Cade Cunningham is the best rookie in the NBA, according to one metric.
Despite being the No. 1 pick last season and leading first-year players in several categories, Cunningham is considered a long shot to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award. And that could be due a cold start to the season and the Detroit Pistons’ struggles.
While Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley held critical – albeit not leading – roles for playoff-bound teams, Cunningham starred for a Pistons outfit that, as expected, spent much of the season in the Eastern Conference cellar.
But who would you rather start a franchise with?
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ESPN’s Bobby Marks, Kevin Pelton and Mike Schmitz ranked the 25 best NBA players under 25 years old, and Cunningham topped all rookies while finishing No. 6 overall. The ranking is based on the past season and future potential and is an average of each analyst’s ballot.
To no surprise, Cunningham fell behind All-Stars such as Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic, but each of the panelists had Cunningham as the top rookie. Schmitz had him highest of anyone, at No. 4 – above players such as Trae Young, Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. Marks ranked him sixth and Pelton 11th.
Each of the men had Cunningham behind Doncic, Tatum and Ja Morant, who jumped up the standings after ranking no higher than 12th on any of the three ballots in 2021.
In discussing Cunningham, Schmitz wrote he expects an All-Star-type season in 2022-23.
“Cunningham was only the sixth rookie since the merger to average 20-5-5 after the All-Star break, regularly going toe-to-toe with the NBA’s elite,” he wrote. “He showed he’s more than comfortable functioning as Detroit’s primary ball handler (27.7 usage rate), and his efficiency di lui (50.4% true shooting percentage) should improve as the Pistons add more shooting and young talent with a potential top-three pick in June. “
As for what Cunningham can improve, it’s turnovers and outside shooting, which could be said of just about any rookie guard. But Cunningham is already respected as one of the best young players in the league, not just among rookies.
Marks had Cunningham behind Young and Bam Adebayo, as well, but ahead of Williamson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Brandon Ingram (who feels like he’s been in the league long enough to be my age).
Pelton was a little cooler on Cunningham, placing him behind many of the aforementioned players as well as Darius Garland, who, along with Mobley, takes on the Brooklyn Nets in a Tuesday NBA play-in game.
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In the overall rankings, Garland was No. 9, behind Cunningham, Williamson and Adebayo, respectively. Williamson was ranked No. 4 last spring before missing all of the 2021-22 season with a fracture in his foot.
Anthony Edwards, the top pick in 2020, came in at No. 11, an eight-spot jump from 2021. The explosive scorer and his Minnesota Timberwolves have a play-in game Tuesday night vs. the Los Angeles Clippers.
As for the rookies who will likely beat out Cunningham in ROY voting, Barnes is ranked No. 12, a few spots head of Mobley at 15.
Because of Barnes’ defensive versatility and tantalizing offensive potential, Schmitz compared him to a mini-Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is about the highest praise you can give someone.
“Among rookies, Barnes is the only player to rank in the top five in points, rebounds, assists, minutes, steals and blocks, joining Ben Simmons, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, Vince Carter and Chris Webber,” Schmitz wrote.
Former Michigan State basketball star Jaren Jackson Jr. is No. 25 overall in the rankings. Pelton, who had him ranked No. 19, said Jackson is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate – at just 22 years old.
Fellow Spartan Miles Bridges shot onto the list in his final year before turning 25.
“Bridges has taken a leap in his development, posting career highs in points (plus-7.6 from a year ago with nine 30-point games), rebounds, assists, steals and blocks,” Marks wrote. “After the All-Star break, Bridges averaged 21.2 points on 52% shooting and 40% from deep.”
Bridges and the Hornets, who will have to decide whether to keep the restricted free agent, meet the Atlanta Hawks in a play-in game Wednesday. Ball, his teammate di lui, was ranked No. 5, one spot ahead of Cunningham on the overall rankings
Doncic was No.1 and has been since 2020, the season following the 25th birthdays of Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.
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