Detroit — The race for NBA Rookie of the Year is going to be a doozy this season.
In a normal season, there are two or three top-level prospects for the award, so the final decision usually comes down to a personal preference based on stats and performance. This year, though, there are at least five top-tier players, each of whom could have a claim at being at the top of the heap.
The top four picks — the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham, the Houston Rockets’ Jalen Green, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley and the Toronto Raptors’ Scottie Barnes, respectively — along with Josh Giddey (No. 6, Oklahoma City Thunder) and Franz Wagner (No. 8, Orlando Magic) appear to be in the conversation for the award, and it won’t be an easy call.
The numbers tell a story, with Cunningham leading the way in scoring (16.5 points), fourth in rebounds (5.8) and second in assists (5.2). There’s some cache that comes with being the No. 1 pick, but as was the case in the past few years. The last top pick to win the award in the year he was drafted was Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16. Ben Simmons won in 2017-18, but he was the top pick in ’16.
The depth in this draft class is what seems to stand out, with several other players, such as Jalen Suggs (Orlando Magic) and Jonathan Kuminga (Golden State Warriors) also contributing with their teams.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey made an early pitch for Cunningham after another virtuoso performance in Monday’s overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks.
“He’s Rookie of the Year. It’s not even close, as far as talent evaluation. I’ve been in it a long time and seen (a lot of) players,” Casey said. “The only thing that (voters) can hold against us is we are a young team rebuilding, but talent wise, he’s the guy that can finish games for you, and that’s what you need in those situations.”
The eye test says Cunningham is playing the best ball of any of the top contenders, especially after an injury slowed his start to the season. Now that he’s healthy, Cunningham looks every bit like the best rookie — and in any other year, he might be the easy choice, but this year is different.
It’s an interesting conversation, but one thing to consider is Cunningham’s competitiveness and his record against the other contenders.
Cunningham is 8-3 in those games against the others, including a 3-0 record against the Raptors and Barnes, and 2-1 against Mobley’s and Wagner’s squads. In two games against the Rockets, Cunningham is 1-1, but Green didn’t play in the second matchup, which the Rockets won. In those head-to-head matchups, Cunningham is averaging 15 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists.
Clutch time is where Cunningham seems to have an advantage. The final minutes of regulation and overtime against the Hawks can be the highlight reel for his effectiveness.
“He’s playing like a 10-year vet, so to get 10 assists and 28 points is big time. He deserves that,” Casey said. “He got us down the stretch and we were trying to go to him down the stretch, which we wanted to, and we kind of got what we wanted down the stretch. For me, he’s the Rookie of the Year with the way he won the game for us tonight.”
As for Cunningham, he’s keeping a team-first mentality, which could help his chances as the season progresses. Even through his success, he’s pointing back to the long-term plan of keeping the team on the rise and believing in the rebuild.
“I really like how the Pistons are playing right now. We’re playing really hard and playing for each other, and that’s what’s letting us win some games,” Cunningham said. “I really appreciate my team and my teammates trusting me with the ball, allowing me to get things going. They’re kind of looking at that (rookie of the year) race too, a little bit, and they want to put me in the right positions.
“At this point, we’re really rolling. I’m not really too worried about that race, as much as getting the building blocks and getting a foundation right for next year for the Pistons. I’m going to keep working, and I think I deserve the award, but at the end of the day, it’s a trophy. I think building something good with my team would mean a lot more.”