Cade Cunningham is the best rookie in the NBA, according to a metric.
Despite being No. 1 last season and leading first-year players in several categories, Cunningham is considered a long chance to win the award as NBA Rookie of the Year. And that may be due to a cold start to the season and the Detroit Pistons’ games.
While Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley had critical – though not leading – roles for teams tied for the playoffs, Cunningham starred in a Pistons outfit that, as expected, spent much of the season in the Eastern Conference basement.
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, and Cunningham topped all rookies while finishing as No. 6 overall. The ranking is based on past season and future potential and is an average of each analyst’s ballot.
To no surprise, Cunningham fell behind All-Stars like Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic, however each of the panelists had Cunningham as the best rookie. Schmitz had him highest of any, as No. 4 – over players like Trae Young, Zion Williamson and LaMelo Ball. Marks placed him in sixth place and Pelton as number 11.
Each of the men had Cunningham behind Doncic, Tatum and Ja Morant, who jumped up to the position after not placing higher than 12th on any of the 20 ballots in 2021.
In his discussion of Cunningham, Schmitz wrote that he expects an All-Star type season in 2022-23.
“Cunningham was only the sixth rookie since the merger, averaging 20-5-5 after the All-Star break, regularly going toe-to-toe with the NBA elite,” he wrote. “He showed that he is more than comfortable acting as Detroit’s primary ball dealer (27.7 consumption rates), and his efficiency (50.4% true shooting percentage) needed to be improved as the Pistons added more shooting and young talent with a potential top three elections in June. “
In terms of what Cunningham can improve, it’s turnovers and outside shots that one could say about almost any rookie guard. But Cunningham is already respected as one of the best young players in the league, not just among rookies.
Marks also had Cunningham behind Young and Bam Adebayo, but ahead of Williamson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Brandon Ingram (who feel he has been in the league long enough to be my age).
Pelton was a bit tougher at Cunningham, placing him behind many of the aforementioned players as well as Darius Garland, who along with Mobley take on the Brooklyn Nets in a Tuesday NBA play-in game.
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On the overall rankings, Garland became No. 9, after Cunningham, Williamson and Adebayo, respectively. Williamson was ranked No. 4 last spring before missing the entire 2021-22 season with a broken foot.
Anthony Edwards, the top pick in 2020, came in as No. 11, a jump of eight places from 2021. The explosive goal scorer and his Minnesota Timberwolves have a play-in game Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
In terms of the rookies likely to knock Cunningham out in the ROY poll, Barnes is ranked No. 12, a few places ahead 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 anyone.
“Among rookies, Barnes is the only player to rank among the top five in points, rebounds, assists, minutes, steals and blocks, along with 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 the candidate for Defender of the Year – only 22 years old.
Spartan Miles Bridges made the list in his final year before turning 25.
“Bridges has taken a leap in its development, with career highs in points (plus-7.6 from a year ago with nine games on 30 points), rebounds, assists, steals and blocks,” Marks wrote. “After the All-Star break, Bridges averaged 21.2 points on 52% shooting and 40% from deep.”
The Bridges and Hornets, who must decide whether to keep the restricted free agent, face the Atlanta Hawks in a play-in game on Wednesday. Ball, his teammate, was ranked No. 5, a place ahead of Cunningham in the overall rankings
Doncic was No. 1 and has been since 2020, the season after Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic’s 25th birthday.
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