One of the rites of passage for some of the top rookies in the NBA is competing in the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend. While first-year players will still get that opportunity this season, the event itself is going to look far different than we've ever seen it before. The league recently announced a new structure for the Rising Stars Challenge for All-Star Weekend, and with this crop of rookies it should be an intriguing event.
Only 12 rookies will make the cut for the event, which is now a three-game mini-tournament with four teams instead of the USA vs. World structure we've seen the last few years. It's going to take away a bit of the excitement we would see in the traditional 5-on-5 matchup, but with rookies and sophomores eligible for the game, some of these four-man teams could be incredibly elite.
Just think of Cade Cunningham on the same team as the reigning Rookie of the Year winner LaMelo Ball. Or Josh Giddey feeding Anthony Edwards ridiculous dimes. Another added bonus is because each team will be drafted by four members of the 75th Anniversary Team, we'll get to see which rookie is the first called off the board. The league hasn't announced which rookies will be participating in the Rising Stars Challenge yet, but an announcement should come soon with All-Star Weekend just around the corner on Feb. 18.
Let's move on to this week's rankings. Remember 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.
In a matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers this past week, Cunningham was held scoreless in the first half, as fellow rookie Evan Mobley showed off his versatility on both ends of the floor. The Cavs were up 55-49 and were showing Detroit why they have the fourth-best record in the East. But then the third quarter started, and Cunningham was hitting his shots, finding his teammates in open spots and carrying the Pistons on his back to a surprising win. The No. 1 overall pick finished the game with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, his second-career triple-double that featured this beautiful dime.
That's just elite court vision. Not many guys can pull off that pass, and the ones who can have several years on Cunningham in the league, so for a rookie to perfectly execute that pass through traffic is tough. Cunningham just keeps improving every month, and after a slow start to his rookie campaign he's quickly climbed up the Rookie of the Year race. Though Mobley has the more complete resume thus far, Cunningham is starting to bump some guys down the list for that award with every dominant performance he's turning in.
What's even more impressive is he's starting to turn in more efficient performances, too. Over 15 games in the month of January, Cunningham is shooting the ball at a 42 percent clip. That percentage still needs to be higher for as much as Detroit will depend on him to score, but it's a marked improvement from when he was shooting just 37 percent over the same amount of games in November. His 3-point shooting has also seen a positive improvement. He's turning in fewer performances where he's going 1 of 6 or 1 of 5 from deep, and shot 36 percent from beyond the arc in January. We already know he's got the passing and rebounding down well, but his ability to score efficiently will vault him into a higher tier amongst his peers, and he's shown the ability to do that over the past two months.
Barnes' performance against the Miami Heat might be one of his best of the season. The Raptors outlasted the Heat in a triple-overtime thriller in which all five of Toronto's starters eclipsed the 50-minute mark, including Barnes. It was a nail-biting affair, one in which Barnes' two clutch free throws with two seconds left sent the game to the first overtime. That alone is no small feat for a rookie to pull off on the road against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.
When you zoom out and take stock of the rest of his performance, you realize that those two clutch free throws were just icing on the cake of what was already a sterling game from the rookie. Barnes held his own against the likes of Bam Adebayo and PJ Tucker on defense, and he once again showed how dangerous he is as a scorer getting downhill in transition.
He makes smart decisions in attacking these mismatches in transition, like the one above against 6-foot-3 guard Gabe Vincent, as well as this one against Tyler Herro who had no chance slowing Barnes down as he's barreling toward the basket.
Barnes has been an impact player all season long for Toronto, and to see him excel in a tough, grueling game like the one against the Heat just adds to how special and important he's been for the Raptors.
Wagner was a finalist for Eastern Conference Player of the Week for leading the Magic to a 2-1 record with standout performances in each game. Wagner's been so good for the Magic that in late-game situations Orlando is calling his number to get a bucket. Like this one against the Mavericks that put the Magic ahead for good with a minute to go:
This isn't an easy shot by any means, either. Wagner worked his way through three Dallas defenders to get that look at the rim and he managed to finish strong and controlled for the shot to fall. If you've been watching him at all this season you know that's not a surprising shot for him to make. Over 44 percent of his shots come at the rim, and he's making them at a 58 percent rate, which admittedly should be higher for someone of his size, but, he's not like a traditional 6-9 forward who is going to get passes under the basket from a guard for bunny shots around the rim. Wagner creates his own looks and attacks the rim which results in tougher shots.
Giddey made some more history this past week, when he became the youngest player since LeBron James to reach 500 points, 200 rebounds and 200 assists in their first 45 games. He also set the Thunder's rookie record for double-doubles in a season (11).
It's not surprising Giddey reached this mark, given his outstanding play through the first half of the season. His playmaking and jaw-dropping passes have become a regular highlight for the Thunder, and though his shooting still needs some TLC, there's also been some improvement in that area as well. If anything, Giddey becoming the youngest since LeBron to reach that mark just further confirms what we already know about the 19-year-old Australian. He's a future All-Star with the potential to be a triple-double threat every night in the NBA.
Jackson had a career-high in points (26) and rebounds (10) against the Los Angeles Clippers this past week, which was just the icing on what's been an impressive handful of games from him this month. He's been getting more minutes with Myles Turner injured, and earned his first career start against the Clippers where he excelled. he can be a lob threat, knock down one or two 3-pointers and he's got some underrated court vision for a 6-foot-10 forward. The Pacers could be a completely different team by next season, and Jackson's performance now could result in far more minutes next year. For right now, he's showing that Indiana made a solid decision taking him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Honorable mentions: Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings (14.8 points, 4.8 assists); Duane Washington Jr., Indiana Pacers (13.5 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists); Evan Mobley (12.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.7 blocks)