Final B/R Staff NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings for 2021-22 SeasonApril 7, 2022
Final B/R Staff NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings for 2021-22 Season
Not every NBA rookie class hits the ground running, but the 2021-22 batch of big league freshmen sprinted out of the gate at Olympic-level speeds.
Their pace has only increased throughout the campaign, which sets up an award race that's somehow both fascinating and, based on this exercise at least, perhaps relatively straightforward.
There is no shortage of deserving candidates, yet there also seems to be a clear top tier. And within that exclusive group, there might be a defined hierarchy, too.
Bleacher Report asked 11 NBA experts to vote for their top five Rookie of the Year candidates from this season.
Each first-place vote is worth five points. A second-place vote is worth four points; that pattern continues down to fifth place, which is worth one point.
At the end, we tallied the votes, calculated the points and established our definitive top-five ranking.
This is one part of a B/R staff series ranking the top five most deserving candidates for major NBA awards this season. Special thanks to the following experts for their votes: A. Sherrod Blakely, Andy Bailey, Dan Favale, Eric Pincus, Grant Hughes, Greg Swartz, Jake Fischer, Jonathan Wasserman, Mo Dakhil, Sean Highkin and Zach Buckley.
5. Herbert Jones, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
The lone second-rounder—and only non-lottery pick—to crack the top five, Herbert Jones rapidly transitioned to the Association soon after the Pels smartly snatched him up with last summer's 35th overall selection.
New Orleans gave him garbage-time work in the season opener and a starting gig for his second outing. He has been a lineup mainstay every since and is one of only seven rookies to top the 2,000-minute mark.
Defense is his calling card—and the reason "Not on Herb!" became a rallying cry in the Crescent City—and it's where he has made his biggest imprint. The Pels have entrusted him with a top-10 matchup difficulty, per BBall Index, and he has responded with elite defensive statistics. FiveThirtyEight credits him with the second-best defensive RAPTOR among rookies. He ranks top-50 overall with 2.6 defensive win shares, the same number produced by 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green.
To Jones' credit, though, he has proved to be more than a one-way specialist. He ranks 15th among qualified rookies with 9.6 points per game, has already hit more threes (56) than he did during his four seasons at Alabama (34) and nearly doubles his 1.3 turnovers with 2.2 assists per outing.
Total Voting Points: 9
4. Franz Wagner, SF, Orlando Magic
Billed as a safe selection before the draft, Franz Wagner has made good on that promise. He opened his career with eight consecutive double-digit outings—shooting 50-plus percent in five of those contests—and has been cruising at high altitude ever since.
Despite being unable to legally down an adult beverage until August, he moves with a veteran's savvy and already displays a strong knack for the sport's subtleties. He ranks in the 72nd percentile or better on isolations, off-ball cuts and shots off screens. He is one of those players who never seems rushed, yet consistently remains a step ahead of the defense.
His statistical case is strong on every front—volume and efficiency, traditional stats and advanced analytics. He paces all first-year players in games (79) and points (1,197) while sitting seventh or better in boards (356, fifth), dimes (231, sixth), steals (68, fourth) and blocks (34, seventh). Among the top 15 rookies in scoring, he's the only one shooting at least 45 percent from the field and 35 percent from range.
If the season has taught us anything about Wagner, it's that the "safe prospect" label might have undersold his star potential. He has already scored 20-plus points 17 times, including the rookie-best 38 he dropped on the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 28.
Total Voting Points: 18
3. Cade Cunningham, PG, Detroit Pistons
Give top pick Cade Cunningham a different first chapter to his rookie story, and perhaps he would've played his way into the No. 1 spot by this point. Instead, his rocky start—plagued first by an ankle injury that robbed him of the preseason and five of the Pistons' first six games, and then by some erratic shooting—left him as the bronze medalist on all 11 of our ballots.
One could argue, though, that he has flashed the highest upside of this entire freshman crop.
Once he got his legs under him and found his rhythm, he started carving up opposing defenses with impressive regularity. Since the All-Star break, he has dished out a rookie-best 6.3 assists per contest and trails only No. 2 pick Jalen Green in scoring with 21.3 points per game while hitting 46.9 percent of his field goals and 81.5 percent of his free throws.
For the season, he has averaged a best-in-class 17.3 points while ranking fifth or better in assists (5.5, second), steals (1.2, tied for third) and rebounds (5.5, tied for fifth). Those are award-worthy numbers in a lot of seasons, but it just so happens that this one features two other first-year hoopers who got off to faster starts and have contributed more to winning.
Total Voting Points: 33
2. Scottie Barnes, PF, Toronto Raptors
Long viewed as the runner-up in this race, Scottie Barnes did, in fact, wind up in second place.
However, the strong close to his (and Toronto's) season helped him narrow the gap to the point that he swiped the only two first-place votes that didn't go to our actual winner.
There's a beyond-his-years polish to Barnes' well-rounded skill set, which might already feature just a single weak spot: shaky outside shooting (30.1 percent on relatively low volume). Otherwise, his game features very few cracks on either end of the floor, as he simultaneously serves as a five-position defender, a 6'9" playmaker, an ignitable scorer and an active rebounder.
More than a few metrics paint Barnes as the top performer in this class. Among high-volume 2021 draftees, he holds down the No. 1 spot in value over replacement player (1.9), box plus/minus (1.1) and win shares per 48 minutes (0.125). He is the lone rookie—and one of just 16 players overall—to average at least 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal.
Toronto has ranked among the NBA's elite since the calendar flipped to 2022, posting the sixth-highest winning percentage and ninth-best net rating. Barnes, who paces the team in total minutes, has his fingerprints all over that success.
Total Voting Points: 46
1. Evan Mobley, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Evan Mobley debuted with a 17-point, nine-rebound, six-assist gem, nabbed the season's first Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month honor and never looked back.
His ability to build and then maintain that momentum is the reason why he relatively walked away with this award, grabbing nine of 11 first-place votes and finishing second on the other two ballots.
His presence has proved nothing short of transformative for Northeast Ohio's finest. The Cavs came into this campaign with zero expectations (oddsmakers set the over/under at 27.5 wins), and they'll exit with at least a play-in tournament ticket and their first winning season sans LeBron James since 1997-98. They had last season's 25th-ranked defense and have since rocketed all the way to sixth.
This turnaround isn't all about Mobley, obviously, but he has done nearly as much of the heavy lifting as All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. Mobley is the ideal defender in the modern game, as he is equally comfortable protecting the paint as he is switching out on the perimeter. Offensively, he's a three-ball away from offering that same type of elite versatility.
He leads all rookies in boards (8.3) and blocks (1.6), sits fifth in points (14.9) and is the only one of the top 10 rookie scorers with a 50-plus field-goal percentage (50.6). To highlight his impact on winning, he paces the 11 rookies who have logged at least 1,500 minutes in raw plus/minus (plus-75). Despite contesting the league's fourth-most shots, he has only been whistled for 2.2 fouls per game.
Full-fledged, two-way stardom could await him in the near future. For now, he'll have to settle for being the best baller in his class.
Total Voting Points: 53
*Also receiving votes: Jalen Green (6)
Statistics are accurate through Tuesday's games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.