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Kia Rookie Ladder: Jalen Green climbs into Top 5 as race heats up

Posted on March 17, 2022

The Rockets guard finds his rhythm as Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes hold the top spots.

Jalen Green’s game finally is catching up to his boasts.

Exuding confidence even before his NBA arrival last fall, the Houston Rockets guard set expectations high for himself after being selected No. 2 overall.

On Draft night he spilled over in his vision for his first season on the big stage. “I feel like I’m a three-level scorer,” Green said. “And at the same time, I got that killer mentality. I want to kill whoever’s in front of me. I think that’s all you really need. … Ask me to get a bucket and I promise I will.”

A product of the G League’s inaugural Ignite developmental team, Green broke a lot of promises by making only 37% of his shots, and 28.7% of his 3-point attempts, through January. His raw athletic ability and explosiveness were evident, particularly with Houston sidelining veteran John Wall to open up backcourt minutes. But Green was an unpolished gem in need of refinement, coaching and time to fit into the NBA game.

He wasn’t the only one tooting his horn, either. In this site’s annual GM survey, Green was predicted by nearly half of the league’s basketball honchos to win the 2022 Kia Rookie of the Year award. (None of whom, by the way, cast a vote for Cleveland’s Evan Mobley.)

Well, look at Green now.

The ROY isn’t going to happen for him, but his work ethic and commitment to improving have boosted his game and his profile. This week he cracks the Top 5 of the Kia Rookie Ladder for the first time since the season’s initial edition back in October.

Green’s shooting since Feb. 1 is up tremendously: 48.1% overall, 37.7% from the arc. Much of that is the result of long, isolated, repetitive sessions hoisting shot after shot, honing his form and his release.

Taking better shots, smarter shots that come naturally with teammates’ help has mattered, too. That’s part of the experience, guile and nuance Green has added, overtly in film study with Houston coach Stephen Silas and others as well as through osmosis over time.

It’s a natural progression,” Silas said recently. “There’s always a 2.0. People don’t stay where they are. And for him, we knew he was gonna improve. We knew that it was gonna be bumpy at the start. We knew that he was going to be a good worker.

“We didn’t know necessarily that he was going to be all the things that he is as far as a great listener and attentive on the defensive end immediately, and improve at the rate that he improved.”

Green’s hamstring injury in November and the confidence hit that followed when the Rockets won seven of their first nine games without him seems like ancient history now. A season highlight came last week against the Lakers when Green hit 13-for-21 shots (4-for-7 on 3-pointers) and scored a season-best 32 points, including 10 as Houston blitzed L.A. 19-10 in overtime.

Afterward, Green spoke openly about his team’s strategy of attacking veteran Laker Carmelo Anthony down the stretch, maybe a bit candid by NBA peer-to-peer standards. But there’s a difference between brash and boast, and Green’s game is looking more like the former without much of the latter.

The Top 5 this week on the 2021-22 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Monday, March 14)

  1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.6 apg

Since last Ladder: 22.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.3 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 1

Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Reports of Mobley’s decline, especially from those lobbying for a rung drop here, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. A pair of single-digit scoring games have led to a five-game stretch averaging 21.6 points on 56% shooting. That includes his season-best 30 points against the Clippers Monday. Mobley has logged his minutes at center in injured Jarrett Allen’s absence without missing a beat. He holds this top spot on the strength of Cleveland’s record, his consistency, his adaptability and his defense. Consider: when Mobley scores 18+ points, the Cavs are 10-9. But when he blocks 3+ shots, they are 11-3.

  1. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 16.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.2 apg

Since last Ladder: 24.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.3 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 2

Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Although he missed Detroit’s game at Miami Tuesday with a non-COVID illness, Cunningham’s deep-season ROY push continues. He barely missed a triple-double Sunday against the Clippers with 23 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists, and his streak of seven consecutive games of 20+ points ties the Pistons’ rookie record (Kelly Tripucka). One area to watch: Cunningham has played 38+ minutes in four of his past six games, topping 40 minutes three times. Development is one thing, injured teammates don’t help, but you look at the standings and still have to ask “Why?”

  1. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors

Season stats: 15.3 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.4 apg

Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 4.3 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 3

Draft pick: No. 4 overall

LeBron James went from gushing over one top rookie a couple of weeks ago – praising Josh Giddey’s game as a tactic to woo Thunder GM Sam Presti – to putting another in his direct line of fire. In the Lakers’ game Monday, James was heading out of bounds, so he spiked the ball with two hands at the Raptors rookie who was on the floor at his feet. Barnes did his best to cover up, rose quickly and appeared to check his anger only because it was LeBron. The kid was cool but honest afterward and can take solace in Toronto’s easy victory in L.A. and that, with 15 of his 21 points in the first quarter, he outscored James and Russell Westbrook combined in that period.

  1. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 15.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.0 apg

Since last Ladder: 8.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 4

Draft pick: No. 8 overall

The Class of 2021’s “Mr. Reliability” slipped at the offensive end this week, averaging more shots (9.0) than points thanks to 37.8% accuracy (1-for-13 from 3). But the Magic went 2-2 (and Wagner was more on track against Brooklyn Monday.) The 6-foot-9 forward has plugged a hole for Orlando – no teammate is within 10 appearances or 350 minutes of him – and in terms of consistency among rookies, is Mobley without the winning.

  1. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 15.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg

Since last Ladder: 20.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.3 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 6

Draft pick: No. 2 overall

Green is matching or surpassing all sorts of statistical thresholds for 20-year-olds, mostly due to opportunity. But here’s a stat that hangs on his first season like a weighted vest: He has a league-worst plus/minus of minus-542 points, an average of minus-10.2 that is far worse than Detroit’s Saddiq Bey at No. 2 (minus-6.8). Granted, rookies typically go to bad teams, but Houston is a bit better when Green isn’t playing (minus-9.3). For comparison, the all-time leader (since the stat was tracked) apparently is Shareef Abdur-Rahim, an alleged minus-2,904 in his 12-season NBA career (1996-2007). Abdur-Rahim averaged 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds but in his 890 appearances for the Grizzlies, Hawks, Kings and Trail Blazers, his teams were 280 games under .500.

The Next 7:

  1. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6.4 apg

Since last Ladder: DNP

Last Ladder’s rung: 5

Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Injury layoff costs West’s top rookie so far a rung this week.

  1. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 9.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.2 apg

Since last Ladder: 11.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.8 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 8

Draft pick: No. 35 overall

Second New Orleans rookie with 100 steals, reaching Chris Paul’s mark.

  1. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls

Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.2 apg

Since last Ladder: 10.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.0 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 7

Draft pick: No. 38 overall

Come for the 3FG (39.2%), stay for the perimeter D.

  1. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.8 apg

Since last Ladder: 16.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.5 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 9

Draft pick: No. 7 overall

Earned Twitter love from Jayson Tatum with huge first half vs. Bucks.

  1. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 13.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg

Since last Ladder: 13.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: 10

Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Had a plus week (until Tuesday) as toe injury stymies his season.

  1. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 10.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.3 apg

Since last Ladder: 12.7 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 2.7 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Draft pick: No. 9 overall

D is real, pumped brakes on recent shooting slippage.

  1. Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.3 apg

Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.7 apg

Last Ladder’s rung: N/A

Draft pick: No. 26 overall

Nailed his close-up moment with those four 4Q 3s vs. Sixers.