The NBA Rookie of the Year vote has gotten even more complicated. Yesterday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Evan Mobley sprained his left ankle and is out for the next three games. This comes at an especially difficult time for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have lost four of their last five games and have not only been jumped in the Eastern Conference standings by the Toronto Raptors, but have also fallen into the play-in tournament. One other Rookie of the Year candidate has helped move that Raptors team into the top-six: Scottie Barnes.
Cleveland’s fall includes two duels between Mobley and Barnes this month, the best being on March 6, when the Raptors won in Cleveland and both players had big nights. However, Mobley’s 20 points, 17 rebounds, and three blocks included four turnovers and five personal fouls. Barnes’ 19 points, 12 rebounds, and three steals came with no turnovers and only three fouls. The Raptors would win again at home later this month.
These two have been at the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation for the overwhelming majority of this season. Cade Cunningham has been great as the No. 1 overall pick for the Detroit Pistons, but he missed time early this season and is playing for a losing basketball team, unlike Barnes and Mobley.
Both the Raptors and the Cavaliers dealt with injuries last year, which resulted in both teams finishing with disappointing seasons. Neither was predicted to make the playoffs in 2022. The Raptors even traded arguably the most important player in the history of their franchise, Kyle Lowry, and the Cavaliers lost 24.3 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting early this season with an injury to Colin Sexton. Yet both teams have managed to stay firmly in the playoff race this season, and much of it has to do with the play of their star rookies.
Pascal Siakam and Darius Garland have been excellent, but neither player has been as durable as their rookie teammates. Both Barnes and Mobley have missed less than 10 games so far this season. Mobley has been viewed as the special player from this rookie class. His statistics aren’t eye-popping like Luka Dončić in 2018, or even Cunningham this season. But when it comes to the eye test, Mobley is the best. His 7-foot-4 wingspan and early solid defensive instincts — most young NBA players have no clue how to even rotate on defense — have helped steady the Cavs and lifted them to their first playoff appearance since LeBron James led them past the Boston Celtics in seven games (and on to the NBA Finals) where they would get annihilated by the Golden State Warriors, after J.R. Smith forgot where he was on a basketball court in 2018.
As much promise as Mobley shows as a potential All-NBA player, the Rookie of the Year in 2022 is Scottie Barnes.
Mobley had to be dependable early for the Cavaliers and has performed admirably, but being the best player requires more than being a physical specimen.
Barnes has done it all for the Raptors. He scores from anywhere on the court and is able to put his shoulder into veteran players who can destroy space for young players. Rarely do rookies enter the league and play bully ball, but this Gen-Zer has made it a point to push his opponents around all season. At the combine, Barnes measured in at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and he weighed in at 227 pounds. It takes time for many young players, but Barnes has used his bulky frame to his advantage all season.
Count me in as one of the people who believe Mobley has the most potential as any 2021-22 rookie, but whatever Mobley turns into in the coming years is not what Barnes is now. He’s a dependable scoring option and strong defender for a team that won 60-plus games just two seasons ago. Barnes uses that long (and unusually strong for his age) body to punish his veteran opposition. He’s also shooting close to 50 percent from the field, a rarity for an NBA rookie.
Winning has added an element to the Rookie of the Year race that usually is reserved for the MVP. Of the three most likely contenders for that award, two will be playing in the postseason. Those two are Mobley and Barnes, but it’s Barnes who has played well enough to make Ontario forget about Kyle.
Mobley and Cunningham could one day face each other for the Eastern Conference championship. For now though, Barnes can dip a shoulder into either one of them and send them flying into a summer camp employee outfit. Combine that with a 6-seed for the team that just recently moved on from one of it’s championship legends. These next two games, minimum, that Mobley is out should be enough time for all of the NBA voters to see that the future is now in Toronto.