Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from 2021 NBA Rookies so FarJanuary 6, 2022
Biggest Surprises and Disappointments from 2021 NBA Rookies so Far
The 2021-22 NBA rookie class looks stronger than initially advertised, mostly because of a handful of surprising starts.
There haven't been many disappointments.
Rookies whose production has been more expected than surprising (based on predraft strengths and rankings) include Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey and Indiana Pacers guard Chris Duarte. Slow starts by Memphis Grizzlies forward Ziaire Williams and San Antonio Spurs guard Josh Primo should have been expected.
Surprise: Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers, PF/C)
Biggest surprise: Scoring
Though Cade Cunningham was the consensus No. 1 pick, there still seemed to be a path for Evan Mobley to develop into the class' best player. It was just difficult to imagine him being this productive and impactful at 19 years old.
After shooting 34.9 percent in summer league and 43.9 percent in preseason, Mobley is averaging 14.7 points on 50.1 percent for the 21-17 Cleveland Cavaliers.
His defensive activity is less surprising. Shot-blocking and switching figured to be his rookie calling card. But not scoring. He's put up at least 20 points in three-of-four games since returning from the COVID-19 protocols. Despite predraft questions about his 215-pound frame, he's shooting 74.2 percent in the restricted area. He's making 53.8 percent of his post-ups after making 39.5 percent of them at USC.
Mobley shot well off the dribble last year (46.9 percent), but it's still somewhat shocking to see a 7'0" rookie hit 45.6 percent of his pullups. And though it was reasonable to expect a limited three-point shooter in 2021-22, he's hit more threes (15) in 29 NBA games than he did in 33 NCAA games (12).
The fact that his scoring (and passing) have been this effective this quickly feels scary when thinking about his special defensive upside—not to mention the room he has to improve his body and range.
Surprise: Franz Wagner (Orlando Magic, SF/PF)
Biggest surprise: Scoring
Franz Wagner leading all rookies in scoring has to be one of the most surprising storylines of the NBA season.
Versatility was his selling point out of college, but it wasn't expected to translate to 30-point games. He reached 20 points six times in two years at Michigan, yet over the Orlando Magic's past 12 games, he's averaging 20.3 points.
Versatility is still the name of Wagner's game, as he's generating offense in a variety of ways—spot-up shooting and attacking closeouts, transition, cuts, post-ups, ball-screen driving, etc. He's a threat to defenses in every off-ball situation and occasionally pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions.
With long strides, advanced footwork and a good feel for when to decelerate, Wagner is making 4.2 shots per game inside 10 feet. Additionally, he's shot better from three (37.0 percent) than he did in college (34.3 percent).
Wagner is averaging 15.9 points without a reliable pull-up (33.7 percent, 2.2 attempts per game), which suggests there are still more levels of scoring upside to unlock.
Disappointment: Jalen Suggs (Orlando Magic, PG)
Most disappointing: Inefficiency
Inefficient offense and bad luck (thumb injury) have led to a disappointing start for Jalen Suggs.
Before the injury 21 games into his rookie season, the No. 5 pick was shooting just 33.9 percent with 75 assists to 67 turnovers.
The 25.5 three-point percentage was less surprising, given his low-volume shooting from distance (33.7 percent on 3.5 attempts) at Gonzaga. Still, he graded in the 93rd percentile on dribble jump shots last season, and he's made just 20.0 percent of his pull-ups as a rookie.
A mix of stiff handles for creation and some decision-making issues have also shown up. Although, alongside breakout guard Cole Anthony, Suggs has also spotted up more (20.9 frequency) off the ball than he did in college (13.8 percent frequency), so an adjustment period seems reasonable.
Surprise: Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors, PF)
Biggest surprise: Scoring/shooting
Compared to his one season at Florida State, Scottie Barnes is scoring a healthy 5.2 more points per game (15.5) while shooting significantly better from three (35.9 percent) and the free-throw line (72.7 percent).
He's hit the 20-point mark seven times after reaching it once in college, and he's more than doubled his three-point makes (23) from a year ago.
The flashes of pull-ups (43.7 percent) are most surprising, since he shot just 4-of-19 on dribble jumpers as a freshman.
Despite limited self-creation skill, he's still finding ways to generate quality scoring chances using his ball-handling and length. Opposing defenses have had trouble containing his long strides and reach off transition and drives, and he's shown decent touch using runners and floaters outside the restricted area.
Surprise: Herb Jones (New Orleans Pelicans, SF)
Biggest surprise: Scoring
Herb Jones' 26 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers was presumably the most he scored since high school, which he last attended in 2017.
He hadn't even reached 20 points in a college game until his senior year at Alabama. His junior season, he was 1-of-14 from three. He's already made 17 with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Defense was always Jones' signature strength, and that's still the case with size, length and instincts that create versatility and turnovers. He's one of five NBA players averaging at least a steal and a block in fewer than 30 minutes per game.
Last season, Jones made a sizable jump as a playmaker and passer, but it seemed improbable for the No. 35 pick to give New Orleans any consistent scoring production right away. Aside from the surprise shooting, Jones has been quick to hit gaps as a driver and cutter while capitalizing on open-floor opportunities.
Disappointment: Trey Murphy III (New Orleans Pelicans, SF)
Most disappointment: Scoring/shooting
After shooting 43.4 percent from three at Virginia, 44.0 percent during summer league and 53.1 percent in summer league, Trey Murphy III is at 34.0 percent through his first 34 NBA games. The New Orleans Pelicans' first-round pick quickly fell behind the team's second-round pick, Herb Jones, on the depth chart.
A limited shot-creator, Murphy is mostly a one-dimensional offensive player, so even average shooting won't be enough to justify regular minutes. Of his 131 field-goal attempts, 97 have come from behind the arc.
One of the biggest risers of the predraft process, Murphy is only averaging 3.9 points in 13.4 minutes per game for New Orleans. Murphy figures to eventually find his stroke, but he should have been able to earn more time and production for a team with league's fourth-worst record.
Surprise: Ayo Dosunmu (Chicago Bulls, PG/SG)
Biggest surprise: Efficiency and role
Ayo Dosunmu fell to the second round, but he's risen up the depth chart for the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference.
He's earned 18.6 minutes per game by adding defensive energy while capitalizing opportunistically on offense as an interchangeable guard/wing.
He's guarded starters and reserves with visible intensity and a 6'10" wingspan. And predraft concerns about whether he could create enough separation haven't affected Dosunmu's value in his current low-usage role. He's making 58.2 percent of his twos and 41.3 percent of his threes. And despite lacking standout explosion, he's finishing 60.5 percent of his attempts inside 10 feet. As a the lead guard at Illinois, he only shot 23.8 percent on runners and 55.0 percent around the basket.
Dosunmu ultimately landed in a perfect situation, where he can play to his versatility and motor at both ends instead of having to add value as a creator and scorer.
Disappointment: Corey Kispert (Washington Wizards, SF)
Biggest disappointment: Shooting
Years of shooting accuracy was the primary selling point for Corey Kispert before the draft. He didn't offer any translatable creation skill out of Gonzaga, so it's been disappointing to watch the rookie make just 24 of his first 81 three-point attempts (29.6 percent).
Turning 23 years old in March, Kispert was supposed to be one of the most NBA-ready rookies, especially considering he'd be playing to his strengths as a spot-up shooter. Through 32 games, he's averaging just 16.4 minutes and 5.3 points on 41.8 percent.
Fortunately for the Washington Wizards, they've received solid production from newcomers Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Kispert has been more effective as of late, however, having scored 20 points against the New York Knicks on December 23 and reaching double-figures in three of Washington's past four games. It will be interesting to see if the recent production signals a turning point as Rui Hachimura nears his return and the Wizards try to push for the playoffs.
Surprise: Austin Reaves (Los Angeles Lakers, SG)
Biggest surprise: Efficiency and role
Austin Reaves looks like the winning undrafted pickup of 2021.
A game-winner at the end of a 15-point, seven-rebound line against the Dallas Mavericks has been the highlight of his season. But Reaves has given the Los Angeles Lakers efficient secondary scoring, capable shooting and pesky defending off the bench all season.
Wisely picking his spots and executing with high-level skill, he's making 67.7 percent of his two-point attempts. Given his athletic limitations, his 30.5 three-point percentage last year raised red flags, but he's making 37.8 percent of his threes this year. And given his career 84.4 percent free-throw mark throughout college, it's becoming more likely his struggles from deep last year were the result of a high-usage role that led to difficult, self-created attempts. At Oklahoma, he took 133 half-court pull-ups to just 27 catch-and-shoot jumpers.
His game is better suited for the energy/versatility role he's playing on a Laker team that needs high-IQ, two-way role players.
Playing Time Disappointments
James Bouknight (Charlotte Hornets, SG)
Coach James Borrego hasn't trusted Bouknight. He's just 11-of-35 inside the arc (31.4 percent), and though his 39.3 percent three-point looks good, six of his 11 made threes came in one game against the Sacramento Kings.
It's tough to be critical of a 21-year-old playing 8.4 minutes per game. He just hasn't proven to be sharp enough executing as a creator or reliable in a catch-and-shoot role.
Moses Moody (Golden State Warriors, SG/SF)
Moody seemed like a fit and NBA-ready option for a Warriors team that's missed Klay Thompson. Andrew Wiggins' rise, Jordan Poole's breakout and the addition of Gary Payton II have made it difficult for the lottery pick to earn minutes. He hasn't exactly helped himself, however, having missed 23 of his first 27 three-point attempts despite being billed as a shot-maker out of Arkansas.
Assuming Moody's role will be limited throughout the season and he isn't able to show much as a rookie, it will be interesting to see how Golden State uses and values him. He's currently behind role-playing veterans like Damion Lee, Otto Porter Jr. and Andre Iguodala, and coach Steve Kerr will likely continue favoring veterans during the Warriors' window to contend.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Synergy Sports, Sports-Reference.com