The 2022 Rookie of the Year race has a chance to be unforgettable.
The 2021 NBA Draft class is loaded with talent and several different players have a legitimate chance of taking home the honours. In fact, you could make a case for each of the top six players selected, each of whom has a forgeable path to the award.
But what does that path look like for each of the top rookie prospects?
The path to the 2021 NBA Rookie of the Year award
Cunningham's path to Rookie of the Year isn't very hard to imagine - he's the favourite.
The No. 1 overall pick is expected to become the cornerstone and leader of the Detroit Pistons' franchise from Day 1, giving him as good an opportunity as anyone to prove himself worthy of the first-year honour.
When envisioning Cunningham's road to the award, I see a pathway similar to the 2021 Rookie of the Year, LaMelo Ball.
A do-it-all guard who has the potential to put up stat sheet-stuffing numbers on a young team with some promise, elevating his program a step higher from the previous season. Ball averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game on his way to the award, and it's not unfathomable to think Cunningham could produce a similar stat line, although I'd predict Ball's assists average was a bit higher than I would expect for the Oklahoma State product.
Only seven rookies in the last 20 years have been able to average over 15 points, five assists, five rebounds and one steal per game: Ball, Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, Michael Carter-Williams, Tyreke Evans, Chris Paul and LeBron James.
Notice the trend with that list? They all won Rookie of the Year.
That is Cunningham's path: Reaching that benchmark (which I believe is achievable for the 19-year-old), while leading the Pistons to a better record than last season, potentially flirting with a spot in the Play-In Tournament.
Green hasn't been shy about his goal for his rookie season: "I need it," the No. 2 pick said of the award in an interview with Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "I feel like I'm the best player in the class. I didn't go No. 1, so I'm going to go get the Rookie of the Year."
With Cunningham's path being comparable to Ball's, I actually think Green's path is very similar to last year's award runner-up, Anthony Edwards.
Green is the best pure scorer in this draft class and has the potential to be the type of player who will one day win scoring titles. If you lead your rookie class in points per game, you're going to be considered for Rookie of the Year. It's as simple as that.
With Green's opportunity to be the focal point of the Houston Rockets' offence and the ease with which he scores the rock, I believe the G League Ignite product has a chance to have a historic scoring rookie season.
Will he reach Michael Jordan's 3-point-era rookie record of 28.2 points per game? Almost certainly not. But I don't see why he can't flirt with Allen Iverson's mark of 23.5 points per game - the second-highest rookie scoring average by a perimeter player in the 3-point era.
The Rockets are another young team with a lot of intriguing pieces. If Green can post monster scoring numbers while leading Houston to a competitive season with a better record than last year, he could board a hype train that surpasses Cunningham.
For what it's worth, Green is my pick for the 2021 Rookie of the Year.
It seems like it's always tougher to generate a buzz as a big man in today's NBA, but Mobley is the type of versatile 7-footer who can create enough noise to win the award.
Mobley's Rookie of the Year campaign starts by averaging a double-double in points and rebounds.
In the last 20 seasons, there have been 12 rookie big men who averaged a double-double: Deandre Ayton, Karl-Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Emeka Okafor, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Johnson, Dikembe Mutumbo and Derrick Coleman.
Ayton, Howard, Mourning and Mutumbo are the only bigs on that list who didn't win Rookie of the Year. Ayton missed out on it because of a ridiculous season from Doncic, whereas Howard finished second to Okafor, Mourning finished second to O'Neal and Mutumbo finished second to Johnson.
An area where I think Mobley can really set himself apart, along with averaging a double-double, is on the defensive end. He'll put himself in very exclusive company if he can add a block and a steal per game to that challenge, joining David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Buck Williams and Marques Johnson as the only rookies to ever accomplish that feat.
Averaging at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, one block and one steal per game may seem like unfair criteria for the No. 3 overall pick, but that's what it would take to pass Cunningham and Green.
If he can achieve that while helping the Cleveland Cavaliers fight for a Play-In spot, Mobley will take home Rookie of the Year.
While it's not always seen as a positive because it sometimes means a lesser role for first-year players, Barnes' biggest advantage in the Rookie of the Year race is playing for a competitive team.
The Toronto Raptors will likely be the best team on this list of Rookie of the Year favourites, meaning Barnes' impact could help lead to a potential playoff spot or Play-In bid.
The No. 4 overall pick's campaign for the award starts with a major opportunity, filling in for All-Star forward Pascal Siakam, who is expected to miss the start of the season following offseason shoulder surgery. Barnes should get a fair chance to compete for Siakam's spot in the starting lineup. If he starts, thrives in that role and continues that momentum throughout the season, it's not unreasonable to think he could win Rookie of the Year.
He is anticipated to be a point forward, meaning he could be filling the massive void left behind by the greatest player in franchise history in Kyle Lowry. If Barnes is orchestrating Toronto's offence, getting everyone involved with impressive assist numbers to go with double figures scoring and a high rebounding average, that's a start toward taking home the hardware. I also expect head coach Nick Nurse to rely on Barnes' defensive prowess, taking on a wide variety of assignments that could help build his case.
If Barnes can get his scoring average above 10 points per game and come close to that aforementioned five-assist, five-rebound mark while also locking down defensively and playing a significant role in the Raptors earning a spot in the Play-In Tournament (or better), he'll be hard to ignore for Rookie of the Year.
Suggs is coming into his rookie season with a chip on his shoulder after being passed on four times in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Falling to the Orlando Magic may work in the Gonzaga product's favour, though, because he'll be given the keys to the offence immediately. Suggs is the type of leader and floor general who can make an instant impact on winning, and although it's a daunting task on a rebuilding team, winning is his path to Rookie of the Year.
The Magic snapped a two-year playoff streak last season but with some talent returning from injuries around him in players like Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, Suggs could try and elevate his new squad to a Play-In bid to make a statement. It won't be easy in an increasingly competitive Eastern Conference, but his team will at least have to be better than other rebuilding teams with star rookies like Detroit or Houston, I would assume.
But Suggs should be a candidate to shoot for that 15 points, five rebounds and five assists average that I mentioned for Cunningham. He's just as well-rounded as a player and I believe he'll have fewer growing pains than most of the prospects in his class in making the leap to the NBA.
If he can add in a few clutch heroics highlights like we've seen from him in the past, that will only help his case.
It's not far-fetched to think Suggs can make all of the above happen, because he's done nothing but win and succeed at every level of basketball to this point.
If we're talking about an opportunity to put up big numbers as a rookie, Giddey should have as high of a usage rate as any player on this list.
The Australian guard will likely start from Day 1 for the rebuilding Oklahoma City Thunder, running point with talented players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort around him. With the Thunder fully focused on the future, the development of their young talent will be at the forefront of their to-do list this season, meaning Giddey will learn through experience.
He already has a season of professional basketball under his belt, taking home NBL Rookie of the Year honours by averaging 10.9 points, 7.6 assists, 7.3 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. He recorded a pair of triple-doubles during his rookie NBL season, something that isn't unforeseeable as a first-year player in the NBA, either.
In fact, it may be the best way to create some hype around a Rookie of the Year campaign. Giddey should see the playing time to be a triple-double machine during his rookie season. In recent history for rookies, Ben Simmons' 12 triple-doubles and Luka Doncic's eight triple-doubles would be two impressive milestones to aim for.
Although the competition is tougher, Giddey could also use his rookie NBL stats as a benchmark during his first NBA season in pursuit of the award.
Winning Rookie of the Year starts with having a big enough role to bolster your stat line, and Giddey will have that in OKC.
Jonathan Kuminga: Kuminga's path to Rookie of the Year is tough to determine because he may not have the opportunity to put up big enough numbers to win the award. Playing for a fully healthy Golden State Warriors squad alongside the likes of three future Hall of Famers in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Kuminga would have to thrive in his role while playing a significant enough part in his team getting back toward the top of the Western Conference.
Alperen Sengün: I expect Sengün to start in the Rockets' frontcourt and he should have the chance to put up pretty impressive numbers, but being teammates with No. 2 pick Jalen Green hinders his chance at Rookie of the Year. He would have to outperform Green significantly to receive real consideration, no matter how great his rookie campaign is.
Davion Mitchell: Mitchell is another dark horse for Rookie of the Year but playing behind (or next to) De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, he may not be at the center of the Sacramento Kings' game plan enough to win the award. His defence will be a talking point, but will he have the ball in his hands frequently to put up the scoring and assist numbers he needs? It's hard to see it happening, but it's not impossible.
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