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The 10 most impactful NBA rookies heading into the 2021-22 season

·10 min read
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The NBA preseason kicked off Sunday night, and there are already some high expectations for a few rookies coming in. After Detroit landed the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery, the Pistons reportedly sold over $700,000 in tickets for the upcoming season with the assumption Cade Cunningham would inevitably be headed there.

“That’s crazy, and thank you all for wanting to come see me play,” Cunningham said at media day. “I’m excited to be playing for a city that’s excited for me to be here.”

The Houston Rockets were big winners on draft night, landing Jalen Green, Alperen Sengun and Josh Christopher and this young, athletic team has a lot of confidence coming into the season. 

“I think we can compete with every team in the NBA,” Green said. “We’re young, we’re fast and we’re talented, and we’re going to be able to push the ball up the court.”

Here’s a look at 10 rookies who could have an immediate impact on their teams in the 2021-22 NBA season.

Top overall pick Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons brings the ball up the court against the New York Knicks during the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 13, 2021. The Pistons defeated the Knicks 93-87. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Top overall pick Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons brings the ball up the court against the New York Knicks during the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 13, 2021. The Pistons defeated the Knicks 93-87. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Draft slot: No. 1

Cunningham is the most physically ready guard in this rookie class at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. He has great court vision and is a phenomenal passer, which bodes well for Pistons wing Saddiq Bey, who led all rookies last season in 3-point shooting. There’s a lot to like about this young core the Pistons are building from the ground up. Killian Hayes, the shifty, left-handed guard who only played half of last season due to an injury, is back and full strength. Isaiah Stewart looks like he added some additional muscle mass during the offseason and was one of the best rebounders in the Eastern Conference last season. Cunningham is the perfect piece to this puzzle that could help Detroit return to the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Cunningham has yet to hit the court for the Pistons due to an ankle injury. No timeline for him has been announced by the team. 

Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Draft slot: No. 2

Green is one of the most dangerous players in the open court and has great body control around the rim. As a top high school prospect, Green had no problem getting in the lane whenever he wanted. When he elected to forgo college and join the G League Ignite team, he had to adjust and work on his outside game and shot selection. “I feel way more confident shooting the ball now and just letting the game come to me, rather than trying to force a shot in the lane or get to the rim,” Green told Yahoo Sports in August.

Cunningham and Green will be linked together for their careers after going No. 1 and No. 2 the same way Trae Young and Luka Doncic are linked from the 2018 draft class. Cunningham’s game has been compared to Doncic, while some believe Green could end up being the biggest star of this draft class.

There will undoubtedly be some growing pains for this young Rockets team, but with Green and Kevin Porter Jr. in the backcourt, the future looks bright in Houston. Green and Porter Jr. combined for 37 points in 27 minutes in the Rockets' first preseason game. 

Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Draft slot: No. 4

Barnes went from playing the forward position in high school to point guard during his one year at Florida State. The 6-foot-7 do-it-all player is the definition of positionless basketball. In his preseason debut, he finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists in 24 minutes. He gave Toronto fans a glimpse of what’s to come this season when he took Danny Green off the dribble at the top of the key and finished with a monster dunk. Barnes brings a ton of energy every time he steps out on the court and could be a sleeper pick for Rookie of the Year this season.

Cameron Thomas, Brooklyn Nets

Draft slot: No. 27

Thomas led the SEC in scoring in his one season at LSU and was also the leading scorer during summer league in Las Vegas where he averaged 27 points in four games. NBA scouts knew Thomas was a shooter, but it was his mid-range game and the way he finished at the rim that made him one of the best players at summer league. Even on a loaded Nets team, Thomas could see early minutes if he continues to shoot confidently and put the ball in the hoop while he’s on the court early. It’s a shooters' league and the Nets might have landed the steal of the draft.

With the ongoing Kyrie Irving vaccination saga, Thomas could be seeing more minutes in the beginning of the season. 

Cleveland rookie center Evan Mobley is guarded by Herbert Jones of the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 13, 2021. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Cleveland rookie center Evan Mobley is guarded by Herbert Jones of the New Orleans Pelicans during the 2021 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Aug. 13, 2021. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Draft slot: No. 3

Mobley is a 7-foot center with a 7-5 wingspan who can handle the ball extremely well for a player his size. His versatility and high basketball IQ could end up redefining what modern-day NBA centers look like. Mobley has great footwork on the post, but is also a threat on the wing when taking players off the dribble. Defensively, he’s one of the best shot blockers in the rookie class and averaged three blocks per game during his one season at USC and two blocks per game during summer league. He’ll need to add some weight to his frame and get stronger, but the frontcourt duo of Mobley and Jarrett Allen has a lot of fans excited for the season.

Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Draft slot: No. 13

Most NBA teams value upside over age high in the draft, but the early success of Phoenix Suns wing Cameron Johnson has started to change that narrative. Johnson was a four-year player in college and was one of the older players in the 2019 draft when the Suns selected him No. 9 overall. The Pacers landed the “Cameron Johnson” of this draft class with Duarte, and there are plenty of similarities between the two players. Both are solid shooters from 3-point range and exceptional in the open court. Duarte averaged 18.3 points and shot 48% from three on more than seven attempts in his four games at summer league and is a player the Pacers can plug in right away.

Duarte looked extremely comfortable on the court in his first NBA preseason game, leading the Pacers in scoring with 15 points in 19 minutes in a 125-104 loss to the New York Knicks on Tuesday night. 

Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Draft slot: No. 26

Point guard Jamal Murray is out until January or February recovering from a torn ACL and that opens the door for early playing time for Hyland. Monte Morris and Facundo Campazzo will also share minutes at the lead guard position. In the first preseason game, Hyland and Campazzo shared the backcourt and had some exciting plays in transition. The former VCU guard finished with 19 points in 24 minutes in a one-point loss to Los Angeles Clippers and has high expectations for his first year. He already feels comfortable playing alongside the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic. 

"We were playing together in open gym and for like five games we didn't lose. It wasn't fair, it looked like [NBA] 2K," Hyland said. "You could just tell the connection we had, and we were just clicking instantly. And then they put me on a different team because it was just too easy for us, honestly. But just playing with him and watching him in the league, I know where he likes his spots on the floor and I'm learning a lot from him."

Jalen Johnson, Atlanta Hawks

Draft slot: No. 20

Johnson played only 12 minutes in his preseason debut Monday night, but there was a lot to like out of the 6-foot-8 wing playing alongside rookie point guard Sharife Cooper. Johnson can guard positions one-through-four and showed that he’s comfortable defending the ball screen and making plays at the rim with his 7-foot wingspan. The Hawks have a lot of depth on the wing, but because of his size and athleticism, Johnson could play the four or five in a small-ball lineup and help this Hawks team return to the Eastern Conference finals.

Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Draft slot: No. 9

Mitchell is the best on-ball defender in the rookie class and wreaked havoc on every guard at summer league. The Kings already had a deep backcourt with De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Tyrese Haliburton before adding Mitchell, but there was no way Sacramento was passing on the former Baylor guard when he fell to No. 9. The Kings were one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA last season and will benefit from Mitchell’s ability to disrupt the offensive flow of opponents.

The Kings are 2-0 to start the preseason, and although Mitchell isn't the primary scorer, his impact on the court is apparent. He finished with a +20 in a plus-minus in his first game against the Suns and had two steals. 

Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets

Draft slot: No. 16

Sengun made his presence known at summer league averaging a double-double of 14.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. His versatility makes him a three-level threat on offense and his 6-foot-11 frame gives Houston some size in the lane on defense. He’s shown glimpses of being a real piece of the Rockets' future as the rebuilding of the franchise continues this season. Sengun has a real natural feel for the game and has already started building chemistry with his teammates off the court.

Honorable Mention

Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Draft slot: No. 7

There was a lot of offseason speculation on what sort of moves the Warriors would make with their two lottery picks. Would they keep them? Who would they draft? The answer was 18-year-old Kuminga, who is originally from the Republic of Congo. Kuminga is one of the youngest players in the rookie class but has all the physical tools to make an impact on this seasoned Warriors team. 

The 6-foot-7 wing averaged 17.4 points over five summer league games and showcased his playmaking ability for teammates off the dribble. There will be some growing pains and adjustments he needs to make defensively, but that’s to be expected from any rookie. Head coach Steve Kerr is already seeing early glimpses of the type of addition Kuminga can be for this veteran Warriors team.

“In the scrimmage [Saturday], he made two or three beautiful drive-and-kick passes that maybe you don't necessarily expect to see from a young guy," Kerr said. "He's an enormously talented, young guy."