Rookie Roundup: Top Picks Make Their Debut

The top five picks in the draft made their regular-season debut on Wednesday night. The sample size is extremely small, and while some performed better than others, all five appear destined for greatness.

Chad Smith profile picture
Sports Editor
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Wednesday night was a busy time in the NBA world. There were 11 games on the schedule, with all 22 teams playing their first game of the season. There were some great games and there were some duds but there was something significant in every one of them. The new-look Bulls were in action, as were the revamped Celtics. Kemba Walker made his Knicks debut in The Garden against his former team. The 76ers tipped off their first game without Ben Simmons and there was the showdown in the West between the Nuggets and Suns.

While most eyes were on the superstars like Jayson Tatum, Joel Embiid, Donovan Mitchell, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Damian Lillard, the top five rookies were all on the floor last night. It was more than just a season debut for these top picks, as they played their first regular-season games in what should be long and successful careers.

One game is the ultimate small sample size, but it is noteworthy to evaluate their performances and what challenges they may face over the course of the next 81 games. There will be plenty of mistakes and learning along the way, but these five organizations should still be smiling from ear to ear as they mold their young stars.

Let’s break down the next generation of talent who made their first impressions on Wednesday night.

Cade Cunningham, Pistons

The top overall pick was not able to make his debut last night, as he continues to recover from a minor ankle sprain suffered early in training camp. He missed all four preseason games and is not expected to play during Detroit’s current three-game road trip. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver gave some insight on the situation Wednesday morning when he joined the WXYT-FM 97.1 radio station in Detroit.

“He’s pretty much day to day, but we need to ramp him up and get some conditioning going and get him acclimated to going full speed at five-on-five,” Weaver said. “Hopefully we’ll get him back sooner than later, but I would anticipate hopefully seeing him when we get back off the road.” That timeline would possibly allow him to make his debut on October 30 at home against the Magic. Their next three games will be much tougher, as they face the Bucks, 76ers, and Nets.

Jalen Green, Rockets

The No. 2 pick might be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but his debut could not have been much worse. The Rockets were facing the Timberwolves, led by Karl-Anthony Towns and last year’s Rookie of the Year Anthony Edwards. Green averaged 20.3 points in the Summer League and 13.3 points in four preseason games but he struggled on Wednesday night.

Green started and played 32 minutes, finishing with just 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists on 4-14 shooting. The G-League standout did not get to the free-throw line at all and was a minus 37 on the night. The good news was he did not have any turnovers, which is rare for most rookies. Houston has begun their rebuild and there will be plenty of nights like this. Green will have a lot of freedom in this offense and will have much better days in the near future.

Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Mobley is an athletic seven-footer that can defend at the rim and on the perimeter and has a solid handle on offense. He averaged 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game in Summer League and 8.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.6 blocks per game in the preseason. The No. 3 overall pick is part of a crowded front line in Cleveland with Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love, Lauri Markkanen but showed his upside on Wednesday night.

He might not be the focal point of the offense in Cleveland, but Mobley displayed his skillset on both ends of the floor in their game against the Grizzlies. Mobley finished with 17 points on 7-13 shooting and made one of his two attempts from three-point range. He pulled down 9 rebounds and dished out 6 assists while also recording a steal and a block on defense. Another impressive stat is that he did not have a single turnover in his 38 minutes on the floor.

Scottie Barnes, Raptors

Many people were surprised when Toronto took Barnes with the fourth-overall pick, but he is proving to be the real deal. The former Florida State product led all rookies and ranked 10th overall in assists during the preseason (5.6 per game) as he flashed his all-around play with averages of 9.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. The Raptors were finally able to play in their home arena as Barnes started and played 33 minutes.

Barnes finished with 12 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal but was 5-13 from the floor and committed 6 turnovers in his debut. He was aggressive on both ends of the floor and seemed comfortable in transition. His biggest weakness is his jump shot, and all expectations are that it will improve as he progresses throughout his career. He went 2-3 from the free-throw line and is not afraid to attack the basket when their offense gets stale.

Jalen Suggs, Magic

The good news for Suggs is that he got to start Wednesday’s game after Gary Harris was ruled out. The bad news is that he struggled in his 30 minutes of action. The fifth pick in the draft finished with 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 3 turnovers. He shot just 3-14 overall and was 1-6 from downtown. The one bright spot for him was getting to the free-throw line, where he connected on all three attempts.

Suggs dazzled in Summer League averaging 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds but in three preseason games, he averaged 5.0 points and 3.7 rebounds, shooting just 27.3 percent from the field. Like most rookies, he will have many ups and downs throughout the season, and Orlando will need to remain patient. It is not a shock that all four of the rookies lost on Wednesday night, but these are all rebuilding teams that are grooming these talented players to hopefully one day become the face of their franchises.

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Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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