Wednesday, February 8 2023
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Without a doubt the leading story amongst the NBA rookies this week was Andrew Nembhard’s standout performance in a 112-104 win over the Golden State Warriors. Nembhard outdueled reigning Finals MVP Stephen Curry, and dismantled Golden State’s defense in the process. Pacers coach Rick Carlisle praised his rookie guard after the game, saying he probably should’ve gone higher than the 31st overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft.

“I’ve been saying that down the line, when there’s a redraft of the ’22 draft, he’d be a top 15 pick,” Carlisle said. “I’m elevating that to a top 10 pick. He really is a special player.”

Given how much of an impact Nembhard has made on the Pacers since being inserted into the starting lineup, that’s not a completely outrageous statement to make. We’ll just have to wait and see if the rookie can continue the tear he’s been on over the course of this season. 

Now it’s time to break down this week’s NBA Rookie Rankings. Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season. These aren’t Rookie of the Year standings, but rather a reflection on what the player has done over the past week.

Last week Nembhard was draining a game winner to lift the Indiana Pacers over the Los Angeles Lakers. This week, he dropped 31 points to go along with 13 assists and eight rebounds to carry the Pacers to a win over the Golden State Warriors. On a night were Tyrese Haliburton was out, Nembhard used the opportunity to show the versatility of his game, and as a result he was just torching Golden State’s defense all night long.

He was taking straight to Golden State’s defense in the paint with floaters, acrobatic layups and short jumpers, which isn’t surprising considering he’s been finishing at a 73 percent clip around the rim this season, which ranks in the 90th percentile among guards in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. The off-the-bounce scoring was impressive, too, working in some stepback 3s or stopping on a dime and hitting a fadeaway jumper. Nembhard was hitting shots that we’re accustomed to seeing from Stephen Curry, and he was doing so while the two-time league MVP was guarding him.

Aside from the scoring, what was equally impressive about Nembhard’s game was his passing. When Haliburton is in the lineup Nembhard doesn’t get a ton of opportunity to run the offense and make plays for his teammates, but his performance as a facilitator against the Warriors certainly showed that the Pacers need to do more to get the ball in his hands. He executed the pick-and-roll to perfection, even when the Warriors went to a zone defense or sent several defenders at Nembhard. He was delivering well-placed alley-oop passes all night long, exposing the Warriors’ lack of rim protection. Though Nembhard has been in the starting lineup for awhile now for the Pacers, this was the first game that truly highlighted the entirety of his game, which should lead to an expanded role for the rookie going forward.

The Magic ended a nine-game losing streak this week with an overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers, where Banchero knocked down six clutch free throws in the final seven seconds of overtime. It’s the exact type of pressure situation you want your rookies to go through in order to improve, and Banchero passed his first clutch test with flying colors. It was a solid ending for Banchero, who struggled to efficiently put points on the board for the Magic throughout the game, going just 5 of 13 from the field.

In fact, it was the third straight performance from Banchero where he shot below 40 percent from the field, with back-to-back performances this week where he shot 25 percent. That’s a stark turn from some of the early-season efficiency we saw from him, but when you consider Orlando’s opponents in its last three games — Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Toronto — then you start to see why he struggled to get in a rhythm. All three of those teams rank in the top 10 on defense, and have the size and strength to bother Banchero. It’s a necessary test for the No. 1 overall pick, and it’s an opportunity to improve his game going forward. It’s not a worrying sign about Banchero’s future, just an example to show that as impressive as he’s been this season in several aspects of the game, he’s still just a rookie with significant room to improve. 

It feels as though Murray has been doing a lot of his work in silence with little appreciation, maybe that’s because he’s playing in Sacramento, which rarely gets recognition. However, the Kings are out to a 13-10 start, good for fifth in the West, and Murray is one of a few of his peers not only contributing on a winning team, but starting as well. This past week, he had perhaps his best performance, putting up 23 points, seven rebounds and two steals. 

Murray’s fit in the starting lineup feels seamless for the Kings. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to do damage, instead cutting to the rim waiting on one of his teammates to feed him or flying around a screen to spot up for a jumper. Murray’s amongst the best in the league at cutting to the rim, generating 1.542 points per possession, which ranks in the 86th percentile, per Synergy Sports. He’s just making smart reads of the defense, and it’s paying off, like on this dunk against the Bucks:

Or this cut to the rim where John Wall basically just gave up on the play defensively and let Murray slip through for an easy bucket:

Murray may not be stuffing the statsheet like other rookies, but he’s making winning plays for his team on a nightly basis. He’s showing his versatility as a scorer from all three levels, and he’s showing off his defensive chops as well. 

The Rockets had two really impressive wins this week in which Smith flourished. The first came in a 122-121 come-from-behind win against the Suns in which Smith put up 17 points and six boards. Smith shot 58.3 percent from the floor and 60 percent from 3-point range in that game, continuing his upward trend in efficiency. The second standout performance was a 132-123 double-overtime win over the Sixers, where he finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds, and showed off his defensive prowess on the perimeter. 

Houston won’t be winning any awards this season for its defense, as it currently ranks 28th in the league, but the effort and fundamentals Smith has already shown on the defensive side of the ball this season gives us a glimpse into how special he can be on that side of the ball. Smith’s length and lateral movement can be bothersome to guards on the perimeter, and his size allows him to get in the paint against bigs. He’s the type of versatile defender every team in the league wishes to have, and while he still has a ways to go before he’s locking down opponents on a nightly basis, you can already see flashes of that potential when he plays. 

Here are some wild numbers to show just how impactful Eason has been for the Rockets when he’s on the floor. Houston scores 5.7 points more on offense and allow 5.6 points less on defense when Eason is in the lineup, both ranking in the 84th percentile in the entire league. He ranks sixth in the league in steal percentage (37.1), ahead of guys like Alex Caruso, Jevon Carter and Ben Simmons. Eason averages under 20 minutes a game, but he makes the most of it when he’s on the floor, disrupting passes, being active in the passing lanes and being the ultimate hustle guy for the Rockets. Perhaps as the season continues we’ll see Eason in a more expanded role, because right now every time he’s in the lineup he’s doing something positive. 



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