtics, he wasn’t too far off that mark again in a 13-point, eight-rebound night. He’s been solid over the course of the season, and is just one of the many young, talented players OKC has at its disposal.

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I’ve been speaking of Sengun’s praises for weeks now in these rankings and this is no different. Just look at this absurd pass, which was his SEVENTH of the night:

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With as many losses as the Rockets are racking up, at some point coach Stephen Silas is going to have to think about putting Sengun in the starting lineup. This kid can get you around 10 points a night. He can also provide about seven rebounds and four assists, the latter of which will help other guys on the floor get open looks if he’s dishing passes like that out of the paint. 

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After a really strong start to the season, Duarte has slowed down in terms of offensive production. He started off this week missing the first two games due to right shoulder soreness, then came off the bench in the final two games of the week. But that has more to do with coach Rick Carlisle trying to experiment with the starting lineup than it is a reflection on Duarte’s performance, because at 8-11 Indiana isn’t where it wanted to be to start this season. Rotation decisions aside, Duarte will be fine either as a starter or coming off the bench, as his ability to create off the dribble and defend can be useful in any situation. 

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