The regular season 2021 – 2022 is coming to an end, which gives the newcomers to the league many opportunities to shine, as many teams run out of hours with their eyes fixed on the lottery. Rookie of the year races remain tight and the last two weeks of the season could significantly change the jockey positions for all rookies. Every performance depends on the crowded pitch.
Next week we will focus on the All-Rookie debate. Let’s have a little more fun this week as we hand out some great awards for one of the most promising newcomer classes in recent memory.
The highest price for the ceiling – Cade Cunningham, Pistons
There are potentially half a dozen candidates who could qualify here, and fans in Cleveland, Toronto and Houston are likely to question the choice. But every week gives me more faith in the future of Cunningham than a leading man. He continues to expand his product range and willingness to engage in dribble, increasingly promoting his scoring skills along with his elite vision and instinct for creating the game.
Cunningham’s brilliance is not as flashy as Jalen Green. His novice efficiency numbers fall well below Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley. But ignore the last month plus at your peril. Cunningham starts turning around the corner as the best option and divides the defense from all three levels of the floor. Paired with impressive mental makeup and it’s hard not to add to selection no.
The most improved newcomer – Jalen Green, Rockets
Green has a fair reason for the above, but it’s not a shame to take home the Most Improved Award. Green’s progress this season coincided in a way with the G League year, where a slow start was replaced by flashes of brilliance before a lasting success at the end of the season. Green has up to 20.8 points per game in the split 48/40/77 and his fluency as an off-the-dribble shooter continues to impress. Green is now the first rookie in NBA history to reach five plus threes in four consecutive games. From February 1, he shoots 50% at medium range. And although he will never be a real quarterback, his 2: 1 assist to turn ratio gives him more confidence in his games.
Houston is rightly pleased with the growth of the No. 2 selection when we finish the regular season.
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Playoff Piece Award – Bones Hyland – Nuggets
Warriors rookie Jonathan Kuminga probably has the best case here, but we’ve already poured ink into selection no. 7. Instead, we turn to Nuggets guardian Bones Hyland, who seems to be increasingly important to Denver’s post-season hopes. Hyland acts as the primary ball loader in Denver during the extended sections and can provide much-needed scoring around Nikola Jokić, who leads a group of substituting players. If Jamal Murray can’t return to the dance floor, a strong series from Hyland may be needed for the Nuggets to advance from Round 1.
Theft from the second round – Herb Jones, Pelicans
There was no chance that this column would end up without some form of praise for the Alabama product. Before December, Jones changed from 35th place to support the core line-up and, as a two-way producer, was largely stable. Jones is a trimming expert and a respectable spacer at 34.4% out of three, although its true value is on the defensive end. Jones is No. 3 in the league in stealing and diversions. Only Evan Mobley and Alperen Sengun have more blocks among the newcomers. Jones is able to enlarge to defend most players in the front half of the field, and due to his long limbs and light feet, it is difficult to shake even the most slippery keeper of the league. New Orleans alternated regularly in the second round and should be a valuable part of the franchise in the coming years.
Price Late-Bloomer – Davion Mitchell, Kings
Mitchell’s minutes and scoring were sporadic in the 2021 season, and while his defenses were quickly reflected, he tried to find a rhythm in the crowded rotation of the guards. Changing circumstances changed Mitchell’s output.
Mitchell is now showing an increased ability to score with Tires Haliburton and Buddy Hield in Indiana, and his production has skyrocketed since entering the starting lineup in mid-March. Mitchell’s 22 points per game in the last six games is partly due to his excessive use in the ugly line-up at the end of the season. However, we should not completely ignore the end-of-season gains. Maybe Mitchell’s offensive ceiling is a bit higher than originally expected after the first half of the season.
Human Highlight Award – Alperen Sengun, Rockets
It is a bit reducing to define Senguna only by his highlighted passes. He is an impressive shooter with a touch that reaches the foul line and his ability to withstand a fall and on alternation occasions is promising. He plans to be a plus player at both ends, with a positive outcome for potential All-Star status if developed properly. To be honest, it would be a crime to deprive anyone of Sengun’s temporary mastery, a skill you can safely call Jokic-lite.
Additional NBA coverage:
• The necessity of Cade Cunningham
• Joel Embiid: “I thought I would lose it”
• LeBron, Lakers Better Off did not reach the playoffs