Watching Cade Cunningham night in and night out has been a joy for Detroit Pistons fans and NBA fans at large. Compiling a case for the reigning No. 1 overall pick to be Rookie of the Year seems like it would be effortless … until you hear the case for other players and realize the strength of the 2021 NBA Draft class.
I hear others mention the things Cade is doing that haven’t been done since Michael Jordan and have no qualms with determining he is the best rookie of this draft class. (To be clear, if I had a mythical vote, I would vote for Cade).
It turns out when you stop back and stop arguing in favor of a single player, you can take stock of the entire class and realize — this group is stacked life few before it.
Putting aside the rookie of the year vote, can you imagine how overjoyed the Orlando Magic are to have nabbed Franz Wagner with their second lottery pick of the night? Or the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder missing out on Cade but getting Josh Giddey? Even Jalen Green, who struggled early, is showing the superior offensive game that made him the second overall pick.
And we could keep going. Johnathan Kuminga, Ziare Williams, Alperen Sengun in the first round, and Herb Jones and Ayo Dosunmu in the second. And I’m still leaving quality players off the board that likely deserve a shoutout.
Before the draft, Detroit Pistons GM Troy Weaver was asked about the upcoming draft class and he famously said “I don’t see Shaq or LeBron, but I see high-level guys.”
Weaver was more right than he knew at the time. What if there was no LeBron in the 2021 draft but there was multiple Dwyane Wades or Chris Boshes?
That 2003 draft class featured a prolific bust (someone named … checks notes … Milicic, Darko) but was stacked at the top with LeBron James, Caremelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. All in or destined for the Hall of Fame.
In truth, though, that ’03 draft was relatively top-heavy. After those Hall-of-Famers the next best career might belong to David West. When looking at loaded and deep draft classes, you don’t have to look too far.
The 2018 class is still young but is loaded with promise. Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Wendell Carter Jr., Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, Michael Porter Jr., Anfernee Simons, Robert Williams, Jalen Brunson, Mitchell Robinson and Gary Trent Jr.
The 2001 class is perhaps underrated as it boasts extremely good but not great talent up and down the draft order including Pau Gasol, Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace, Tony Parker and even beloved Detroit second-round steal Mehmet Okur.
The 1996 class is likely the best ever — combining depth, all-world ability and star power. Kobe Bryant lead the way but it also had Allen Iverson and Steve Nash who all defined the game in their own ways. It also had Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Jermain O’Neal and, it should be noted, the best undrafted player of the modern era in Ben Wallace.
The game has changed some, sure, but it feels like what makes this class special is the versatility on both ends required to excel in today’s NBA game. One of the best cases for Cade to win rookie of the year is not just his scoring, his clutch playmaking and offensive load, but also his underrated defense and positional versatility.
The case for Barnes is defined by his ability to seamlessly help in every face of the game and be a prolific glue guy at just 20 years old.
And Evan Mobley came roaring out of the gate and will likely win the award because he combines the potential of being a generational defender with superior passing and shooting skills as a 7-footer.
The top 30 players in the rookie class has already scored the sixth-most points since any class since 1996 despite playing just the 15th most minutes thanks to COVID, minutes management and injury.
It also boasts two rookies who are fighting for the rare honor of all-defense consideration in Jones and Mobley.
As John Hollinger notes in his recent column looking at the rookie class at The Athletic, this rookie class is also young even by modern standards.
Remember, too, that this is a very young rookie class — the first seven picks were one-and-dones or their class equivalent, and eighth pick Wagner was the same age as the one-and-dones despite playing two years at Michigan. Overall, 19 of the first 30 picks have yet to turn 21; three others only recently crossed into legality. We still have a ton of runway for this group, and they’re already killing it.
Perhaps it is already time to stop arguing about Rookie of the Year awards and start arguing that Cade Cunningham and company are among the best class drafted in NBA history.