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2022-23 NBA Rookie Rankings: December

Rookie Rankings

Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr has recovered after a slow start to his rookie campaign. (Photo: Kim Klement/USA Today Sports)

2022-23 NBA Rookie Rankings: December

It’s time for the second installment of Vendetta Sports Media’s NBA rookie rankings for season 2022-23.

Before we take a look at who moved and or down our ladder, let’s acknowledge the NBA’s decision to, in amongst a raft of new award announcements, rename the Rookie of the Year award in honor of the great Wilt Chamberlain.

Given Chamberlain averaged just the lazy 37.6 points and 27 rebounds (plus God knows how many blocks, given they were not recorded at that point) per game – leading the NBA in both measures – it certainly sets a bar for this era or rookie that might be juuuust out of reach.

So, let’s not grade our first-year man against Chamberlain’s otherworldly production. We’ve still got some serious quality in this season’s rookie crop.

1. Paolo Banchero – Orlando Magic (Last Ranking: 1)

Banchero missed seven games in late November but hasn’t missed a beat upon his return, putting up 20.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 triples at a 35.7% clip.

Encouragingly, since Banchero’s return to the lineup, the Magic are winning basketball games, boasting a six-game winning streak, including victories over the Clippers, Toronto (twice) and Boston (twice).

For all of the young talent in that Orlando frontcourt, Banchero is already established as the leader of the team and the focal point of the opposing defense night in and night out, making what he has done to this point all the more impressive.

2. Bennedict Mathurin – Indiana Pacers (LR: 2)

Mathurin continues to be a walking bucket for the surprising Pacers.

His production has slipped a little from that torrid early pace, but he’s still putting up 17.9 points per game on the season, hitting his three pointers at an encouraging 35.4% rate.

Against the Warriors last week, Mathurin scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting and 4-of-7 from downtown.

Nice numbers, if not a line that jumps off the page. It was encouraging though, as it represented Mathurin’s first game in over a month with more than a pair of threes to his name. It showed an ability to break out of a slump against a big-time opponent. As well as the raw talent the young man possesses, it’s his ability take his kicks and step up again that will separate him from the bunch as a featured scorer.

Mathurin is not the Pacers’ best player, like Banchero is for his team — with Tyrese Haliburton on board, Mathurin may never be Indiana’s top dog. Nevertheless, Indiana have themselves a bona fide bucket getter.

3. Jabari Smith – Houston Rockets (LR: 6)

Don’t look now, but after a rough introduction to life as a pro, Jabari Smith Jr. is starting to come good.

The shooting woes that plagued his opening month look to be a thing of the past, with Smith canning three triples per game at 56% (!) over a recent nine-game stretch. To be fair, his last three games have been stinkers, but as a rookie you can only hope for, rather than expect, consistency.

Smith’s biggest improvement has been on defense. He always projected out as a borderline elite talent at that end but was initially simply overwhelmed by the step up in physicality and athleticism that is the NBA.

In an upset win over the Bucks last week, Smith tied two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in knots. He held the Greek Freak to a season low 16 points on just 4-of-13 shooting. In addition, Smith picked up 10 boards and three steals. He had Giannis all sorts of frustrated. It was a performance that shows what a fully formed Smith is capable of.

4. Keegan Murray – Sacramento Kings (LR: 4)

Despite solid overall numbers through his first month of NBA ball, Keegan Murray started to flat line a little in the back half of November, at one point barfing up 30% shooting overall and 16% from beyond the arc over a seven-game stretch.

Since the beginning of December, Murray’s accuracy has been far more … uh … accurate. So far this month, Murray is contributing 14.3 points on 49/48/69 shooting splits — let’s assume the sharp drop in free throw percentage is an aberration — despite playing through a left thumb sprain.

In a win over the Cavaliers, Murray scored all of his 18 points from deep in a perfect complimentary performance.

5. Jalen Williams – Oklahoma City Thunder (LR: Not ranked)

The good J. Williams (Thunder Rookies Named J. Williams Division) holds a feel for the game of basketball that to a large extend cannot be taught. His movement away from the ball, his ability to manipulate defenders with the rock in hand, his spatial awareness on defense are all at levels that some 10-year pros struggle to reach. He’s not just a ‘brain in a jar’ sort, either; Williams is a serious athlete who shines in the open floor.

Whilst Williams projects as a jack-of-all-trades type, he’s already shown that he can take a game by the scruff of the neck for short periods.

6. AJ Griffin – Atlanta Hawks (LR: NR)

Last month I touched upon the chance, however remote, of Mathurin winning both the Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man awards or, to run with their new titles, the Wilt Chamberlain and John Havlicek trophies.

AJ Griffin is making his case for an award that literally didn’t exist the last time our rookie rankings were posted: the Jerry West Clutch Player trophy. Griffin has a pair of overtime game winners under his belt in just two months of professional basketball. That’s quite remarkable.

After some sporadic explosions in his first month as a pro, Griffin has developed a pleasing consistency since being thrust into the starting line-up. The Duke product has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 contests, making 23 treys over that span.

7. Jaden Ivey – Detroit Pistons (LR: 3)

With Cade Cunningham ailing and now out for the season, we’ve seen the good and bad of Jaden Ivey’s game come to the fore.

On the positive, Ivey has continued to show that he can put the ball in the basket, despite being the focus of defensive attention. On the flipside, his efficiency numbers have plummeted, as expected. He’s also struggling to a large extent to be the Pistons’ primary playmaker, having recorded more than five assists only once in December, and that was Dec. 1.

Ivey’s assist-to-turnover ratio is alarmingly close to even as he discovers just how steep the learning curve is at NBA level. In the long run he’ll probably be better for these point guard reps as a rookie, in much the same way that Russell Westbrook was all those years ago. It’s just going to look pretty ugly in the meantime.

8. Jalen Duren – Detroit Pistons (LR: 10)

The NBA’s leading rebounder amongst rookies is simply hoovering up misses at the moment.

Since taking over the starting centre position from the inimitable Marvin Bagley III, Duren has averaged 13.5 boards a night, a rate that would eclipse current rebounds leader Rudy Gobert by a whopping 1.3 boards a game.

Whilst his usage rate is still almost comically low, Duren is starting to see more of the ball on offense, registering four double-doubles in his last seven appearances.

He’s so, so young, but Duren is already shaping up to be a problem in this league.

9. Andrew Nembhard – Indiana Pacers (LR: NR)

Let’s see. Old for a rookie. Relatively unathletic, but good size. Heady player – a coach on the floor. Feisty defender. Not a great shooter, but makes them in big moments.

There is more than a hint of T.J. McConnell in Pacers second round pick Andrew Nembhard. He reminds me of a larger J.J. Barea. Either way, that is exactly the type of player to warm the heart (assuming he has one) of Pacers coach Rick Carlisle.

Nembhard has earned a spot in Indiana’s starting lineup and his clever playmaking and gritty attitude are a welcome addition to Indiana’s arsenal.

He’s not all simply hard screens and heady extra passes, though. Nembhard can fill it up from time to time. He went for 13 points and 10 assists against Utah earlier in December and hung 18 points on Miami in a narrow loss. The headliner though, was his 31-point (with five treys), 13-assist, eight-rebound effort against a full-strength Warriors lineup.

10. Walker Kessler – Utah Jazz (LR: 7)

Kessler has slowly worked his way into a larger role in Utah’s rotation over the past few weeks, even earning enough trust to be a spot starter depending on the matchup. The big fella has taken every opportunity that has come his way, so far.

According to Hashtag Basketball’s statistical modeling, Kessler is the second ranked rookie in this class which, whilst demonstrating his positive effect on winning, also shows the fallibility of statistical modelling! Second best rookie? Nah.

Still, though, Kessler is good. His shot blocking is as advertised, rejecting an astonishing 3.8 blocks per 36 minutes. He’s not just a big lump standing in the middle waving his arms at basketballs, either. He’s a solid rebounder at both ends of the floor, averaging 6.1 boards in just 17 minutes. His anticipation and quick-off-the-mark movements see him corral misses that a man with his lack of speed shouldn’t get near.

He’s also seeing more of the ball on offense, scoring in double figure in seven of his last 10 contests.

Dropping out: Shaedon Sharpe, Tari Eason, Jeremy Sochan


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