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The 5 biggest NBA draft steals of this year so far

These are the rookies who are outperforming their draft slot already.

Atlanta Hawks v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

It takes at least five years to properly judge an NBA draft class, but that doesn’t stop fans from relitigating the order whenever they feel like it. The 2021 NBA Draft class makes for a particularly interesting test case for several reasons.

Cade Cunningham was the consensus top prospect in the draft, but it’s already clear he has a lot of ground to make up to be as impactful as No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley. The top-4 prospects were supposed to be set in stone, but to this point both Franz Wagner and Scottie Barnes (who surprisingly snuck into the top-4 on draft night) look better than Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs. There are also two second round picks who are playing like lotto selections mostly because they’re immediately awesome on defense.

With the season more than 70 percent done, it’s a good time to take stock in what rookies have been the biggest surprises so far. It will be fascinating to check back on this list in a few years and see who else deserves inclusion.

5. Cam Thomas, G, Brooklyn Nets

Draft pick: No. 27 overall

Kevin Durant reportedly pushed for the Nets to select Thomas at the end of the first round, and that decision is paying off nicely for Brooklyn so far. Thomas has long been noted for his microwave scoring ability, and we’ve already seen flashes of it translating to the NBA. He’s scored 20 or more points 10 times since the calendar flipped to 2022, including four times in his last five games before the All-Star break.

Thomas’ fourth quarter scoring drove the Nets to a comeback victory over the Knicks that stunned the Madison Square Garden crowd:

Thomas is very much still a volume scorer instead of an efficient one. He’s only making 27 percent of his threes on the year, and he’s only making 32 percent of his threes during his flaming hot February. More encouraging is that Thomas is hitting 53.7 percent of his two-pointers and better than 81 percent of his free throws. He should get buckets in the NBA for a long time.

4. Tre Mann, G, Oklahoma City Thunder

Draft pick: No. 18 overall

Mann entered the draft as a skinny 6’3 guard out of Florida who was noted for his pull-up shooting ability and pick-and-roll manipulation. While he’s shown flashes of both in his rookie season, Mann has also impressed with his ability to knock down spot-ups. That makes him a great pairing with the Thunder’s other breakout rookie, former No. 5 overall pick Josh Giddey. Mann is hitting 39.5 percent of his spot up threes, with many of them coming off skip passes from his fellow rook.

His development into a complementary off-ball piece only makes Mann’s skill set more tantalizing. This is a player who has always been capable of magical flashes with the ball in his hands, and he’s proven it with scoring outbursts of 30 points, 29 points, and 24 points in February. The flashy passes he occasionally threw in college are still showing up in the league, too. Mann needs to figure out how to score from two-point range (where he’s making only 40.5 percent of his shots so far) but the Thunder should feel excellent about their selection to this point.

3. Alperen Sengun, C, Houston Rockets

Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Sengun put up video game numbers in the Turkish league to win MVP at 18 years old before entering the draft. While some teams discounted his production because he lacked elite physical tools for an NBA big man, he’s quickly proving he can find a way to be effective in the league without ideal size and athleticism.

Sengun has been among the most productive rookies in this class on a per-minute basis, putting up 16.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.8 points per-36 minutes. That only tells half of the story. To watch Sengun go to work in the post is to see an array of ball fakes and creative passes. I’m still not over these two dimes.

Houston probably regrets passing on Mobley for Green with the No. 2 pick, but landing Sengun after the lottery makes it a little easier to swallow. The Rockets are crossing their fingers for some lotto luck this year with three stud bigs — Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero, and Jabari Smith — waiting at the top of the order.

2. Herb Jones, F, New Orleans Pelicans

Draft pick: No. 35 overall (second round)

The Pelicans seemed destined to have a season from hell as they got off to a 1-12 start with Zion Williamson’s fractured foot hanging over the organization like a dark cloud. Then rookie second round pick Herb Jones joined the starting lineup, and suddenly the Pelicans started playing .500 ball. A 6’8 forward with a 7-foot wingspan, Jones’ combination of length and energy on the defensive end has flustered established offensive players all season. He’s made a habit of blowing up actions off the ball, and recovering on other plays to make key blocks and steals for his team.

Jones has taken on the NBA’s biggest and baddest scoring forwards all year, and he’s held his own with remarkable consistency. He has a clear role as a wing stopper moving forward, and it’s becoming clear he’s more than just a one-way player.

Jones was known as a lockdown defender after winning SEC Player of the Year for Alabama last season, but he was projected to be the sort of offensive player opposing teams wouldn’t guard in the NBA. That looks foolish now. Jones is knocking down nearly 36 percent of his threes, and also does a great job attacking the space in front of him.

The Pelicans found a gem in the second round. There’s a strong case he should be No. 1 on this list. Either way, New Orleans found a valuable piece for its future who is also pretty damn good in the present.

1. Ayo Dosunmu, G, Chicago Bulls

Draft pick: No. 38 overall (second round)

Dosunmu was a First-Team All-American at Illinois as a junior before entering the draft, but he still slipped to the second round because teams saw a guard who wasn’t quick enough to create offense of the dribble. His hometown Bulls picked him up at No. 38 overall just before remaking their team in free agency by acquiring DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and others. Dosunmu wasn’t initially projected as an early contributor on a team suddenly loaded with veteran talent, but it quickly became apparent he deserved major minutes because of his non-stop motor and constantly improving offensive skill set.

Dosunmu’s defense has been his calling card all year. He’s put a lock on some of the top guards in the NBA (just ask Trae Young) while also busting dribble-handoffs and screen actions when he’s defending away from the ball. He’s been excellent at getting the Bulls out in transition, and after some early season scoring troubles, he’s gotten better and better at finishing on the break. Dosunmu has also proved he space the floor off the ball on offense (he’s hitting 41.3 percent of his threes on 126 attempts) and facilitate when he’s asked to. As Ball and Caruso have fought injuries, Dosunmu has averaged 7.4 assists per game in Feb.

Dosunmu’s fast-tracked development has been a blessing for a Bulls team annihilated by injuries and illness all year. With great size, an endless amount of energy, and the versatility to thrive in any role, Ayo is the rare second round pick who is playing like he should have been taken in the lottery.