NBA Rookie Watch: Can Cade Cunningham Catch Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes?

Barnes and Mobley are taking the NBA by storm. Can Cunningham overtake them for Rookie of the Year? Plus the rising stock of Franz Wagner, Desmond Bane, Jean Montero and Fanbo Zeng

During the NBA, college and international seasons, my Tuesday newsletter will focus on NBA rookies and sophomores as well as prospects for the 2022 NBA Draft, especially those who have helped or hurt their stock in the past week.

My reports will be based on my own observations as well as information I receive from NBA scouts, executives and agents.

Can Cade catch Barnes and Mobley?

After missing training camp, preseason and the first week of the regular season, Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft, finally made his NBA debut on Saturday for the Detroit Pistons.

The hype surrounding his first NBA game was tremendous. The results? Not so much.

That was the worst rookie debut from a No. 1 pick since — gulp — Anthony Bennett in 2013.

He followed it up with DNP on Sunday, as the Pistons have decided to not play Cunningham in back-to-backs while he’s still coming back from injury.

His debut wasn’t all bad. Cunningham was aggressive on the defensive end, showed a feel for rebounding and got a number of clean looks from 3. Given how well he shot the ball during his one college season and summer league, I don’t expect we’ll see a lot of 0-for-5 shooting performances from deep in the future.

There were also lots of caveats that applied to his debut. He hadn’t played in months, was coming off an ankle injury and had a minutes restriction (he played only 19 minutes). The Cade we saw on Saturday isn’t the same Cade we are going to see in a month, once he gets his conditioning and rhythm back.

Before the 2021 draft, I said that Cunningham was the safest pick, and I still believe it. Given his tools and overall feel for the game, it’s hard for me to see a scenario where he busts.

We can’t overreact to one game or hand the Rookie of the Year trophy to No. 3 pick Evan Mobley or No. 4 pick Scottie Barnes based on two weeks of action. Still, there is a legitimate question moving through the NBA scouting and GM ranks: Will Cunningham ultimately be as good as Barnes or Mobley?

This post is for paid subscribers