Sunday, June 4 2023
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By this time next week all teams will have played in their 42nd game, marking the midway point in the NBA schedule. With that in mind, it’s a perfect time to step back and take a look at the Rookie of the Year race and see what we’ve learned about some of the top players from the 2022 draft class. Right off the bat the first thing that stands out about this draft class is the depth of talent we’ve seen so far, from future All-Stars to impactful role players. 

We’ve already seen rookies on playoff contending teams hit multiple game-winning shots, and there’s one guys in particular who is not only in the running for Rookie of the Year but Sixth Man of the Year as well (more on that below). While there can only be one winner for the best rookie from this class, it’s clear that going forward there’s at least 15-20 guys who have the potential to have lengthy careers in this league. Now let’s get into the rankings.

Ivey’s counting stats are amongst the best in this rookie class, but he’s struggled with efficiency, which is why he isn’t higher on this list. His efficiency numbers have consistently decreased, perhaps a byproduct of him taking on more responsibility after Cade Cunningham went out for the season with a shin injury. However, despite the low efficiency, Ivey’s still proving why he was taken so high in the draft.

Despite being undersized, Ivey doesn’t shy away from attacking the paint, and while he doesn’t have above the rim athleticism of a Ja Morant where he’s going to try and dunk it every time he’s within distance, Ivey’s quick first step and finishing speed allows him to get by pretty much any defender placed in front of him. Kind of like this:

He ranks first among rookies in drives per game (11.2), and while his 43.3 finishing rate at the rim is on the low end of the spectrum, that’s likely to go up over the course of his career as he gets stronger. Aside from his scoring, Ivey’s also shown flashes of being a brilliant passer, something he’s had to rely heavier on after Cunningham suffered a season-ending injury. He leads all rookies in assists per game, and at least once a game he’s always pulling off passes like this:

It’s a shame we’ll have to wait until next season to see Ivey paired with Cunningham, but the silver lining in this situation is that Ivey’s been given ample opportunity to grow and learn from his mistakes in a rebuilding year for Detroit.

Murray is the only guy on this list who is starting on a winning team, a huge feat for any rookie in this league. There was some contention when the Kings selected Murray over Ivey who many expected them to take with the No. 4 overall pick. But while Sacramento has rightfully received criticism for its draft selections in the past, I don’t think it’s warranted here. The Kings drafted for need, not for the best player available, and while the ruling is still out on who will have the better career between Murray and Ivey, I’d say the fit with Murray on the Kings has worked incredibly well.

It took just two games for Mike Brown to insert the rookie into the starting lineup, and while there are some consistency concerns for Murray every now and then, those seven-point, and five-point games are coming fewer and further between as the season carries on. Unlike other guys on this list, Murray isn’t the first or even second option on his team, in fact Murray’s the fifth option on a Kings team that has a surprising 20-16 record and sits fifth in a crowded Western Conference.

But just because he isn’t averaging 15 points a night doesn’t been what he’s doing isn’t impressive. Just as it takes a certain level of skill to be the No. 1 option on a team, it takes skill to be the fifth starter and knocking down shots when called upon, and Murray’s doing just that. The best example came in a 23-point outing in a win against the Lakers in late December, where he knocked down six 3s, the second time that month he’s connected on six triples. Just look at the smoothness of his jumper and the consistent mechanics he has every time he pulls up from deep:

At the midway mark of the season, Murray leads all rookies in 3-point attempts a game (5.8), and 3-point percentage (38.4 percent). He ranks in the 86th percentile amongst forwards in non-corner 3s at 40 percent, and generates 1.071 points per possession on spot-up jumpers. He spaces the floor for the Kings on offense, and he gives Sacramento size to defend on the perimeter. He’s proof that just because you join a winning team doesn’t mean you have to spend your rookie season at the end of the bench or in the G league. 

I’ll forgive you if you say that you haven’t watched much of Williams’ game this season as the Thunder typically aren’t at the top of anyone’s watch list. If that’s the case, you’ve been missing out on one of the best surprise rookies of the season. Williams isn’t putting up gaudy numbers like his counterparts, but if you look up the word consistency in the dictionary there would be a picture of Williams next to it. He’s a versatile 6-foot-6 guard with a ridiculous 7-foot-2 wingspan, which comes in handy on both ends of the floor.

He’s the ideal player to put alongside All-Star level talent like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, capable of taking advantage of the massive amounts of defensive pressure both players command. He started the season coming off the bench, but has played himself into a starting spot over the past month. Over that span he’s averaging 13.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and three assists, while shooting 53 percent from the field. His 3-point shooting needs to improve, especially if the Thunder want optimal floor spacing, but his ability to attack angles when cutting to the rim like this:

…and the threat he poses in the open floor like this makes the poor 3-point shooting a minor issue right now.

Williams can fill whatever role the Thunder need, which isn’t common for most rookies. He’s not going to blow you away with his athleticism or speed, but he’s going to make a team pay if they relax even for just a second on him. He has an arsenal of moves he can go to when he’s getting downhill into the paint, which results in plays like this:

Williams may not have the counting stats to win Rookie of the Year, but there’s no doubt he’s been amongst the most impressive in his class, something that I don’t think anyone expected from him so early on in his career.

Remember when I said a few paragraphs ago that there was a rookie who is also in the running for Sixth Man of the Year? Yeah, well it’s Mathurin, whose scoring off the bench for Indiana has been key in this team sitting at sixth in the East. No one could’ve predicted that A: the Pacers would be in contention for a top-six seed in the East and that B: a rookie would be in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year, but Mathurin is shattering all norms. 

The former Arizona product currently has the fourth-best odds to win Sixth Man of the Year, per Caesars Sportsbook, and leads the league in bench scoring. You could argue that he should be starting for the Pacers, something he’s only done twice so far this season, but he’s averaging starter minutes at 28.1 game, and he’s punishing opposing teams in the second unit on a nightly basis. With the Pacers racking up wins right now, it makes sense to keep things the way they are, and it allows Mathurin to have the ball in his hands more to do stuff like this:

Mathurin’s showed a fearlessness when attacking the rim, where 40 percent of his shots come from, and it’s paying off as he attempts 5.9 free throw shots per game. That’s a high mark for a rookie, something that Mathurin’s teammate, Tyrese Haliburton didn’t think would happen at the start of the season.

“Nobody gets to the free-throw line like that guy, especially as a rookie,” Haliburton said. “In training camp I was like ‘you’re not going to get to the free-throw line as much as you think’ when he was complaining for calls, but he gets there. All I have to do is get him the ball and let him do the rest.”

But it’s not just Mathurin’s ability to get to the line that makes him impactful. His 3-point shooting is part of the reason the Pacers rank eighth in the league in 3-point percentage. While the last month hasn’t been kind to Mathurin’s percentage from downtown, as he’s making just 22.5 percent, he’s already shown this season that he can be deadly from deep. In his first 20 games Mathurin was connecting on 41.7 percent of his 3s, so while he’s in a bit of a shooting slump at the moment, he’s bound to bounce back and land somewhere in the middle of of those averages. 

It took one game in the NBA for Banchero to prove that he was going to be a special player. The rookie dropped 27 points in his NBA debut, which was the highest point total by a No. 1 pick in their first NBA game since Allen Iverson in 1996. That performance also made him the third No. 1 overall pick since 1969 to post 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, joining LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That was just Game 1. Since then, Banchero’s more than lived up to his draft selection, and don’t let the recent dip in efficiency fool you, Banchero is still leading the pack amongst the rookies. 

After missing seven games in November due to a sprained ankle, the rookie helped the Magic go on a six-game winning streak in early December which included wins over the Boston Celtics (twice!), Los Angeles Clippers and Atlanta Hawks. During that span Banchero averaged 22.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and shot 44.3 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3-point range. His combination of shot creation away from the basket, his ability to use his size to get points at the rim and his high IQ as a passer makes him a dangerous and versatile threat.

It’s not everyday we see a 6-foot-10 guy take defenders off the dribble consistently like this, especially as a rookie:

But it’s not just Banchero’s ability to get to the rim pretty much at will that stands out, it’s his knack for also getting to the free-throw line at a high rate that puts him in rarified air. Banchero’s 7.9 free-throw attempts per game puts him sixth all time among rookies since the NBA-ABA merger. The five guys ahead of him have Rookie of the Year honors, multiple MVPs, All-Star selections and four are enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. So yeah, pretty exclusive list to be a part of. 

Banchero’s ability to get to the free-throw line is a testament to his IQ, knowing how to draw contact, and more importantly sinking the shots when he does get there. He’s shooting 75.5 percent from the charity stripe, a fine mark, but he’ll need to get that up higher as he continues in the league if he plans on getting to the line often.

The Magic fooled everyone when they took Banchero over Jabari Smith Jr., whom many expected them to choose, and so far it’s paying off. At the halfway mark of the season Banchero is leading the way for Rookie of the Year, but with over 40 games left to be played, there’s still time for another player on this list to try and overtake his spot. 



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