The NBA is well into the stretch run of the 2021-22 regular season, and we're seeing a lot of players on lottery-bound teams going off. Just this past week alone we had the Oklahoma City Thunder's Tre Mann pour in 35 points against the Boston Celtics, the Portland Trail Blazers' Brandon Williams drop 24 points against the Brooklyn Nets and the Sacramento Kings' Davion Mitchell rack up 28 points against the Phoenix Suns. Although all three of those big games came in losses, it's still impressive to see some of these rookies break loose when their respective teams have already waved the white flags on the season. I expect that to continue as the final two weeks of the regular season inch closer and we see some blowouts against those lottery-destined teams littered with rookies.
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.
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After the Raptors lost to the Chicago Bulls Monday night, a game in which Barnes only put up eight points, Toronto coach Nick Nurse didn't harp on the rookie's quiet night, but instead praised his development. "He is becoming more and more assertive and more and more physical," Nurse said. "I mean he's taking people and putting 'em in the basket. He's starting to figure out that he is big and strong, and he can take a lot of physicality, but he can deliver it, too."
Nurse is right, too. We saw Barnes impose his size and strength early in the season, but he's been far more confident in doing so now, to the point where you expect it. He wasn't finishing on shots when he got to the rim against the Bulls, but he was taking it straight at Chicago's interior defense, trying to take advantage of size mismatches, and being aggressive on the offensive glass.
Though Barnes didn't see a ton of success in the loss to the Bulls, he had no problem against the Los Angeles Lakers earlier in the week where he put up a career-high 31 points to go along with 17 rebounds.
He was getting switches to target Lakers guard Austin Reaves, and getting out in transition to barrel toward the rim for dunks and layups. Like Nurse said, you can tell Barnes is realizing that he can throw around his weight and size a bit to get where he wants to go, just like he can hold his own as a defender in the post. The scary thing is, Barnes is going to continue to improve at this, and as he becomes a better ball-handler and quicker on his feet he'll be able to get past defenders even easier.
Everything that Evan Mobley excelled at in college has transferred over incredibly well to the NBA, including his offensive awareness as a passer. While these skills were touted entering the draft, you can never expect a rookie to put it all together in their first year in the league, but Mobley's been checking off every box and surpassing expectations along the way.
Mobley's patience when met with defensive pressure to still get off a good pass is unexpected for a rookie, and it makes him even more difficult to game plan for.
His quick decision-making as a passer also helps when the Cavaliers are trying to break through some tough defense, like this possession against the Lakers where Darius Garland is met with a double team:
Mobley wastes no time getting the ball to the open guy on the wing for a 3-pointer. There's also his court vision when he's working on a defender in the post:
His versatility as a roll man -- mid-range scoring, finishing around the rim and passing -- is precisely why he's been so impressive as a rookie. He's the ideal big man in the modern NBA and he continues to show why each week.
I've previously written about how entertaining Mann has been this season for the Thunder, and this past week he just decided to drop 35 points on the No. 1 defense in the league. What's even more mind-boggling is that Mann did it while going an efficient 13 of 21 from the field and 7 of 12 from deep.
At one point in the second quarter, Mann went on a 12-2 run of his own against the Celtics, nailing four straight 3s in a row. Mann's got a crafty handle and deadly hesitation that allows him to breeze past a defender in a mismatch situation, and he did exactly that against the likes of Daniel Theis and Grant Williams.
Mann had similar success against the Miami Heat earlier in the week where he put up 25 points on the No. 1 team in the East. Though both performances came in losses, it showed his potential as a scorer for Oklahoma City. Though Mann's been getting the start since late January due to various injuries, he's likely expected to be a valuable role player off the bench when all of OKC's guys are healthy. Even then, he's a quality spark plug to have coming off the bench.
Here's a snapshot of Mitchell's splits as a starter vs. coming off the bench for Sacramento this season:
These are uneven samples, but it's still pretty interesting to see how much more successful Mitchell's been as a starter, especially as a scorer. What's surprising is you would think these starts came after the Kings traded Tyrese Haliburton to the Pacers, opening up a spot for Mitchell in the starting lineup. But eight of those games happened pre-trade, and actually happened because De'Aaron Fox was injured. Mitchell's only started two games since the Haliburton games, and in his most recent one -- Sunday against the Suns -- he dropped 28 points, racked up nine assists and shot 57.1 percent from deep.
Sacramento has opted to start Justin Holiday, who it received as part of the Pacers trade, but as the season inches closer to the end, and the Kings' chances of making the play-in tournament waning, it may be worth it to see what starting Mitchell could provide past this season.
Williams has played in just 14 games this season for the Portland Trail Blazers, most of which have come in March. He's started in a majority of them, and while the Blazers aren't exactly trying to win games, Williams hasn't let that deter him from putting big numbers on the board. Just this past week he had a 24-point game against the Brooklyn Nets, followed by a 23-point performance in a win over the Pistons. Like several other young Blazers players, he's showing what he can offer to this team or any other squad in the league ahead of the offseason, and he's making the most of the opportunity.
Honorable mentions: Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic (17.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists); Jalen Green, Houston Rockets (16.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists); Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets (15.0 points, 5.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds)