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Rookie Comps: 2021 NBA Draft Class

Is Jalen Green the next Bradley Beal? Whose career paths will Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley follow? We ran the numbers to come up with five comps for every notable (qualifying) rookie from the 2021-22 season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2022 rookie class is special. Most NBA newbies, especially those drafted onto the worst teams, take their lumps as they adjust to the speed and physicality of the best basketball league in the world; very few meaningfully contribute to winning basketball early in their careers.

Yet multiple rookies this season have legitimate cases to receive All-Defensive Team votes. More are playing big minutes for playoff teams. Others—including the draft’s top two selections—are surging down the stretch. What does this all mean for the rest of their careers?

Just like we have in other past seasons, let’s identify the best rookie comps for the 2021-22 draft class. Some reminders, before we begin:

  1. This analysis is only about offensive comparisons. Defense is not included, as it is too difficult to measure on a holistic individual level, especially in the small samples that these rookies have. Keep this limitation in mind when looking at the top comps for this rookie class’s stout defenders.
  2. The comparisons use a mix of stats that reflect a mix of offensive style and production. For a full list of the stats and rules, check out last year’s post. The only difference this year is that we’re also factoring in player ages to the comp calculations.
  3. The pool of possible comps includes 558 players—every rookie since the 1999-00 season to play at least 800 minutes.

The following lottery picks are not included because they haven’t played enough minutes to form a meaningful sample: James Bouknight (no. 11 pick), Josh Primo (no. 12), and Moses Moody (no. 14). Players are ordered by draft slot.

Indiana Pacers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Cade Cunningham, Pistons (No. 1 Pick)

Top comps: (1) Cole Anthony, (2) Dennis Smith Jr., (3) Kemba Walker, (4) LaMelo Ball, (5) Brandon Jennings

What it means: I want to preface this section by expressing my own personal opinion, independent of the numbers: I think Cunningham will be an excellent NBA player.

So why does his comp list look so confusing? Mostly, it reflects the extreme risks and rewards of a high-usage, lower-efficiency rookie guard. Walker worked on his jumper and recovered to become an All-Star; Smith and Jennings didn’t; the jury is still out on Anthony. (Ball wasn’t really an inefficient scorer as a rookie; that’s one of the main differences between him and Cunningham, and why he’s not the no. 1 comp here.)

For all of Cunningham’s strengths this season, he’s shooting just 41 percent from the field (32 percent from 3), and his true shooting percentage rates 12 percent below the league average. There’s good reason to think he’ll improve: Cunningham made 40 percent of his college 3s, for instance, and his mid-80s free throw percentages suggest he has a workable stroke from distance. He’ll get easier looks with better teammates.

Yet these early misses also add weight to the predraft concerns about his explosiveness. Cunningham struggles to score in traffic around the basket: He’s made just 56 percent of his shots in the restricted area, according to NBA Advanced Stats, which ranks 76th out of 80 players with at least 200 attempts.

Most worrisome of all is his apparent inability to get free points at the line. In summer league, Cunningham attempted just two free throws in three games. And in the regular season, he’s drawn fouls on just 5.2 percent of his drives, according to Second Spectrum, which ranks 44th out of 54 players with at least 500 drives. Other than fellow rookie Josh Giddey (2.8 percent), every player who ranks below Cunningham by this measure is shorter than him.

While Cunningham should gain more respect from referees as he grows older, his problem is unique even among rookies. This century, 34 rookies have at least a 25 percent usage rate—and Cunningham ranks last among that group in free throw rate. The names closest to him are not inspiring comps.

Lowest Free Throw Rates for High-Usage Rookies This Century

Player Usage Free Throw Attempts Per 100 Field Goal Attempts
Player Usage Free Throw Attempts Per 100 Field Goal Attempts
Cade Cunningham 27.1% 15.0
Jordan Crawford 27.0% 16.8
Dennis Smith Jr. 28.9% 18.8
Marcus Thornton 25.3% 20.0

Cunningham has some Luka Doncic in his game, as a bigger ball handler with the pace and patience to manipulate defenses. But Luka shot 41 free throws for every 100 field goals in his first season, third highest among the 34 high-usage rookies and nearly three times as many as Cunningham is attempting now.

There’s no shame in not being as resplendent a rookie as Doncic, one of the best young players in NBA history, and I think Cunningham will make multiple All-Star teams in his career. But his rookie season also raises questions about his ceiling as a leading scorer and no. 1 option.

Jalen Green, Rockets (2)

Top comps: (1) Bradley Beal, (2) J.R. Smith, (3) Jamal Murray, (4) Devin Booker, (5) Tyler Herro

What it means: Wow! For a rookie with such a poor start as Green’s—midway through the season, multiple advanced metrics rated him as the least valuable player in the league—these comps are extraordinary. This is basically a dream list for a shooting guard.

Green’s season-long numbers look solid now because in his past 20 games, he’s scored more, shot better, and improved his passing:

Jalen Green’s Tale of Two Seasons

Statistic First 33 Games Last 20 Games
Statistic First 33 Games Last 20 Games
Points/Game 14.2 18.1
Assists/Game 2.2 3.3
Turnovers/Game 2.4 1.7
FG% 37.4% 46.8%
3P% 29.1% 36.4%

Green won’t receive a single first-place Rookie of the Year vote this season; he probably won’t even make first team All-Rookie, given his sour start. But nobody on his comp list received a single first-place Rookie of the Year vote, either, and now—Smith aside—they’re all among the top shooting guards in the league. Green should prepare to score plenty of points in his career.

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Evan Mobley, Cavaliers (3)

Top comps: (1) Wendell Carter Jr., (2) Rui Hachimura, (3) Luol Deng, (4) Darius Miles, (5) Kelly Olynyk

What it means: As a reminder, these comps don’t look at defensive statistics, so they inherently miss a great deal of the appeal of a player like Mobley, who already looks like one of the top defenders in the league. I was in attendance at the Cavaliers’ loss in Chicago over the weekend and almost jumped out of my seat at this Mobley block:

What about Mobley’s offense? It’s no surprise to see some wings on his comps list, given that Mobley has mostly played as a forward next to the now-injured Jarrett Allen, and had to expand his shooting range and passing accordingly. But Carter, fittingly, looks like the best comp: Like Mobley, the rookie Carter displayed a deft touch around the rim and good passing chops for a big man, but he needed to grow into his jump shot. (And he has: Carter has attempted about twice as many 3s this season as he did in his entire career before now.)

Mobley’s a bit different in that he’s at least taking 3s in his first season, but like most members of this rookie class, he needs to improve his shooting. His current figures of 26 percent from 3-point range and 68 percent from the free throw line—both in line with Mobley’s numbers in college—won’t cut it for a superstar.

Scottie Barnes, Raptors (4)

Top comps: (1) Rui Hachimura, (2) Luol Deng, (3) Omri Casspi, (4) Kelly Olynyk, (5) R.J. Hampton

What it means: Barnes and Mobley have many commonalities. They’re the two leading contenders for Rookie of the Year; they’re stellar defenders; they’re playing multiple positions for a surprising Eastern playoff contender; and they have similar offensive stats, which explains why so many of their top comps overlap.

Per 75 possessions, Mobley is averaging 16 points, nine rebounds, and three assists; Barnes is at 16, eight, and four, respectively. Mobley has a 20 percent usage rate, Barnes 19 percent. Their true shooting percentages are separated by half a percentage point. So take almost all of the analysis in Mobley’s section and apply it here, too: In both rookies’ cases, there’s a lot to like about a player with such versatile offensive production and anchor-level defensive ability.

Orlando Magic v New York Knicks Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Jalen Suggs, Magic (5)

Top comps: (1) Emmanuel Mudiay, (2) Kemba Walker, (3) Cole Anthony, (4) De’Aaron Fox, (5) Brandon Jennings

What it means: The Raptors surprised everyone when they selected Barnes fourth, ahead of Suggs. Now it looks like they knew what they were doing—because while Barnes has impressed on both ends, Suggs has suffered an abysmal rookie campaign.

Suggs’s season has been split into two halves, around a broken thumb that kept him off the court for about six weeks. Neither has gone well, despite a glimmer of hope upon his return. Before his injury, Suggs shot 34 percent overall and 26 percent from 3; since his return, he’s at 38 percent overall and just 17 percent from 3. Suggs’s overall true shooting percentage, adjusted for the league environment, ranks in the 3rd percentile for rookies this century.

The silver lining is that Suggs is still contributing elsewhere, and his top comps—some of whom overlap with Cunningham’s because of similar weaknesses—show room for a career rebound. The Fox comparison is the most intriguing; as J. Kyle Mann wrote for The Ringer last month, Suggs resembles the Kings point guard as a rookie because both struggled to adapt their natural pace to the NBA. Fox still hasn’t developed a reliable jump shot, which is a real concern for Suggs—but Fox is also his team’s leading scorer and the recipient of a max contract, which would certainly register as a win for Suggs at this point.

Josh Giddey, Thunder (6)

Top comps: None

What it means: Wait, Giddey has no close comps? Essentially, the way this model works is that it generates a “similarity score” for the rookie in question with all 558 other qualifying rookies this century. And not one of the 558 scores for Giddey crosses the necessary threshold to look like a close comp. (For context, a more middle-of-the-road rookie like Ziaire Williams has 60 comps with a closer score than Giddey’s nominal no. 1.)

Giddey stands so far apart from the crowd because of his tremendously strange collection of traits. He is young but a fantastic passer. He has a relatively high usage rate but incredibly low efficiency. He takes so few free throws (just 11.8 per 100 shots) that he makes Cunningham look like James Harden.

The only other rookies this century with similar rebound and assist figures to Giddey are Ben Simmons and LaMelo Ball—but he takes way too many 3s to look like Simmons, while not making nearly enough of them to look like Ball.

Giddey’s lack of close comps is bizarre but simultaneously thrilling. This exercise is meant to help us chart rookies’ possible career paths; we can see how Green might develop into a scorer like Beal, or how Suggs might never shoot well enough to stick in a starting lineup. But we have no comparable sense of Giddey’s future; he’s charting his own path. What a wonderfully fitting weirdo for a wonderfully weird roster.

Clippers vs Warriors in Los Angeles, CA.

Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors (7)

Top comps: (1) Jaren Jackson Jr., (2) Quentin Richardson, (3) Jayson Tatum

What it means: After a slow introduction to the NBA, Kuminga has burst into the Warriors’ rotation since Draymond Green’s injury, thanks to both positional need and stronger-than-expected play from the rookie. He offers a rare blend of usage and efficiency, as one of just nine rookies this century with at least a 22 percent usage rate and a true shooting mark 5 percent better than average.

Other than 28-year-old rookie Chris Copeland, every player on this list developed into at least a solid NBA player, if not more.

Best True Shooting for Rookies This Century

Player Season Age Usage True Shooting vs. League
Player Season Age Usage True Shooting vs. League
Yao Ming 2002-03 22 22.1% +9.8%
Michael Porter Jr. 2019-20 21 22.3% +9.3%
Chris Copeland 2012-13 28 25.3% +9.1%
Karl-Anthony Towns 2015-16 20 24.9% +9.0%
Pau Gasol 2001-02 21 22.6% +8.8%
Kyrie Irving 2011-12 19 28.7% +7.4%
Jonathan Kuminga 2021-22 19 23.2% +7.3%
Corey Maggette 1999-00 20 22.1% +5.8%
Jaren Jackson Jr. 2018-19 19 22.8% +5.6%
Minimum 22 percent usage

Because of Kuminga’s unusual profile, his list of close comps includes only three players—and even though the numbers are similar, his style doesn’t seem at all like those of Richardson or Tatum. Jackson fits as a sensible comp, though, in terms of both his statistical performance and positional fit: Both players are great athletes with productive if raw offensive skill sets, and, as a bonus, they both display immense defensive potential, too. This is just one reason the Warriors wouldn’t part with Kuminga for a veteran at the trade deadline.

Franz Wagner, Magic (8)

Top comps: (1) Bradley Beal, (2) Jason Richardson, (3) Stephen Jackson, (4) Kevin Porter Jr., (5) Devin Booker

What it means: Wagner’s production has fallen since the All-Star break—perhaps evidence of a rookie wall, perhaps a slump—but he’s almost played well enough for Orlando to compensate for Suggs’s disappointing season. The 6-foot-9 German profiles much more like a guard or wing than a big man; in fact, he rates better at assists (67th percentile among rookies this century) than rebounds (46th percentile), so it makes sense that his top comps are all smaller than he is.

That’s not a slight against Wagner, though. He’s impressed as a playmaker, with a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and could expand this element of his game further given more opportunities. And at the very least, his list of comps promises he’ll score in bunches from multiple levels of the court.

Davion Mitchell, Kings (9)

Top comps: (1) Bobby Brown, (2) Malachi Flynn, (3) Langston Galloway, (4) Will Solomon, (5) Ky Bowman

What it means: What is it with guards in this draft class who can’t shoot? Mitchell’s context-adjusted true shooting percentage is in the 6th percentile among rookies this century, barely ahead of Suggs’s, and Mitchell, 23, is an older rookie, meaning there’s much less reason to think he’ll improve.

If we ignored the age component of the comp model, Darius Garland would be one of Mitchell’s top comps. That’s encouraging because Garland subsequently blossomed into an All-Star—but Garland, now in his third season, is more than a year younger than Mitchell.

Mitchell is still a promising defender, and the Kings, via the Tyrese Haliburton trade, clearly want to give him room to grow. Yet as Mitchell’s list of actual top comps demonstrates, there is no precedent this century of an older rookie with his sort of production developing into a star.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Ziaire Williams, Grizzlies (10)

Top comps: (1) Mario Hezonja, (2) Daniel Gibson, (3) Kevin Huerter, (4) Nicolas Batum, (5) Jaden McDaniels

What it means: Is Williams the big 3-and-D wing the Grizzlies have long sought as they’ve built around Ja Morant and Jackson? It’s too early to tell, and Williams hasn’t been asked to do much on offense this season: He runs a mere 14 percent usage rate and barely collects any assists or rebounds.

But if his defense rounds into form as he gains NBA experience, there’s real promise here. Hezonja flamed out early, but Huerter, Batum, and McDaniels all offer different flavors of intriguing wing play that would fit on a team looking for a young supporting cast around its star.

Chris Duarte, Pacers (13)

Top comps: (1) Buddy Hield, (2) Morris Peterson, (3) MarShon Brooks, (4) Gordan Giricek, (5) Rodney Hood

What it means: Unlike Mitchell, Duarte is an older rookie who came into the league ready to score, and his first season and resulting top comp is just about the best-case scenario for a 24-year-old. Hield is Duarte’s new teammate in Indiana, but was once himself a 23-year-old rookie who nevertheless fulfilled expectations as a lottery pick thanks to his ability to stretch the floor.

Duarte isn’t the same shooter as Hield, but his overall production takes the same shape. Hield averaged 17 points, five rebounds, and two assists per 75 possessions as a rookie, with a 21.3 percent usage rate; Duarte’s at 17 points, five rebounds, and three assists per 75 possessions now, with an identical 21.3 percent usage rate.

Assorted Others

Let’s run through a handful of non-lottery rookies with top comps worth addressing:

• No. 15 pick Corey Kispert’s top four comps are Cam Johnson, Alex Abrines, Desmond Bane, and Caris LeVert. He went one spot outside the lottery, but the Wizards should be able to count on solid supplementary scoring from Kispert for a while.

• Unorthodox no. 16 pick Alperen Sengun has only one close comp: Lamar Odom. No other rookie this century has a statistical profile that remotely resembles Sengun’s. Relative to other rookies this century, Sengun rates above average in points, rebounds, assists, usage rate, and true shooting percentage, and he boasts one of the highest free throw rates. He and Green could be really fun together once Houston is ready to compete again.

• Two second-round rookies whose talents aren’t fully captured in this offense-only exercise are the Pelicans’ Herb Jones and the Bulls’ Ayo Dosunmu. Thus, their top comps are not particularly encouraging:

Jones: Mickael Gelabale, Jeffery Taylor, Kyle Weaver

Dosunmu: Weaver, Raul Neto, Leandro Barbosa

As ace defenders, both rookies are already valuable players. But given their offensive limitations, it seems unlikely, at least for now, that either one will transform into a brighter star—though a Barbosan spark plug who can also play lockdown perimeter defense is admittedly a fun dream for Dosunmu’s development.

Cam Thomas has some of the same top comps as Jalen Green, as both guards’ offensive numbers are very similar on a per-possession basis this season. For instance: Green and Thomas are both scoring precisely 18 points per 75 possessions, Green on 53 percent true shooting, Thomas on 52 percent.

• Even though Nugget Bones Hyland is 21, 19-year-old D’Angelo Russell is still his top comp because their rookie numbers are nearly identical on a per-possession basis. The only real difference, other than age, is that Hyland is taking more 3s.

• And finally, undrafted Laker Austin Reaves looks like he should stick around for a while in a complementary role. His top three comps—Josh Hart, James Posey, and Josh Richardson—suggest his promise as a 3-and-D wing.

Stats through Sunday’s games.

Real Ones

Howard Beck on the Miami Heat Stealing Game 2, Defending Nikola Jokic, and Kyrie Irving Wanting LeBron James in Dallas

NBA Finals

Did Nikola Jokic Dominate Just Like the Heat Wanted Him To?

New York, New York

Nicky T on Yankees-Dodgers, Mets Swept By Blue Jays, and AMA

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