The 2021 NBA Draft class was renowned for its potential superstar talent in players like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs, to name a few.
We saw most of the rookies make their first splash during NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, and again in the 2021 NBA preseason. But with exhibition games behind us and the 2021-22 regular season upon us, we’ve finally had the chance to see what most of the first-year players could be capable of during their inaugural campaign.
There are a few exceptions, of course, with the biggest one being the absence of No. 1 overall pick Cunningham, who has yet to make his NBA debut for the Detroit Pistons due to an ankle injury suffered during training camp. The latest suggests that Cunningham could return as soon as Saturday, Oct. 30 when the Pistons return home from their road trip, but that has not been finalized.
MORE: Cade Cunningham injury update: When will the No. 1 pick make his debut?
Another rookie who has yet to take the floor this regular season is No. 7 overall pick Jonathan Kuminga, who suffered a strained right patella tendon during the Golden State Warriors preseason. He has been cleared for full contact practice and is expected to be re-evaluated on Friday, Oct. 29, meaning his return could also be on the horizon.
As for rookies who have played, who has shined the brightest through the first week-plus of the new season?
2021 NBA Rookie Round Up
Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Since we can’t begin with the No. 1 pick, let’s go with the No. 2 pick.
Green got out to a slow start to his NBA career, only scoring nine points in each of his first two games. He shot 32.0 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from 3, failing to get many easy looks.
In his third game, we caught a glimpse of the prolific scorer Green was hyped up to be prior to the 2021 NBA Draft. The G League Ignite product exploded against the Boston Celtics, pouring in his first NBA 30-point game by way of knocking down eight 3-pointers on 10 attempts. He got cooking early, burying six 3s by halftime, going shot-for-shot with All-Star forward Jayson Tatum.
In the second half, the 19-year-old gave us a taste of his elite shot creation skills…
…and his electrifying leaping ability.
Green’s 14.5 points per game ranks third among the rookie class and as he continues to get comfortable on an NBA floor, be on the lookout for more high-scoring performances and SportsCenter Top 10-worthy highlights.
Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
On to the No. 3 pick – Mobley has been even better than advertised.
The 7-footer already debunked any questions surrounding his fit alongside another franchise corner in Jarrett Allen, playing power forward effectively to form a promising, young frontcourt tandem.
It was known that Mobley would be a quality rim protector and help-side defender around the paint, but it was his footwork and versatility that set him apart from other bigs, praised to be able to hold his own on the perimeter. It took all of three games for that to come to fruition, locking down All-Star guard Trae Young when left on an island off of a switch.
It has only been four games, but Mobley is the only rookie to rank in the top-five in the five major counting stats among his draft classmates: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. Averaging 13.8 points, 8.6 rebounds (1st), 2.2 assists (7th), 1.2 steals (3rd) and 2.0 blocks (1st) per game to go with 72 contested shots (!) — the 20-year-old looks like a jack-of-all-trades.
His 17-point, nine-rebound, six-assist debut was impressive enough, but he already outdid himself with his first-career double-double of 17 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to boot.
If the season ended today, Mobley would be your Rookie of the Year. Only 78 more games to go.
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Barnes was inserted into the Raptors starting lineup from Day 1 while Pascal Siakam continues his shoulder rehabilitation, but it’s going to be tough for head coach Nick Nurse to remove the No. 4 pick from his spot upon the All-Star forward’s return.
Barnes is already impact games with his infectious energy and defensive prowess, and he’s looking even more aggressive offensively than we ever saw during his one season at Florida State.
He has scored double figures in every game so far, as his 17.0 points per game ranks second among the rookie class. His breakout 25-point game against the Celtics was a sight to see, as the 20-year-old flashed quick improvement on his biggest perceived weakness – his jumpshot.
He’s only shooting 1-for-6 from 3, but showing the confidence and willingness to take outside shots bodes well for his future in that area. He’s dominated the glass – his 8.2 rebounds per game leads the rookie class – and he’s done a ton of damage by creating second-chance points, corralling 17 offensive rebounds (tied with Robert Williams III for fifth-most in the league).
As it stands so far, it looks like the Raptors did just fine for themselves in going with Barnes at No. 4.
Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
No. 5 overall pick Suggs hasn’t had the start to his rookie campaign that most would have thought.
The expectation was that the Magic would hand the keys to the franchise and the team’s offence over to Suggs, but that hasn’t exactly been the case. He’s started in all four of his appearances, but with the emergence of last year’s No. 15 overall pick Cole Anthony, Suggs has been forced to share the spotlight.
The Gonzaga product went a combined 10-for-40 (25.0%) from the field and 2-for-15 (13.3%) in his first three games, but he did tally eight assists in one of those contests. He started to look more comfortable in his fourth game, going for 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting from 3, but there are still some growing pains to be worked through as he tries to navigate ball handling duties alongside Anthony and another second-year guard in RJ Hampton.
The best is surely still yet to come for Suggs, who will continue to see plenty of opportunity as Orlando looks toward the future as a rebuilding team.
Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Through the first week-plus, Giddey looks like a player who already has one professional season under his belt.
After winning Rookie of the Year in the NBL last season, the Australian guard has been calm, cool and collected, stating his case as the best passer in his draft class. Averaging a rookie-leading 5.6 assists per game, he has started in all five games for the Thunder, taking over as the team’s floor general.
In their comeback win over the Lakers, Giddey became the third-youngest player to ever record 10 assists in an NBA game, trailing only LeBron James in the record books.
Even with minimal established talent around him, Giddey has found a way to elevate his teammates. The connection with franchise cornerstone Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is beginning to develop, with plays like the one below being a taste of things to come for Oklahoma City’s future.
Gilgeous-Alexander will be the biggest beneficiary of playing alongside a playmaker of Giddey’s caliber, but he’s done a strong job getting everyone involved. This skip pass to Darius Bazley is a thing of beauty, even appearing to catch his teammate and roll-man Derrick Favors by surprise.
(For what it’s worth, Bazley probably should have just shot the corner 3, but hats off to him for finishing at the rim so Giddey still earned the assist).
That game against the 76ers was Giddey’s best in the NBA so far, going for 19 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals. He’s proved his strengths as a passer and rebounder – averaging 6.2 boards per game – but his scoring is still a work-in-progress, only scoring double figures twice.
Nonetheless, it has been an encouraging start to the No. 6 pick’s rookie season.
Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
They call him “Off Night” for a reason.
Mitchell put the league on notice when he won co-Summer League MVP and although his offensive game is coming along slowly, he has already established himself as a terrorizing on-ball defender.
The No. 9 overall pick has drawn some of the toughest assignments the NBA has to offer, marking All-Stars like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell.
According to NBA stats, he held Lillard to just four points on 1-of-7 shooting from the field in 19.1 partial possessions and he held Mitchell to six points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field in 20.1 partial possessions. He also forced Mitchell to turn the ball over twice, one of which was as tenacious of a defensive clip you can find.
Give me that.
It speaks volumes that Mitchell can already be trusted up against superstars like the aforementioned trio and it will be remarkable to watch him match up against some of the league’s best perimeter scorers as his rookie season goes on.
Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Duarte wasn’t a household name like most of the others on this list heading into the 2021-22 season, but he had by far the best debut out of anyone in his rookie class.
Cracking the starting lineup for the Pacers, Duarte made the most of his opportunity by going off for 27 points on six 3-pointers in an overtime loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Without Duarte’s efforts, Indiana may not have even reached OT.
The Sporting News’ Micah Adams put the rookie’s first game into perspective, stating that only 12 players in history scored more points than Duarte’s 27 in their NBA debut.
And the Oregon product hasn’t cooled off much since then.
Duarte has solidified his spot in Indiana’s starting lineup, averaging a rookie class-leading 18.6 points to go with 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game. He’s shooting a blistering 41.7 percent from 3, wasting no time to live up to his 3-and-D expectations.
At 24-years-old, Duarte was the oldest player in the 2021 NBA Draft. The Pacers took a swing on a player who could make an immediate impact with the No. 13 pick and so far, it has paid off.