In a time of uncertainty in sports, amidst the constant NFL controversies and MLB lockout, the NBA has benefited from the young talent currently competing in their very first year in the big leagues.
Rising stars Scottie Barnes (Toronto Raptors) and Evan Mobley (Cleveland Cavaliers) have been bright spots for their respective teams. While several anomalies plague some of the league-best (such as James Harden, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis,) the Raptors and Cavaliers have hit a goldmine in their rookies.
Setting up an exciting and eventful race to the Rookie of the Year award given at the end of the season, arguably one of the best in years.
Blessed by the essence of unbound potential, the two rookies are easing into position to take over both teams who have had to rebuild after years of contention for the chip.
Historic championships seasons of 2016 for the Cavs and 2019 for the Raptors have taken both teams to the pinnacle of basketball glory but also heaped upon them the burden of declining after reaching the peak.
The departure of Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, and core roster players left Cleveland in shambles. And the same could be said about the Raptors.
The Cinderella story that was Kawhi Leonard’s 2018-2019 Raptors is the stuff of legends after years of contending in the East with Demar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry only to fall short every year in the post-season.
The trade for Leonard was worth it, it earned Toronto and Canada at large a team to take pride in, but greatness was short-lived. Kawhi left for his hometown, Los Angeles, Ibaka, Gasol, and Lowry would soon follow. Within two years of winning it all, the exodus would leave Toronto depleted.
This season, Mobley and Barned were more than prospects to make projects out of. They were to able lift both franchises back to a place of greatness, a level both teams have been accustomed to this past decade.
After being selected in consecutive picks in 2021, the pair of All-Americans went on to put a showcase in the Summer League.
The athleticism put on display, the gift of fighting through contact while exposing their advanced defensive prowess at such a young age led them to be ranked #1 and #2 on the NBA’s rookie leaderboard this season.
Mobley, a 6’11” power forward out of USC, is reminiscent of a young Kevin Garnett. Of course, KG and Mobley’s biggest assets were their wiry frame, the long arms used to shoot over any defender and block any shot, the massive strides helping to cover the court paired with surprising explosiveness for their size and position.
Garnet’s rookie campaign saw him average 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.6 blocks on 49% field goal efficiency, Mobley’s on pace to outshine the legend.
Thanks to Mobley’s strong performances, the Cavs have been in surprisingly good shape posting a record of 17-12 primed for the fourth seed in the East, and the rookie’s current stat sheet of 14-8.5-2.5-1.9 on 50% efficiency is on pace to one-up the Big Ticket’s rookie stats on every level.
Now, this isn’t to say that Evan Mobley will become better than Kevin Garnett, there is still a long way to go but it is an encouraging sign nonetheless.
As for Scottie Barnes, the story is much the same. The Raptors have unfortunately not had the regular-season success of Cleveland but in their defense, the team has had less time to rebuild than the Cavs.
His comparison to Golden State Warrior’s Draymond Green is an inaccurate one in my opinion. Scottie is more athletic, lengthier, better suited at a younger age and a better scorer. In his 24 appearances, Barnes has been on a tear, giving his team 15.3-8.3-3.3 on offense. On defense, his efforts show as much as Mobley.
Averaging, 1.2 steals, and 0.9 blocks a game. While this may not seem impressive to the casual viewer, for his position, at this stage in his career, the production on both ends of the court is impressive.
The gradual growth in his game will likely not mirror Draymond Green’s game rather, it is more likely that Barnes takes a similar style as Shawn Marion or even Scottie Pippen, forwards who have made their career playing good offense and better defense. The motor, athleticism, size, and abilities all line up.
The key factor in Barnes’ development will be on whether he can become as good a playmaker as Bulls legend Scottie Pippen or end up closer to Phoenix’s former star Shawn Marion who never quite could play-make like Pippen.
These are bold predictions no doubt, however, the ceilings for these rookies are high. The two will see plenty of each other as both teams are less than a five-hour drive away, making them division rivals.
This rookie race is the best it’s been since the 2017 campaign which featured Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell squaring off for what made a memorable rivalry in basketball history.
Here’s to hoping it happens again.