3 NBA Rookie Opening Night Hot Takes
Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Chris Duarte had strong opening nights, while Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs struggled
NBA opening night was Tuesday for four teams, and another 22 teams played on Wednesday. So we’ve had a chance to see most NBA rookies once.
Here are the early takes from my own observations and the texts I got from NBA folks about how the rookies have performed so far.
1. Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes and Alperen Şengün shined
The Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley, the Raptors’ Scottie Barnes and the Rockets’ Alperen Şengün built on their strong preseasons with good opening night performances.
I keep writing and hearing from NBA folks that Mobley, Barnes and Şengün could end up being the best players in the 2021 draft class. That’s not a dig on the draft’s top two picks, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green; it’s a reflection of the huge upside that all three of these less-heralded prospects have.
Mobley’s and Barnes’ unique athletic gifts and skill sets for players their size make them NBA unicorns. Both are big and athletic, play a variety of roles on offense and can defend multiple positions. In a league obsessed with versatility and switchability, their strong early play does have some scouts second-guessing how the three were evaluated prior to the draft.
Of course, there were plenty of scouts and GMs who loved Mobley before the draft. But people scoffed a bit when I quoted NBA scouts who said he could be Chris Bosh on offense and Anthony Davis on defense.
Those six assists (with zero turnovers) by Mobley on Wednesday weren’t a fluke. He’s a genuinely good playmaker and seems to be thriving in an offense that needs him to play the 4, the 5 and occasionally the wing.
His lack of strength poses problems for him in the post on both ends, but when he’s away from the basket, his advantages are enormous. In fact, some scouts have said he might be a wing ultimately. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a full-time, traditional wing, but much like Giannis Antetokounmpo, he doesn’t really fit a single positional category. For Mobley, as with Giannis, I think that’s a very good thing. He’s only a rookie and we’ll see signs of that this season, but he oozes upside.
We could say the same for Barnes, who can legitimately play all five positions on the floor on both ends. He committed six turnovers on opening night, but two observations there: He sported a 3-to-1 turnover ratio in the preseason, a sign of his passing acumen; and the Raptors have to be thrilled by seeing a more aggressive version of Barnes, given that a lack of offensive aggression was one of the main concerns about him. Paradoxically, turnovers can be a bullish sign for a young playmaker.
Of course, his versatility on both ends is a major selling point. Even if he doesn’t develop as a shooter, there’s still a path for Barnes to be an NBA All-Star in mode of the Ben Simmons (with personality being a plus in Barnes’ case). If Barnes does find a jumper, he’ll likely be on a superstar path.
I think it’s pretty clear that the analytics folks who thought Şengün was a worthy of top-5 pick — John Hollinger, Kevin Pelton and others — are looking pretty smart right now. Şengün is coming off the bench for Houston at this early stage, but his feel for the game is off the charts. So far, he looks athletic enough to hold his own on the defensive end, answering a major concern. Super-skilled bigs with great feel find a way.