2022-23 NBA Rookie Rank Vol. 2
The NBA season has moved into December, meaning more rookies have gotten minutes to showcase just how good they are so early on in their careers. That means it's time for a Rookie Rank update.
Welcome back to another edition of Rookie Rank!
As a substitute for my Morning Dunk column, one Monday every month, I take the time to evaluate this year’s NBA rookie class to take note of who is having breakout success early on in their careers.
It’s exciting to see such a talented group of youngsters taking legitimate rotation spots all over the league. While I wouldn’t say this class has the same top-end talent as the year prior, the depth appears incredibly similar.
I could easily rank and write about 20-plus players in this column, but I break it out by who would make my All-Rookie ballot as of the time of writing. Of course, I can’t resist throwing in some honorable mentions, as the number of role players this early on in the season is staggering.
The top of my ranking has stayed the same for the most part, but one Houston Rocket has gotten his footing back under him, while a quartet of rookies has supplanted other names who were in the column last time around.
Let me introduce you to some of the most fun guys to watch in the NBA today, starting with a familiar face who is helping to lift the spirits of Orlando Magic fans all across the world.
*All stats are as of 12/18, and are courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports*
1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Stats in December:
35.1 MPG, 19.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 4.5 APG, 42.6/27.3/81.2 Shooting Splits, 56.7 TS%
Paolo Banchero got bit by the injury bug a bit already this season, yet he came back; through December, he is back to playing the incredibly heavy role of trying to man the offense along with fellow standout forward Franz Wagner.
As expected, he’s doing some of everything in a higher usage role than the normal rookie would command and helping Orlando string together wins, leaving NBA analysts wondering if the Magic could actually sneak into the play-in.
I would personally say that answer is yes, as I still don’t think the team’s backcourt has been able to provide full-time support yet for Banchero, Wagner, and breakout sensation Bol Bol.
But Banchero’s value in these weirder, bigger lineups has been the remedy for the in-and-out play of Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, and now back-from-injury Markelle Fultz. Yes, Wagner also has his fair share of time with the ball in his hands. Having TWO guys with plus size, though, who can serve as offensive engines on any given possession is a massive boon and something that will become very relevant in years to come as this squad looks to eventually rack up wins in the playoffs.
As I’ve talked about previously, it’s difficult for rookies to rank in the “Average” or above percentiles per Synergy. Banchero is there in quite a number of offensive categories while playing over 35 minutes a night acting as one of the most important players in the lineup. The way he picks defenses apart with the ball in his hands, how he can gracefully spin himself into a look in one second and then bully someone around the basket immediately following that initial move. It’s that perfect mix of finesse and power that gives him abilities on offense that few can actually match at his size of 6’10” and 250 pounds.
And what I love the most about his offensive attack is that he’s using more and more of that combination I just outlined to find better ways to score inside the arc, including getting to the line. He’s upped his three-point attempts as the year has gone on, but the vast majority of his offense comes off twos and spectacularly from the line taking close to NINE (!!) attempts per game from the charity stripe. THIS is the Banchero I wanted to see develop in the league, and it’s working wonders for him just a few short months into his career.
There’s still enough to pick apart defensively, though I’m still as encouraged by what I’ve seen from him in on-ball situations, but the talent is too much to ignore. It would take something fairly significant for me not to have him as my Rookie of the Year at this point.
2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Stats in December:
31.3 MPG, 15.1 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 APG, 39.0/23.3/77.3 Shooting Splits, 49.5 TS%
Despite some absolutely awesome scoring performances in the month of November, the numbers overall for Bennedict Mathurin have started to regress back closer to the mean in terms of efficiency.
That is to be expected for any rookie. There are ups and downs over the course of an 82-game season, but much like Paolo Banchero, there are still quite a number of shot types (particularly jumpers) where he still ranks out well amongst his rookie peers per Synergy, including catch-and-shoot looks, transition jumpers, and even those taken off the dribble.
The way he seamlessly fits into the offensive game plan for the Indiana Pacers is still the major selling point behind why he’s a top contender, along with Banchero for top rookie honors. He’s one of the better off-ball youngsters I can remember from a scoring perspective. When he gets cooking, it’s difficult to knock him off rhythm as his confidence is always sky high.
Even though I’d like to see more from Mathurin in terms of creation and finishing around the basket, he’s still learning how to adapt to the NBA game and pick and choose better spots. I fully expect him to get more comfortable in ball screen offense as time goes by; even if not, the Pacers still have Tyrese Haliburton and another rookie-to-be-named to navigate those waters and get Mathurin the spot-up looks he needs to prove most effective.
I do want to take a second, though, to talk about his defense. To me, this area of his game is where he’s taken massive strides from game one all the way to where we are now in December. Both on and off the ball, Mathurin is looking much more like the competitive ball of fire I evaluated at Arizona last season.
He’s playing angles better defensively, and he’s not letting the size and strength of matchups dictate how and why he defends on certain possessions. The understanding of how to position oneself, along with the toughness and determination to fight back, is crucial for a young player to understand early on. His activity level away from the ball has also gotten better, as all of his metrics on that end are up across the board.
Mathurin’s two-way play is exciting for Pacers fans, and eventually, coach Rick Carlisle will have no choice but to start him full-time. That day is coming, but for now, he’s found just as much of a home in supporting the second unit.
3. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
Stats in December:
26.6 MPG, 11.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.5 APG, 35.2/24.3/67.9 Shooting Splits, 44.5 TS%
No, his efficiency numbers aren’t setting the world on fire. But dig into the tape, and there are some incredibly encouraging signs starting to pile up in ball-screen offense.
When Ivey has the ball, all he needs is a screen up top to really start doing some damage. No, he’s not the passing maestro that the best point guards are out of those actions quite yet, but really those sets aren’t called up for him to drop a dime on every one of them. Setting the screen gets Ivey going downhill, where he’s been a ROUGH cover for opposing defenses.
His speed has definitely made its presence felt at the NBA level, as defenses are basically left having to either make sure that someone is there at the backline to shove him off his spot by the basket or just simply hope that he misses a good look in the paint. That’s because no one is winning a foot race with Ivey once he gets that step after taking the screen.
I mentioned he’s not making any advanced reads once he gets a step on the defense, but he’s getting better at finding a man when he gets himself in trouble. There will be drives where Ivey accelerates into no man’s land because of how the defense played his driving angle, but because of how he’s able to hang and adjust, he still can take that extra second to find a cutter taking advantage of the newly created space, or a follow-up to the roll man for an easy dunk.
When Ivey has a clean run to the rim, forget about it. He’s as electrifying a dunker as there is at the guard spot, and he’s thrown down some awesome dunks already on the break.
We knew about the open-court speed, but watching how he’s already getting better in pick-and-roll offense is very encouraging for his continued development. And even though his three-point shooting has regressed from his hotter start on the season, he’s still as comfortable as ever taking those shots when the defense gives them to him. Knocking more of those down will only help diversify his attack, and I’m buying the spot-up mechanics long-term.
If Ivey wasn’t as poor as he’s been defensively (I’ll save you some of the percentile rankings - they’re rough even for a rookie), I’d have him in the same tier as Banchero and Mathurin because of what the TAPE looks like offensively, not just the numbers. But he has to make real strides on that side of the ball to hold onto this spot in the rankings, let alone possibly climb, because there are some real two-way impact players coming for him as the season rolls on.
One last point I’ll make to end the Ivey section on a positive note: the Ivey-Jalen Duren pick-and-roll combo has a chance to be SPECIAL…
4. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets
Stats in December:
31.0 MPG, 12.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 45.6/36.8/77.3 Shooting Splits, 58.1 TS%
Remember when I was “being nice” by keeping Jabari Smith Jr. in my rankings despite the incredibly poor shooting start on the season?
Amazing what happens when rookies just “have time” to explore the studio space and get comfortable playing alongside an entire group of new teammates in a league that is unlike any other in the world.
Look at Smith’s numbers now, and he’s been on one hell of a tear from three-point range. His shooting is correcting itself back to where it was at Auburn, and I couldn’t be happier for the young man.
He’s taking a lot of the same shots from distance, while also mixing in a few nice turnaround jumpers inside the arc—the difference being his confidence is coming back in spades by the game and they’re going in. Sometimes the game of basketball really is as simple as misses and makes. I stressed that point often during last year’s draft cycle with Jaden Hardy, who by the way has one of the most ridiculous shot charts I’ve ever seen for a basketball player in his current G-League stint. Smith didn’t need a change of scenery; he just needed time.
The Rockets gave Smith the opportunity to find himself offensively really because of the defense he’s played all year; he’s still one of the most versatile dudes on that end in this draft class. I can’t say enough how important it is for rookies to have SOMETHING to hang their hats on to earn minutes when they get to the league.
Few players are going to have complete games ready to take the NBA by storm. Banchero is the only rookie who I’d say is even close to that, and there are still enough warts to pick apart to where he still has a ways to go on the star path. Smith’s offense is built around his shooting, not his interior finishing or craft off the dribble. So when the jumper isn’t working, it can look bad. But the fact that he can keep himself on the floor because of his effort level and aggression on defense gave him the chance to shoot himself back into a rhythm, and now he has Rockets fans claiming him as a franchise building block once again.
Since November 14th, Smith is at 40% from three on quite the number of attempts. He’s trending back towards a high-volume, high-efficiency distance shooter which, combined with his defense, is exactly the type of player ANY NBA team would want in their lineup especially given that he’s 6’10” with plenty of room to still grow his skill set.
No, he may never get a plus handle to do as much off the dribble as Banchero, but he can still be one of the best tough shot-makers in this class. He’s a great complementary piece next to Jalen Green as Houston continues to build toward the future.
5. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Stats in December:
30.6 MPG, 10.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 50.0/23.8/52.9 Shooting Splits, 54.1 TS%
Speaking of opportunity, that’s all Jalen Williams needed to prove he was more ready than people realized to impact winning in the NBA.
Already a versatile glue guy on both ends, Williams’s role in a number of different lineup combinations has been quite the sight in Oklahoma City. The Thunder are known for taking shots on funky basketball players, and Williams actually fits that mold based on how he’s being utilized.
On one series of possessions, he’ll serve as an off-ball threat using his timing on cuts and leak outs in transition to get easy buckets for his team. Then, he’ll roll into the next half of the game and be running offensive sets and bringing the ball up all by himself looking to get everyone else involved.
Jump shot efficiency notwithstanding, Williams’s maturity and poise have been impressive offensively. Big wings who can play and guard multiple positions are just what every team wants, a major reason why we shouted his name to the rafters at No Ceilings. He just fits the modern game incredibly well.
Williams is long, sturdy, and crafty, all rolled into one. What he can do playing off guys as well as manipulating defenses with change of pace is just what this team is building toward for the future: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and when he’s back in the mix, Chet Holmgren. All have plus positional size, and all can handle the ball, as well as shoot and find teammates off quick decisions. Add Williams into that mix, and Sam Presti’s vision for his club is becoming increasingly clear.
There’s so much more room to grow for Williams too. He can polish his game defensively and continue to improve as a jump shooter. His shooting splits on guarded and unguarded shots are actually a little bizarre, so that’s one easy area I expect to further correct itself leading to higher perimeter efficiency in time.
But Williams’s NBA future is incredibly bright. I’m still not fully sure what his upside is, but the high floor has proven to be true. Expect the minutes played for December to be the norm throughout the rest of the season.
6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
Stats in December:
29.2 MPG, 14.8 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 0.4 APG, 49.4/47.2/81.8 Shooting Splits, 65.7 TS%
The Keegan Murray craze won’t die here at No Ceilings, and for good reason.
After a small slump near the end of November, Murray has been on a HEATER in December. His shooting marks are absolutely outstanding for any player in the NBA, let alone a rookie. He’s been one of the most consistent spot-up threats for the Sacramento Kings along with Kevin Huerter, and he is also providing some of the same movement shooting qualities.
Legit wing size, with his consistent mechanics and approach, is more of what Sacramento needed to fill around the combination of De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Murray is another great piece to the puzzle, and it’s no coincidence that his addition has helped further one of the league’s best offenses. The starting combo of Fox-Huerter-Harrison Barnes-Murray-Sabonis is a net positive of 10.6 points per 100 possessions, and it is one of the better three-point shooting lineups in the league.
I would still really like to see more passing flashes from Murray, but that’s not what he’s being asked to do right now. When he gets that ball, he’s either going right up with it or going straight to the rim off a few dribbles. For what the team needs offensively, that’s fine. Fox, Huerter, Sabonis, and Barnes can all either pass well for their positions or effectively move the ball off a live dribble. Murray is left to be a play finisher; as a rookie, that’s not a bad role for him to be in—albeit with technically more expectations as one of the older players in his class.
Along with more opportunities for playmaking, Murray has shown a little ability to work with a big in pick-and-roll actions, another area to explore for added offensive responsibility in the future. Finding ways to get him moving to the basket is a great call in general, as he can finish there along with the fact he rates out well on cuts.
Defensively, Murray is still a bit of a mixed bag, as I think he’s more capable on that end than he’s shown. I think more of the team defense will pop as he continues to get more reps, as he’s still going through some growing pains. He’s improved his awareness and angles playing on the ball over the last month; I want to keep studying that side of the floor for him to update in my next column.
Overall, Murray’s doing a lot of what I expected him to early on and thriving within the perimeter flurry that is the Sacramento Kings offense. He has enough positives to outweigh the negatives, and as with any rookie, there’s still plenty of room to keep improving.
7. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers
Stats in December:
33.4 MPG, 11.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 5.6 APG, 49.4/39.5/77.8 Shooting Splits, 59.6 TS%
Some (including myself) would say Andrew Nembhard has been one of the most pleasant surprises across the entire NBA landscape.
Others valued him much more highly in the draft and knew he could make a two-way impact like he is currently for the Indiana Pacers.
A lot of attention was brought to Nembhard after his offensive thrashing of the Golden State Warriors. And yes, dissecting the shot-making he displayed in that one from distance, it’s clearly one of the best games he’s had across both college and so far in the league.
But it’s not just the shooting or the pick-and-roll play that’s allowed him to step into starter’s minutes and brilliantly play alongside Tyrese Haliburton for extended stretches as a second lead guard.
Nembhard’s demeanor and physicality on defense have been impressive to watch from afar, as he routinely takes on important defensive matchups for stretches within games and handles them like he’s been playing pro basketball for years.
His footwork to stay in front of his man, his eyes to read passing lanes and make plays off the ball, and his willingness to rebound and battle with bigs around the basket all have played a role in why he’s a rotation mainstay in Indiana.
One of my mentors Coach David Thorpe of Truehoop has compared Nembhard, at length, to guys like Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday because of the defensive impact. I’m not quite there to say that he has the future of a star, but I do think the “floor” argument is sometimes undersold. Being a clean backup with starter upside should absolutely be more valued in the backcourt, and that’s something that led Thorpe to discuss Nembhard as a first-round pick before the 2022 draft.
Nembhard has been crafty in the pick-and-roll game, hit big shots when called upon, and has steadily improved his efficiency and numbers across the board in all categories while continuing to command more responsibility. He’s a real threat to end up on the All-Rookie First Team.
8. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks
Stats in December:
29.3 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 44.6/32.1/71.4 Shooting Splits, 53.8 TS%
I wouldn’t consider the great November into December play of AJ Griffin as surprising, more so just a great story.
Griffin was widely projected as a lottery pick for the better part of the 2022 cycle by many scouts and evaluators, yet he fell out of that range on draft night to the Atlanta Hawks, who were able to scoop up another Duke prospect later than expected—similarly to Jalen Johnson last year.
The tricky part about Griffin’s evaluation was figuring out what his ceiling was if more of his athleticism wouldn’t come back from the injuries he suffered in high school. The good news on that front is he looks more spry in the league, and it’s shown on a number of nifty drives to the rack and plays in the halfcourt.
Movement and/or durability concerns aside, though, Griffin displayed the definition of the word touch in college, which has certainly carried over and translated well to the pros.
On the season, Griffin is near 36% from three and almost 86% from the free throw line, indicating Griffin’s plus shot-making is one of his strongest traits and should’ve been more of a key driver than it apparently was in his draft stock.
Many of us here at No Ceilings, most notably Corey Tulaba and Albert Ghim of The Draftdaq, praised Griffin’s shot-making all year long and had zero doubts he could continue that trend as he moved up to the next level. Atlanta has taken advantage of Griffin’s floor spacing, and they especially did so when De’Andre Hunter wasn’t in the lineup at the small forward position.
Griffin stepped in and had a number of key performances that have helped him maintain a noteworthy spot in Atlanta’s rotation. Griffin, a player who could’ve been spending most of his season in the G-League, has helped himself by continuing to find the bottom of the net, make the right passing reads, and improving game-by-game defensively as a strong body that can match up with a number of players at multiple positions.
Regardless of how much better he can get (which is a lot considering he was one of the youngest prospects in the entire class), Griffin is showing his value in the short term while helping a good team win games in the tough Eastern Conference. Quite the story all around for a promising rookie.
9. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers
Stats in December:
20.4 MPG, 8.0 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 0.6 APG, 41.8/23.1/40.0 Shooting Splits, 46.2 TS%
Shaedon Sharpe jumped out of the gates as one of the more interesting watches amongst rookies, as it seemed like the Portland Trail Blazers struck long-term gold with its lottery pick.
Fast forward to today, and that notion still holds true, albeit the short-term results have waned a bit from an efficiency standpoint.
Sharpe has had a few games of late with poor shooting performances overall, even struggling to find the same touch on his way to the basket. Bad games happen to all rookies, and I don’t think a lot of the poor splits will stick around through April. Eventually, Sharpe will find more of his groove from distance, and should still remain attentive and aggressive within the flow of the offense.
When he’s active off the ball, he creates a number of problems for opposing defenses, given his speed and explosive verticality. A great cutting option along the baseline, not to mention a heady offensive putback option, Sharpe does more than just score on the ball. The damage he can do playing alongside other options on offense is just as important as defenses try to key in on other matchups.
Defensively, Sharpe has still been more positive than negative and has real upside as an on-ball defender as he continues to fill out and get stronger. His length as a shooting guard is a plus, as is his ability to rebound defensively.
Quiet but not dormant by any means, Sharpe will continue to find his footing in the league. Portland wants to win now, so the fact that he’s still getting the minutes he is as a rookie despite not playing in college last year should speak for itself as to how highly the organization views Sharpe’s talent overall.
10. Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans
Stats in December:
25.2 MPG, 5.6 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 45.9/33.3/75.0 Shooting Splits, 55.5 TS%
At this point in the season, I’m still rewarding rookies in these rankings who have had larger roles to start despite some cooling off of sorts with their games.
But now is the perfect time for others to gain opportunities as injuries pile up, which was really the case for Dyson Daniels.
With multiple injuries in the backcourt as well as on the wing, the New Orleans Pelicans went to Daniels to fill in some gaps as another wing threat and even a backup point guard. Whether he’s looking to make plays for others or take advantage of open spot-up looks or finishes on the break, Daniels is more than content with taking what defenses give him.
That’s an important quality for any rookie, but Daniels’s patience is felt on the tape. Every rookie has happy feet or gets anxious with the ball now and then, but for the most part, Daniels doesn’t seem rushed on either end of the floor.
He’s been spectacular defensively for a rookie, helping to contain matchups and forcing turnovers to get his team going in transition. Billed as arguably the best perimeter defender in the draft, those same techniques, footwork, and vision have carried over on that end for the Pelicans. Being able to throw Jose Alvarado, Herb Jones (when healthy), and now Daniels out on defense is quite the luxury for one of the deeper teams in the Western Conference.
The biggest sign for Daniels has been on offense with his shot-making. Not only has he connected on 41% of his threes, but he’s also at a 50% mark from the field overall. Daniels has hit a number of impressive pull-up jumpers and floaters from the midrange, showing there’s more to his game that can still be pulled out of him as the year goes on.
Daniels showcased plenty of point guard ability and decision-making with the G-League Ignite team last year, but continuing to build his scoring repertoire is a welcomed development for the rook. His all-around game is what led me to have a higher lottery grade on him by the time the 2022 draft cycle concluded, and he’s begun to show why his upside was so intriguing to begin with.
Tari Eason, Houston Rockets: Still incredibly efficient on a per-minute basis by rookie standards, Eason hasn’t been asked to play quite the same role as some of the other names in front of him. But it’s really, really hard to leave him off an All-Rookie ballot, and I would expect his name to be among the Top 10 by the end of the year. When he’s on the floor, the Rockets look like a different team. His energy and activity level in transition and on defense can change the outlook of any game, and his three-point shooting has yet to dip below 36% on the season.
Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz: Just as it wasn’t a slight to Tari Eason not to have him with the names above, it’s not a slight to Kessler either. At this point in the year, it’s fun to reward and write about different names who are making an impact. Kessler still gets an honorable mention nod as his PER continues to stay above 20 on the year. He’s barely missed any shots from the field PERIOD since I wrote my last column, and the shot-blocking machine has continued to stifle opponents in the lane who dare challenge him. Kessler safely projects as a starting NBA center in time, and I would expect his minutes to continue climbing north of the 21.9 he’s averaging in the month of December.
Christian Braun, Denver Nuggets: Braun just hasn’t gotten the minutes he deserves to be mentioned any higher than honorable mention in his column, but that’s not necessarily his fault. He’s been effective on both ends when he does sparingly get time, and boy oh boy, did his feistiness carry over from his days at Kansas. He gets after it defensively, dives for loose balls, and brings physicality onto the court. When he makes a play, he lets the other team know about it. Even though his three-point percentage has taken a dip in December, he’s shooting 52.6% from the field as a whole which is still a promising number. Braun plays for a contender, so it’s a testament to him that he’s getting any opportunities at all as a rookie.
Nikola Jovic, Miami Heat: Jovic earned this spot really from his stretch run near the end of November, where he was aggressive on offense in a near 20 MPG role off the bench for the Heat. He gives Miami a player they just don’t have in the lineup otherwise: someone who brings size, shooting versatility, and game off the bounce to where he can draw contact and get to the line. Currently 18-of-19 from the charity stripe on the year, Jovic’s knack for scoring within the flow of the offense and from the right plays is something I’ll look to monitor in coming editions of this column.
Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs: As I wrote about Sochan in my last piece, his rookie impact is much more present on the defensive end for the Spurs. He’s tasked with guarding a number of different positions, so even though he hasn’t quite found his footing offensively yet (although Point Sochan is still as fun of an experiment as it was at Baylor), he’s had some really fun moments on the other side of the ball despite San Antonio struggling as a whole. Scouts who thought he’d be able to spend time on 1-4 defensively almost right out of the gate have been vindicated to an extent, and he’s still barely scratching the surface of who he can be in the NBA.
Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons: And last but CERTAINLY not least (again, honorable mentions are NOT ranked in order), the rebounding machine that is Duren finds himself still very much in play for a spot on my All-Rookie ballot when the time comes. The comparison I made last time around was to rookie Andre Drummond, and that still holds true: high-level finisher, ridiculous rebounder on both ends, and an athletic marvel when it comes to running, jumping, and blocking shots in the lane. There are still lapses on defense, and there’s nothing to speak of offensively quite yet further than three feet away from the rim. But what the Pistons ask of him is to do the dirty work and keep his team afloat when he’s on the floor. He continues to do that, and he’s one half of one of the more dynamic rookie duos in the entire NBA.