We’ve long heard the saying about the 82-game basketball season: “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
And for most of the season it looked as if Cleveland Cavaliers big man Evan Mobley would win the award going away.
But his team’s second-half of the season struggles opened the door for a couple players, most notably Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes and 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons.
Scottie Barnes — Toronto Raptors (Forward)
The athletic two-way player from Florida State has been great most of the season. After starting on fire he simmered a bit, as some of his injured teammates began to return to the floor.
His playing time suffered some when veterans Pascal Siakim and OH Anunoby both returned.
Head coach Nick Nurse had to figure out a way to play all three together, and that unit along with All-Star guard Fred Vanvleet and sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. has been the Raps’ best game-closing lineup.
Great team continuity, along with the versatility of Barnes, were key components in elevating the Raptors to the No. 5 playoff seed.
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The Raptors have turned their season around. In fact, SB, OG and “Spicy P” are all shooting over 68 percent at the rim this season.
Barnes has been special, and with Toronto the No. 5 seed at 46-33 his play has affected winning more than that of any other rookie.
ROTY leading the way#ROTY | @ScottBarnes561 pic.twitter.com/QRjQqjsMGL
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) April 7, 2022
This season he’s averaging 15.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 49.2 percent from the field.
Cade Cunningham — Detroit Pistons (Guard)
The 2021 No. 1 overall pick got a late start in the race, as he was injured to begin the season. While he did make up enough ground to put himself squarely in the thick of the race, his Pistons team just hasn’t won enough for him to be at the top of the ballot.
Blessed with a 6-foot-8 frame, good athleticism and the ability to play either guard position and some small-ball three or four, Cunningham has the most upside of anyone in this rookie class.
Motor Cade led all rookies in scoring (17.4 ppg) and assists (5.6 ppg) and added 5.5 rebounds. His 41.6 percent shooting is a tad low and needs to be addressed this offseason. But he’s a future All-Star for years to come.
Evan Mobley — Cleveland Cavaliers (F/C)
A few weeks ago Mobley had this award all but wrapped up. An injury to frontcourt mate Josh Allen forced Mobley to play more minutes at center, and although he was solid, he’s better executing the duties of a new age stretch four. A nagging ankle injury has caused him to miss the past five games. Cleveland is 1-4 in those games and 4-9 this season without him.
That record is important to voters, because with him in the lineup the Cavs are 39-28.
In his Tuesday post-practice presser, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he was slated to return on Friday.
“He is progressing well. He did a lot of work today on the court. We’re going to have practice on Thursday, and we’ll see how he goes through that and then how he responds on Friday.”
Mobley did return with a vengeance, averaging 17.5 points and 8.5 rebounds against the Bucks and Nets.
Mobley is vital. When he and Allen were healthy and the Cavs were playing well, they had the second-best defensive rating in the league. They’ll need him to have any shot in the play-in tournament.
This season, Mobley has averaged 14.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.9 blocks per game on 50 percent shooting.
Franz Wagner — Orlando Magic (Guard)
About the only bright spot in Orlando this season has been the play of Wagner. The underrated sharpshooter has flourished for a team in complete rebuild. Wagner has been a real surprise and has shown to be a cornerstone piece going forward for the Magic.
He’s played in every game this season, but that streak come to an end after he sprained his ankle on Tuesday against the Cavs.
In 79 games this season the former Michigan Wolverine star averaged 15.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists on 47 percent shooting.
Jalen Green — Houston Rockets (Guard)
While Green has some maturing to do, he’s easily the most dynamic player in this rookie class. After an up-and-down season he’s turned it on in the last month. With a rookie-record five consecutive 30-point games, Green has shown why he was taken No. 2 overall. Blessed with elite athleticism and shotmaking ability, Green’s natural gifts allow him to score easily in today’s NBA.
He needs to add strength and take some pride on the defensive end, as that’s why his minutes were so sporadic at times this season. Head coach Stephen Silas knows his team is young and developing, but he’s not going to allow his players to just play one end of the floor. Green has superstar talent. Now he’ll need to mature, but he’s only 20, so he has time.
Reporter: "What have you learned about yourself this rookie year"
Jalen Green: "That I'm a bucket"
No lies told. @JalenGreen pic.twitter.com/tVVORRCydy
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 4, 2022
This season Green has averaged 17.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Like with Cunningham, that 42 percent shooting won’t cut it for players of their caliber.