The Whiteboard: Power ranking the NBA’s best rookies

Oklahoma City Thunder, The Whiteboard, Toronto Raptors

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It’s been more than a month since we last looked at the rookie class as a whole. Over that stretch, several rookies have continued to impress while Cade Cunningham made his debut and several others have already started to show improvement. As the first third of the season wraps up, here have been the most impressive rookies in this class.

Power ranking the NBA’s leading Rookie of the Year candidates

5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Wagner has quietly been terrific for the Magic this season, averaging 14.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game, shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 39.0 percent on 3-pointers. His two-way savvy and polish have helped buoy multiple Magic lineups — the team has been outscored by a league-worst 10.8 points per 100 possessions but that mark is just four full points better when Wagner has been on the floor. His off-ball shooting has been extremely important but he’s also flashed significant upside as a secondary creator, navigating screens and making reads and passes that are a step above just finding the open man.

The Magic are still very much in flux and what they get from Jalen Suggs when he returns to the lineup may be the biggest determining factor for their immediate ceiling. But Wagner looks very much like a high-level complementary player, one who can help them build towards being a playoff contender.

4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Giddey is still working on his shooting and finishing and those skill areas will ultimately be the difference between being a star and a high-level role player. He’s shooting just 39.4 percent from the floor and 24.7 percent from beyond the arc. However, he’s making up for it with really significant playmaking and his well-rounded box score line — 10.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.0 steals per game — hints at the kind of player he could be.

The team’s effective field goal percentage is noticeably higher with Giddey on the floor, even with his own scoring inefficiency. It’s been an ugly season for the Thunder but Giddey has been one of the few consistent bright spots.

3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Cunningham got off to an extremely rocky start, missing five of the team’s first six games and shooting 28.4 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from beyond the arc in the first five games he actually played. But even with his shooting struggles his playmaking, defense and versatility were clear and he’s started to turn the corner on getting the ball in the basket. Cunningham is now averaging 15.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game and has shot 46.3 percent from the floor and 49.0 percent from beyond the arc over his last seven games. When he is hitting his pull-up 3s consistently, like this, he’s borderline unguardable.

As his shooting continues to stabilize it will open up the rest of his floor game and make things easier for him as a creator. Cunningham has found his rhythm right now and the rest of the season should let him show why he was the No. 1 pick.

2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

The Raptors drafted Barnes for his defense and playmaking versatility but he’s already developing incredibly fast, improving as a shooter, which was his primary pre-draft question mark. Barnes is averaging 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. But he’s also making 34.0 percent of his 3-pointers, knocking down catch-and-shoot opportunities but also finding ways to score inside the arc, creating off the dribble for himself.

If Barnes can consistently create opportunities like that his shooting becomes a less important concern and you can see a pathway for him to play a Giannis-like role on offense, scoring efficiently in volume around the basket and working as a primary ball-handler.

1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Mobley has been the most impressive rookie in the league pretty much from opening night, showing off defensive ability and awareness that is remarkably advanced for a rookie and a diverse offensive game with star potential. He’s a very strong passer from the elbows, his face-up game is a legitimate weapon and he has range on his jumper even though it doesn’t quite stretch to the 3-point line yet. But defense is where he has really shone brightest — totaling 67 steals and blocks to just 52 personal fouls so far. His ability to protect the rim and defend in space is what has made the Cavaliers’ twin towers lineups work. Watch here as he picks up Zach LaVine in transition, stays in front of him on the drive and keeps his feet to get the block without fouling.

Mobley is averaging 14.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.9 blocks per game, on a 54.5 true shooting percentage. He’s helped the Cavs push their way into the playoff race and it looks like he’s just getting started.

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