Everybody wants to win an award that they feel they deserve. Like two teenagers who both aced their final calculus exam staring at each other during their high school graduation, wondering who will take home the Mathematics Award, Scottie Barnes and Evan Mobley are glaring each other in the eyes at the top of the rookie ladder.
Almost two months into the season, both rookies have exceeded their expectations. The 2021 NBA Draft class is shaping up to be one that could change the fabric of the league for decades, stacked with several potential perennial All-Star talents.
Although Cade Cunningham has slowly been figuring out how to put the ball in the basket at an acceptable efficiency, the Rookie of the Year race remains a two-man trial for the time being.
Barnes and Mobley have missed three and four games respectively this season due to some minor injuries. Through 24 contests, Mobley is boasting averages of 14.0 points, 8.5 boards, and 2.5 dimes, while Barnes is recording 15.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game. The national team U19 teammates currently rank top two in scoring and rebounding among all rookies.
Historically, the Rookie of the Year award has gone to a player that records the most exorbitant stats. For example, the 2009-2010 award was presented to Tyreke Evans of the lowly Sacramento Kings, because he was able to put up over 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists on a nightly basis, despite his team winning a mere of 25 games. Other deserving candidates who had a greater impact on winning included Brandon Jennings and Taj Gibson, who both helped their team to the playoffs.
Right now, Evan Mobley is unequivocally having the greatest impact on winning amongst all rookies. The Cavaliers have unexpectedly become a competitive team again, currently sitting with a 16-12 record in the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed. Although not entirely accreditable to Mobley, he currently leads all rookies with 2.3 win shares, and the synergy that he has created with Jarrett Allen has made them one of the best defensive frontcourt duos in the entire NBA. According to NBA.com, Mobley and Allen combine to contest 24.6 shots per game, which is the most by any two teammates in the league. Additionally, the Cavaliers’ most-used lineup, featuring Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Mobley, and Allen, currently holds a net rating of +19.3 – which is a testament to how well Mobley has been able to space the floor. Additionally, five of the ten best two-man lineups that have played at least 300 minutes this season for the Cavaliers feature Evan Mobley – an illustration of just how impactful he is when he’s on the court.
Barnes, on the other hand, is the type of talent that simply does not come around often in the NBA. He hasn’t even entered the same stratosphere impact-wise as Magic Johnson or LeBron James, but he fits into the same archetype as both of those legends, and that is what makes his potential so intriguing. Currently, Barnes ranks third among all Raptors who have played at least ten games this season in Player Impact Estimate – a metric that encapsulates the magnitude of the effect that a player is having on the game – trailing only Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. While Barnes’ on-ball perimeter defense has been underwhelming thus far, he is one of only a handful of players in the league who can comfortably defend anybody on the opposing team regardless of their skillset or position. Offensively, Barnes is a Swiss army knife as well, with the ability to operate as a pick-and-roll screener, facilitate out of the high post, attack a close out, post up and finish inside, or even stretch it out and knock down the occasional three-pointer. Coming into the season, Barnes’ outside shot was regarded as the weakest area of his arsenal, however over the last eight matches, Barnes is shooting 40.5% on 4.1 long-range attempts per game. It’s unlikely that this level of efficiency sustains itself for much longer, but at the moment, Barnes looks like the most complete player in this draft with the ability to do just about everything on the court.
It’s almost impossible to say whether Barnes or Mobley has even a hair’s width of a lead on the other. Through seven renditions of the NBA’s Rookie Ladder, Barnes has earned the top rung four times, and Mobley has won it twice, with the only other first-place honoree being Indiana’s Chris Duarte. This site has the current betting odds set dead-even between the two, and there’s a chance that holds for the remainder of the season, right until the winner is ultimately announced.