NBA 2021-22: Can This Year’s Rookie Class Make a Historic Splash?
NBA

NBA 2021-22: Can This Year’s Rookie Class Make a Historic Splash?

Ahead of the first full slate of the 2021-22 season, the league appears well-positioned with as much talent and star power as in any year in recent memory. 

Future Hall of Famers like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant remain at the center of the basketball universe, while a younger generation led by Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson continues to grow stardom. 

But the most recent additions to the league – those in the 2021 NBA Draft class – appear to be in prime position to make their mark in their rookie seasons. 

This year’s class of rookies was targeted years ago as a deep crop of talented prospects, and some of the most coveted players landed in situations that will allow them to contribute immediately. 

Looking back, the top five picks from the 1992 draft class averaged a combined 19.0 points in the 1992-93 season. It was the most by the top quintet of first-year players since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.

That class featured Shaquille O’Neal (23.4 points), Alonzo Mourning (21.0), Christian Laettner (18.2), Jim Jackson (16.3) and LaPhonso Ellis (14.7) taken with the first five picks. 

The top five from 2018 was the highest-scoring rookie class in recent memory by averaging 17.3 points, led by Doncic (21.2) and Trae Young (19.1). 

Michael Jordan’s 28.2-point rookie scoring average boosted the top quintet from the 1984 class to 16.9 points per game. 

best rookie seasons

The high end of the lauded 2003 class – which included James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh – averaged 15.9 points despite scant contributions from the infamous Darko Milicic (1.4 points). 

But can this year’s top five picks compete with some of the best draft classes in league history?

Early Impressions

The Detroit Pistons took Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall, the Houston Rockets selected Jalen Green second and the Orlando Magic picked Jalen Suggs fifth – three natural scorers on the perimeter who landed on teams deep in the rebuilding process. 

Cunningham and Suggs both averaged more than 15 points in Las Vegas Summer League action, while Green was a top-10 scorer there, averaging 20.3 points in just 24.1 minutes. 

Detroit and Orlando ended last season with two of the youngest five rosters in the NBA, making it likely that they feature their rookies early and often in the 2021-22 campaign. 

Cunningham has been held out all preseason after suffering a sprained ankle in a late-September practice, but Pistons head coach Dwane Casey classified the injury as “mild,” giving Detroit hope that the top pick will be available for the team’s season-opening game on Wednesday. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers, who selected versatile big man Evan Mobley No. 3 overall, seem to have intentions of making a playoff push and have more experienced players inside like Jarrett Allen, Lauri Markkanen and the estranged Kevin Love.

A slight frame and Cleveland’s crowded frontcourt could limit Mobley’s minutes in his first year, but he has shown his versatility in exhibition play, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds while averaging 11.7 points in Summer League and exhibition play. 

Scottie Barnes was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Raptors and, like Mobley, is more of an all-around player than a pure scorer, but the 6-foot-9 forward has averaged 10.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his first three exhibition games, handling the ball plenty for a team that lost Kyle Lowry this offseason. 

Historic Potential?

It is far too early to count on the 2021 class to be one of the best in recent memory, but today’s rookies have the advantage of putting up big numbers in a high-scoring league, especially with each of the top five selections showing promise from 3-point range. 

When LeBron was a rookie in 2003-04, teams scored an average of 93.4 points and attempted 79.8 field goals per game. Last season’s league scoring average was 112.1 points, a 20% increase, and a typical team launched 88.4 shots, up nearly 11%. 

Thirty-two different players score at least 20 points per game last season. Just a decade ago, only 19 players hit that milestone. 

The NBA’s pace and scoring continue to rise, and young players are seeing statistical bumps as well. Anthony Edwards, last year’s top pick, struggled to begin his first season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but he finished the year by scoring at least 15 points in 36 of his last 40 games and averaged 23.5 points over that span.

Anthony Edwards last 40 games

Cunningham, Green and Suggs are all considered better outside shooters than Edwards was heading into his rookie season, and this crop of rookies could let it fly from 3-point range early and often.

Edwards enters this season with just under a 0.0 offensive DRIP, which is our new projection of a player’s contribution to his team’s +/- per 100 possessions on offense. That’s roughly the league average but quite good for a rookie. In comparison, LaMelo Ball, last year’s Rookie of the Year, ended the season with a plus-0.8 O-DRIP.

Of this year’s rookie class, Green has a minus-1.0 O-DRIP, Cunningham is at minus-1.3, Suggs is at minus-1.7 and Mobley is at minus-1.5. However, it’s important to keep in mind that because the DRIP methodology updates on a game-by-game basis, game zero projections are always lower than the end of the season.

While the ultimate verdict on the 2021 draft class will be decided several years down the line, the door is open for some of league’s most coveted prospects to put up eye-popping numbers in today’s wide-open NBA. 


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