The 2021 NBA Draft was always shaping up to be special. Big man Evan Mobley and scoring guard Jalen Green had established themselves at the top of their high school class from early in their prep careers, while Cade Cunningham enjoyed a breakout rising senior year on the grassroots circuit to put himself in contention for the No. 1 player in the country.
Jalen Suggs joined the party during an incredible freshman year at Gonzaga where he helped lead the team to an undefeated record entering the national championship game (the Zags would lose to Baylor). The class got even stronger when Jonathan Kuminga reclassified to skip his senior year of high school and play for the G League Ignite, and Josh Giddey emerged as a lottery-caliber prospect out of Australia.
This year’s rookie class had a big impact around the league. What rookies were the most impressive? These were the best first-year NBA players in the 2021-2022 season.
13. Jonathan Kuminga, F/C, Golden State Warriors
As one of the youngest players in the 2021 draft class, Kuminga was supposed to need a few years to develop after being selected by the Warriors with the No. 7 overall pick. Instead, Kuminga worked his way into the rotation by the time the calendar flipped to January and immediately provided a necessary injection of athleticism and energy to the Golden State front court. Kuminga split his time between power forward and small-ball center duties as a rim-attacking combo big who was a relentless finisher inside (he made 77.1 percent of his shots at the rim, per basketball-reference). His outside shot also showed potential for the future after he hit 33.6 percent of his triples on 149 attempts. Kuminga needs to improve defensively and prove he can be a reliable shooter, but his combination of size, athleticism, and motor should make him a productive player for a long time.
12. Davion Mitchell, G, Sacramento Kings
Mitchell skyrocketed up draft boards with a tremendous run in March Madness where he powered Baylor to a national championship. The Kings selected him with the No. 9 overall pick, and he proved himself as one of the best defenders and most durable players in the rookie class. At 6-foot, Mitchell is a ferocious on-ball defender who can hound opposing point guards with strength, quickness, and toughness. His three-point shot hasn’t yet translated to the NBA level — he shot 44.7 percent in his final year at Baylor, then shot 31.6 percent as a rookie — but his percentages from deep steadily improved throughout the year. Mitchell still needs to become more efficient as a scorer after posting a 48.9 true shooting percentage as a rookie, but we gave him the nod over Suggs for his durability (he played 75 games) and defensive intensity.
11. Nah’Shon ‘Bones’ Hyland, G, Denver Nuggets
Hyland blossomed into an offensive dynamo late in the season to provide the immediate scoring punch the Nuggets hoped for when they selected him at No. 26 overall out of VCU. Hyland was excellent in March for Denver, averaging 14.3 points on impressive 51.1/47.6/80 percent shooting splits. He’s a slippery ball handler who can effortlessly create separation off the dribble at his best, and is a threat to pull-up from three-point range anytime he has a defender on an island. Hyland is at once a good fit next to Nikola Jokic and the type of scorer who can carry bench units when Jokic needs rest. If the VCU product can keep up his late season play, he’s going to look like someone who should have been selected in the lottery.
10. Alperen Şengün, C, Houston Rockets
Sengun emerged as a first round pick after winning MVP in the Turkish league in his pre-draft year at 18 years old. While some doubted how his game would translate to the NBA as an undersized center without elite quickness or proven shooting ability, Sengun proved his creativity as a passer and touch as an inside scorer could work at the highest levels of the game. The 6’9 big man threw some absurd passes all season, and finished in the 92nd percentile of assist rate for all centers, per Cleaning the Glass. He also graded out as a good post scorer who kept opposing defenses on their toes with a variety of ball fakes and the ability to finish with either hand. Sengun will need continue to improving defensively to make up for his lack of elite quickness, but he’s a solid rebounder and skilled offensive player who should have a bright career ahead of him.
9. Ayo Dosunmu, G, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls didn’t have a first round pick after trading it as part of a package for Nikola Vucevic, but they got first round production out of second round pick Ayo Dosunmu. The former Illinois standout seamlessly transitioned from college star to NBA role player, giving the Bulls length, energy, and flashes of a legitimate two-way skill set on the perimeter. Dosunmu fared well defensively against some of the league’s top scorers, using his 6’10.5 wingspan to help pressure the ball and contest shots. He does not carry a big load offensively — Dosunmu was No. 13 on the Bulls in usage rate despite playing the fourth most minutes on the team — but he usually made the most of his opportunities. His 59.6 percent true shooting ranked top-50 in the league. He also showed more juice off the dribble than anticipated, finishing in the 74th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball handler league-wide. Dosunmu’s ceiling will depend on how good his defense gets, and if he can take on more scoring responsibilities while maintaining his 37.6 percent shooting from three-point range.
8. Chris Duarte, G, Indiana Pacers
Duarte was already 24 years old on draft day after a winding college career that included two years of JUCO ball before transferring to Oregon. While older rookies are often flagged for lacking upside, Duarte showed a pro-ready skill set as a two-way wing for the Pacers. The No. 13 overall pick was a solid three-point shooter all year, connecting on 37 percent of his shots from behind the arc. Duarte can also create a little bit off the dribble with good speed as a ball handler and enough agility to score around the basket. His defense also graded out in the 83rd percentile league-wide by EPM, which is one of the best marks in this rookie class. Duarte probably won’t be a star, but he spaces the floor, defends his position, and scores a bit off the dribble. That’s a nice pick at the end of the lottery.
7. Josh Giddey, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Giddey put himself on NBA radars with an excellent pre-draft season in the NBL, but it was still a shock to see the Thunder select him at No. 6 overall. The 6’8 Australian guard entered the league with questions about his shooting, athleticism, and defense, but it didn’t take him long to prove his stat-stuffing skill set would work against NBA vets. Giddey is an excellent passer who leverages his height to find windows other guards can’t hit. His 32.3 percent assist rate led all rookies and placed No. 12 overall in the league. Giddey also proved he’s already one of the best rebounding guards in the league, finishing with a 12.7 percent rebound rate that only Luka Doncic topped among backcourt players. His three-point shot still needs work (he hit 26.3 percent from behind the arc), but his defense looked better than expected, finishing in the 73rd percentile on that end, per EPM. The Thunder have a young guard who already brings a lot to the table, and can take his game to the next level as his outside shot improves.
6. Jalen Green, G, Houston Rockets
Green was a safe bet to eventually project as a go-to scorer in the NBA after a decorated high school career and an ultra-productive season with the G League Ignite before entering the draft. It took him a few months to get going with the Houston Rockets — partially because of a hamstring strain in Dec. — but by the end of the year the 6’5 guard was living up to the hype. Green is an athletic marvel who used his combination of elite speed and absurd hops to relentlessly pressure the rim as a rookie — finishing in the 82nd percentile of rim frequency among all combo guards while hitting 63 percent of his attempts. His three point percentage was near 40 percent for the last 2.5 months of the season, and should be a major strength of his game moving forward. The defense remains an issue — he finished in the seventh percentile defensively by EPM — but he’s going to be such an explosive scorer that it might not really matter. Houston has its first great building block for the post James Harden era.
5. Herb Jones, F, New Orleans Pelicans
Jones was named SEC Player of the Year as a senior at Alabama but still fell to the second round because scouts were concerned about his limited shooting ability and overall lack of potency offensively. There’s no doubt that Jones would be a lottery pick if the league did a re-draft today. The 6’8 wing was elite defensively all season, using his strong chest, long arms, and quick feet to frustrate all types of opposing scorers. He finished the year in the 92nd percentile of all defenders according to EPM, and should be an annual threat to make the All-Defense team moving forward. Jones’ offense was a little more advanced than anticipated, as well. He put up 9.5 points per game on 57.5 percent true shooting that rates slightly better than league average. His three-point shot also showed signs of improvement — he hit 57 threes this year at a 33.7 percent clip. With 69 starts under his belt as a rookie, Jones has already proven to be valuable for his defense, versatility, and athleticism. If the outside shot comes around, he’ll level up again.
4. Franz Wagner, F, Orlando Magic
Wagner’s college career ended with a dud when he shot 1-of-10 from the field in the Elite Eight for Michigan. His tremendous rookie year in Orlando is a good example of why you shouldn’t put too much stock into one bad game in March Madness. The Magic selected Wagner at No. 8 overall, and he was immediately productive on both ends of the floor. At 6’10, 220 pounds, Wagner combines the size of a big man and the skill of a guard. He averaged 15.2 points per game this season while hitting 51.1 percent of his two-pointers, 35.4 percent of his threes, and 86.3 percent of his free throws. He ranked in the 75th percentile of all offensive players and the 79th percentile of all defensive players by EPM. He was also the most durable of the first-year players this season, leading all rookies by playing 79 games. Orlando’s rebuild is in a much better place after grabbing a big wing like Wagner who can space the floor, provide some secondary creation juice, and credibly defend all over the court.
3. Cade Cunningham, G, Detroit Pistons
Cunningham went No. 1 overall in a loaded draft because he was the safest bet to become a lead offensive engine while also being a plus defender. His rookie season started slow as he recovered from a sprained ankle in training camp, but by mid-season he was starting to resemble the future star he was widely expected to be. A strong 6’6, 220-pound guard, Cunningham led all rookies at 17.4 points per game and finished second in assists at 5.6 per game. He struggled to score efficiently for most of the year, but his 50.4 percent true shooting can partially be explained by the lack of three-point shooting around him (the Pistons finished No. 29 in three-point percentage). The most encouraging thing for Detroit is that Cunningham got better and better as the season went on, and by March he was averaging 22 points and seven assists on 55 percent true shooting for the month. Those numbers should be a baseline for Cunningham moving forward. While he may not end up as the best player in this draft class like we predicted (the guy at No. 1 on this list has something to say about that), he’s still on track to be a potential All-NBA guard at some point in his career.
2. Scottie Barnes, F, Toronto Raptors
The Raptors pulled the first surprise of draft night when they selected Scottie Barnes at No. 4 overall ahead of Jalen Suggs. A year later, it looks like a brilliant move. Barnes is an incredibly versatile talent on both ends of the floor, and Toronto used him in so many different ways as a rookie. Offensively. Barnes had the freedom to create off the dribble as a 6’9, 227-pound forward, and impressed with his aggressive driving, accurate finishing, and ability to make advanced passing reads. Defense was supposed to be his calling card early in his career, and he was excellent on that end, too. Barnes is quick enough to hound guards on the perimeter on traps or switches, and still has the size and strength to hold up defending the paint. His three-point shot remains a weakness, but the Raptors likely feel good about his long-term projection as a shooter after he hit 58 threes at a 30 percent clip this year. Barnes combines efficient scoring inside the arc with good passing ability and potentially very good defense. Toronto probably won’t be picking in the top five again any time soon, but they made this pick count with Barnes.
1. Evan Mobley, C, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mobley showcased a special blend of size, movement skills, touch, and basketball IQ from the moment he took the floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His two-way versatility was the key to the Cavs’ three-big lineup, and one of the biggest reasons the team blew past preseason expectations to win 44 games (it would have been more if they weren’t hammered by injuries). The 7-foot big man was immediately one of the league’s best defenders, blowing up pick-and-rolls with his length and quickness and showing exceptional timing on his rotations and shot contests. On offense, Mobley flashed a bit more shot creation ability than expected, and established himself as a skilled finisher who made 73 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. His ability to play on the perimeter and make passing reads helped unlock Jarrett Allen’s breakout season, and should be a huge part of his game moving forward. Given that he’s already elite defensively (he finished in the 96th percentile on that end, per EPM) and his offense is just scratching the surface, we’d now move Mobley from No. 2 to No. 1 in this class after such an impressive rookie year.
The 2021 draft class impressed in so many ways, but no one was better than Mobley.