Midseason Rookie Report – 3/1

By: Avi Tyagi

This class really doesn’t need much of an introduction. It’s always had the hype surrounding it and remarkably, there are so many good, helpful rookies already. The depth in this group being apparent this early on is unique in itself. With that being said, based on what we’ve gotten from our midseason sample size, let us try to construct a midseason rookie prospect ranking. This is somewhat different from just stating who the best rookies are so far this year. That helps a prospect’s case but this is looking at it more through the lens of the draft, valuing the upside and the incredible outcomes some of these prospects might be likely to hit or at least show flashes of hitting. There are so many choices, but we’ll whittle it down to the top 15, split into 3 parts with 5 prospects each. Lets get started!

Searched for my 20-bill, found a million

Evan Mobley

Spoiler alert – Evan Mobley is really good. Mobley has been phenomenal out of the gate as the clear rookie of the year, a top tier forward, and the positive contributor who has most shaped his team’s season. He’s the key to their 3-bigs lineup and has pretty much solved the Cav’s sudoku puzzle of a roster. This team has one of the best net ratings and the best SRS score on basketball reference in the entire Eastern conference! His shot isn’t totally there, but it’s functional in the mid-range and he’s already showcasing dynamic high-low passing with Jarrett Allen. That two-man duo is swatting everything at the rim, making lineups with Garland, Kevin Love, and Cedi Osman much more playable. He’s also secretly been robust in the post and at the rim, likely using the offseason to add strength to his frame. Any growth in the shot, and we could be looking at one of the league’s best two-way forces.

Yup, not even a surprise

Cade Cunningham

For his part, Cade has pretty much been as advertised. Yes, the shooting is down but it’s not completely his fault. He’s pretty much having to self-generate everything on one of the worst shooting teams in the league. The free throw indicators are still there and his form is still solid. On the rare opportunities he actually gets to spot up, he’s hitting 39% of his shots, scoring 1.06 points per possession, excellent for half-court offense and at the 68th percentile mark overall (per NBA.com play-type data). League scoring policies are often quite lax in how they donate assists, but Cade’s passing is as good as expected. He’s been one of the top 2 passers in this class, despite a heavy load and defenses heavily shading towards him. The rim finishing is still on vacation and the turnovers (a concern in his pre-draft eval as well) still linger, but he’s been a positive guard defender already. He’s also not yet tried to win with strength or been heavily reliant on it to generate advantages. With increased physicality, the rim finishing will improve and mesh well with his craft. He slots in at number 2 here, but in the same plane as Mobley and can easily become the best player of the class.

Big Wings with Massive Upside (Jumper Developing):

Scottie Barnes and Jonathan Kuminga:

The upside with these two is pretty clear. Scottie has already massively improved his shot and is actually showing burgeoning capabilities as an athletic driver who can self-generate pull-ups. He’s hitting 43% of his pullups (per NBA.com’s tracking data), mostly coming from the midrange. He’s hitting 74% of his free throws now too, a big boost for a player with a questionable form pre-draft who was previously low-60s from the stripe. The incisive passing out of the post or as a roll-man still exists. There are the outlines of a star wing here, and if there’s one team that can coax it out of him, it might be Toronto. Also, bonus points for a fantastic motor and bringing the two-way intensity everyone hoped he would.

Kuminga barely gets to show it in limited playing time for one of the best teams in the league, but he is a menace already. Defensively, a lot of his footwork and on-ball indecisiveness have already been cleaned up. He’s already faced some of the hardest on-ball matchups like DeRozan, Lebron, and Chris Paul and found ways to succeed (opponents are shooting about as expected). It’s a small sample so far, but it mostly comes against quality offensive opponents, because he’s been able to handle those matchups. Off-ball, there’s still some ball watching and admiring of his surroundings from time to time, but it seems like phasing those out are a point of emphasis for the coaching staff alongside committing fewer reach fouls and increasing the consistency of his motor (sometimes lax in the G-League). We haven’t even gotten to the offense yet. When he catches the ball and gets to take the first two steps on his drive, his footwork is almost perfect from that point forward and he’s practically un-guardable. It’s hard for him to poster anyone because he’s typically already thrown 1 or 2 defenders back on his drive before he even reaches the rim. He’s shooting 68% near the rim on a mix of those magnificent drives and timely cuts to the rim in an offense catered to creating points off those. The one thing holding him back so far is the shot. Figures of 32% from 3 and mid-60s from the line need improvement. The form isn’t that bad, it just looks like it needs to be refurnished, not full-scale remodeled. His footwork on jumpers could improve and the elongated dip in his motion disconnects it from his momentum, likely adding to the variability on shots with closeouts. There’s the making of a quality jumper there however, and I think this is what the Warriors are counting on too. If he brings the motor they want, and focuses on the details, there’s a dominant player potentially here, with the upside to be the best in the class.

The Divisive 2-Guard

Jalen Green

The weirdest prospect on the weirdest team. The burst is real and he’s probably the second best (behind Kuminga) at just getting to the rim when he wants. Despite being small and skinny on an NBA court right now, he still draws a 29% free throw rate and converts 64% of his shots within 3 feet of the hoop. That makes up 27% of shot diet, with another 50% coming on 3s. Sounds like a Rockets player. This is despite a surrounding roster with often questionable passing and an inability to generate stops defensively, both of which limit the potential of his theoretical strength: transition opportunities. He’s definitely a contributing factor to the defensive ineffectiveness, mostly due to his stature and technique. On this team however, he’s not the one necessarily making the defensive mistakes. Around him, the effort levels often wane and the rim protection is scarcely available at all times. I expected him to be more responsible for the team’s defensive foibles than he actually seems to be. Again, he’s still very clearly a negative on that end, he still needs to develop more of a passing vision, and he will sometimes lose the ball by outrunning it. The flashes are still so strong, and the situation clouds most metrics’ evaluation of him more than his play warrants. The biggest concern is really the 3-point shot. Going back through high school, he’s always been a low-30s from 3 and upper-70s from the line. His form is still weird, with a low release point that likely causes a need to rush some jumpers and increases his rate of misses. Considering how much of his offense comes from self-generated 3s, he needs his percentages in at least the mid-30s. Otherwise, his premise as a positive impact player on a winning team becomes a tougher outcome to identify. Handoffs, spot-up attempts, and isolations fit best with his current skillset, and he’s been up to par on those play-types (the 72nd, 62nd and 61st percentiles respectively). Added strength should increase the potency of his excursions to the rim, and upgrade his defensive capabilities as well. There’s a big time 2-guard scorer potentially here.