Another week, another NBA Rookie Rankings, and this time around we saw some incredibly strong defensive performances from the first-year guys. I've said it before, but this might be the strongest defensive rookie class we've had in a long time, and it's been impressive to watch these young players hold their own against some of the best in the league. If this is how rookies like Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Davion Mitchell are starting in the league on defense, then I can only imagine how good they'll be in their prime as some of the best defensive players in the NBA.
Moving on to this week's rankings, remember that these will reflect a rookie's performance on a week-to-week basis only, and not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year standings. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top-performing rookies around the league.
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The Cavaliers went undefeated last week with huge wins over the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, and Mobley certainly played a factor in that four-game win streak. Against the Bulls, Mobley recorded the first five-block game by a rookie this season, and my goodness it was a sight to see:
Mobley smothered the Bulls in the paint, and made every shot at the rim incredibly difficult for a Chicago team that usually has no issue in that area. The defensive effort the Cavaliers showed against a top-tier team like the Bulls just magnifies how important Mobley is on that end of the floor. His versatility stretches further than just a rim protector, which is typically the job of frontcourt-mate Jarrett Allen. Mobley can get out on the wing and guard, and because of his length there's a good chance he's going to impact jump shots just as he does with shots in the paint.
If you want to know just how crazy of an impact Mobley has made on Cleveland's defense, consider the Cavaliers have the second-best defensive unit this season behind just the Golden State Warriors. Compare that to the 25th-ranked defense Cleveland had a season ago, with largely the same roster, and it's not difficult to see the reason for the significant improvement on that end of the floor.
Barnes made sure Mobley wasn't the only rookie enjoying a five-block game when he faced the Sacramento Kings this past week:
He was wreaking absolute havoc on the Kings in the paint, and that's just a fraction of what he did in that win. Barnes also finished with 16 points, four rebounds and two assists to cap off another consistent week. It feels like every week a different aspect of Barnes' game is shining through, whether that's improved 3-point shooting which he's displayed the past couple weeks, consistent scoring or tough defense against some of the league's top players. Barnes impacts the game in so many ways that every moment he's on the floor, the rookie is doing something positive to help his team win.
Although it was in a losing effort, Wagner put up two straight 20-point performances this past week against the Lakers and the Clippers. Even better, it also happened on a back-to-back for the Magic, which makes it that much more impressive for the rookie.
While his scoring has always been there since the start of the season, what's been most impressive about Wagner's game over the past few weeks is his improvement as a passer. Since the start of December, Wagner's averaging 4.2 assists per game. That's almost double the amount he averaged over 15 games in November (2.7), and a significant improvement from the 1.9 assists he was averaging in October. Wagner's improvement in that area of his game indicates his development over the past two months this season, which is great news for the Magic.
Cunningham's scoring has broken through in a major way, and it feels as though it's going to be the norm for him to average 20 points a night for the rest of the season. He did have one poor shooting performance in a loss to the Pelicans this past week, where he went 5 of 17 from the field, and 2 of 7 from deep. But that can be chalked up to a poor shooting night, especially since he followed that up with going 9 of 18 from the field and 5 of 8 from long range on his way to tying his career high of 26 points. That type of inconsistency is to be expected from a rookie, and the silver lining is that Cunningham's having fewer bad shooting nights than he had even just a couple weeks ago.
Mitchell had Darius Garland locked up with nowhere to go. Even a weak screen from Allen couldn't save him. Mitchell predicted every dribble, hesitation and crossover and it led to Garland getting an offensive foul call for using his forearm to create just a sliver of space away from Mitchell to get downhill. Just world-class defense from Mitchell on that possession. Aside from that airtight defense, Mitchell had a bounce-back week in terms of efficiency after shooting 35.5 percent from both the field and long range. It's an encouraging sign to see from the rookie, because if he isn't hitting his shots like the Kings need him to, then all that great work on defense won't be as worthwhile if he's a black hole on offense.
The Rockets are really starting to utilize Sengun to the best of his abilities, and it's mirroring how the Nuggets use reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Sengun's passing ability out of the post is ridiculous, and each week he just keeps outdoing himself in the types of passes he's getting off to teammates:
His patience when he gets the ball is unique for a center. He'll hold the ball for as long as he needs to before he sees an opportunity develop to get his teammate a great look, and it's working for the Rockets, who have started to turn their season around.
Over the past two weeks the Charlotte Hornets have had five players in the league's health and safety protocols, and it allowed for the No. 11 overall pick to get some serious run time in the process. Bouknight showed off his 3-point shooting, solid off-ball movement and flashed potential of being able to create for himself. His 24-point outing against the Kings this past week was the highlight, and it shows the Hornets that when needed, Bouknight can step up to the challenge.
Thomas has seen his role increase due to injuries on the Nets, and he's gotten high praise out of teammates Kevin Durant for his play recently. After Brooklyn's win over the Hawks, in which Thomas had 11 point and six rebounds and finished the night a team-high plus-16, Durant had nothing but good things to say about the rookie. "I like that he wants the ball and wants that moment to relieve pressure off me and James [Harden]. I love playing with Cam and being around him every single day. It's good to be around that energy." With Brooklyn now having five players in the league's health and safety protocols as of Tuesday, Thomas' minutes will only increase, so expect to see more of him in the coming weeks.
The Clippers beat the Celtics this past week without Paul George, and it was all because of Brandon Boston Jr.'s play off the bench. The 51st pick in the 2021 NBA Draft put up 27 bench points for L.A. in an eye-opening performance for the Clippers. He was knocking down 3s, taking defenders off the dribble to get to the rim and executing in transition. Although Boston didn't have the same luck in his following two performances of the week -- a seven-point outing vs. the Magic, and going scoreless against the Suns -- he still showed great potential as a role player.
Duarte started the week strong with a 23-point performance against the Knicks where he also racked up six assists and three rebounds. But the week progressively got worse, and ended with a 1 for 6 shooting performance for just three points in a loss to the Warriors. But then again, not many teams have played incredibly well against the top-ranked defense in the league. Still, he also struggled against a porous defensive team in the Mavericks, going 2 of 10 from field. But Duarte's game is about more than just scoring, and his defense still holds up on the other end of the floor. With the Pacers potentially looking at trading some of their franchise players, we could see more opportunity open up for Duarte down the line, but for now, he's still making in impact on the game in several ways, even when he's having a poor shooting night.