CLEVELAND — The NBA Rookie of the Year award has typically favored the highest-scoring rookie.
This year’s race is challenging that notion.
The Detroit Pistons‘ own Cade Cunningham, by any measurement, has a Rookie of the Year-worthy resume. He leads all rookies in scoring (16.9 points per game), is second in assists (5.4), fourth in rebounds (5.9) and has functioned as his team’s No. 1 scoring option for most of the season.
But Cunningham isn’t the favorite. That distinction belongs to Evan Mobley, a core part of the 41-30 Cleveland Cavaliers who are sixth in the Eastern Conference standings.
According to DraftKings, Mobley has minus-900 odds to win the award. Cunningham is in second place with plus-550 odds. Toronto Raptors forward Scottie Barnes is also firmly in the running, listed at plus-700 odds.
Cunningham may have strong numbers, but he’s on the NBA’s second-worst team. Like Mobley, Barnes has been a key contributor for a potential playoff team. The Raptors are 39-31 overall and own the seventh-best record in the East.
Cunningham and Mobley squared off for the final time this season on Saturday, with Mobley’s Cavs’ claiming a 113-109 victory. Both players tallied double doubles — Cunningham had 15 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, and Mobley finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.
Rookie of the Year voters have plenty to consider before they submit their ballots. Mobley is averaging 15.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks, and Barnes is averaging 15.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
“That’s unusual, because usually they’re in our situation in a rebuilding situation,” Dwane Casey said on Saturday of Mobley and Barnes playing for winning teams. “There’s so many things for a coach, I know fans look at the numbers and all the 3-point shooting and all that, but there’s so many other things you look at for young players. Speaking of Evan, speaking of Scottie Barnes, I think Barnes’ defense is solid, Evan’s shot-blocking and interior play is solid. There’s other things to measure that you see their growth in moreso than just scoring. And I will say Cade’s in that same boat. It’s just, for me, as a fans and as a coach, it’s just not about scoring. It’s about a lot of other things that they bring to the table.”
Earlier this month, Casey said he believes Cunningham is the Rookie of the Year, and it isn’t close from a pure talent evaluation. Mobley and Barnes have been more efficient, but they haven’t had to carry the load that Cunningham must. Mobley has two All-Star teammates in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, and a former All-Star teammate in Kevin Love. Barnes is also flanked with All-Star talent — Pascal Siakam made the game in 2020, and Fred VanVleet made his first All-Star game this year.
The Pistons don’t have a single player who has made an All-Star game. And while Cunningham had an off-shooting night on Saturday in his first game since his two-game absence with an illness, he has been playing his best basketball of the season this month. In eight March games before Saturday, he averaged 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.9 assists while shooting 44.3% overall and 34.9% from 3. He’s been Detroit’s closer at the end of games, and is a major reason why the team has played improved basketball since the All-Star break.
HEAVY IS THE HEAD …: Cade Cunningham must get used to carrying greater workload for Pistons
“I just feel like Cade brings so much to the table as far as where we are in our rebuild situation,” Casey said. “We’re not in the playoff hunt because we’re purposefully building our resume. Again, you can make a case for each player, but like I said a couple weeks ago, I’m very biased.”
But Casey also sees the big picture. The Pistons worked out Mobley last summer, and Casey noted how quick of a learner he was. His first workout was so-so, but his second workout was “off the charts,” Casey said.
“His progression is still growing, just like Cade’s,” Casey said. “You see something new every week. He’s no different. He has the luxury of having All-Stars around him that he can lean on and watch, not that Cade doesn’t have people he can do that with, but he has Kevin Love, who’s been to how many Finals. He knocked me out a few times. He’s got that support system that’s been where he’s trying to go to. So I think that helps him grow pretty quick, and he has. And J.B. (Bickerstaff’s) done a good job of bringing him along.”
After Saturday’s loss, Cunningham is now 8-4 overall against Mobley, Barnes, Orlando Magic forward Franz Wagner, Oklahoma City guard Josh Giddey and Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green. The Pistons split the season series with Cleveland, 2-2, and Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff understands firsthand just how talented Cunningham is. Cunningham posted a 19-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double during a come-from-behind win over the Cavaliers on Jan. 30.
“He’s a tough matchup,” Bickerstaff said. “With him, I see a lot of patience in his game. You very rarely see him sped up and making out of control plays, or out of control decisions. He plays at his tempo no matter what.
“I think this class is gonna go down when we look back 10, 15 years from now, as a top-three, top-four draft class of all time,” Bickerstaff added. You look at the group of guys, obviously you guys get to see Cade every night, we get to see Evan every night, but there’s so many guys that can play at such a high level. Their skill set, their size, and their ability to impact winning, which is the most important thing that we should value. Scottie Barnes rolling in Toronto. You see all these young guys, and they play the game more maturely than their age, as they should, and then they have immense talent to go with it.”