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Vecenie’s NBA Rookie Rankings: Paolo Banchero’s All-Star case; Walker Kessler surprises

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We’re a bit of greater than a month into the NBA season, which implies we finally have a fun sample of games from this yr’s rookies to debate and break down.

Roughly once a month, I’ll plan on taking a deep dive into the rookie class and analyzing the players within the only way writers know the way: with rankings. It is a rating of probably the most effective rookies to date within the NBA. It should be a full-season rating, not an influence rating.

As usual, there will likely be a table, followed by thoughts on just a few players who’ve stood out ultimately, shape or form. Because it stands, I might say there are 4 clear tiers: The highest-two players listed are in the primary, a second tier with Nos. 3 and 4, Nos. 5 through 12 are all pretty close within the third tier and Nos. 13 through 17 conclude the fourth tier, with the Nuggets’ Christian Braun and the Grizzlies’ Jake LaRavia just missing the cut. Without further ado, here is where I’d rate the rookies after the primary month and a few change:

2022-23 Rookie Rankings

RANKPLAYERTEAMPOINTSREBOUNDSASSISTSSTEALSBLOCKS

1

Paolo Banchero

Orlando Magic

23.5

8.3

3.6

0.7

0.9

2

Bennedict Mathurin

Indiana Pacers

19.3

3.9

1.9

0.4

0.1

3

Jaden Ivey

Detroit Pistons

16.8

4.8

4.1

1.1

0.4

4

Keegan Murray

Sacramento Kings

12.1

3.5

1.1

0.9

0.7

5

Shaedon Sharpe

Portland Trail Blazers

9.2

2.6

0.5

0.3

0.3

6

Jalen Williams

Oklahoma City Thunder

9.5

3

2.8

0.9

0.3

7

Walker Kessler

Utah Jazz

5.3

5

0.8

0.3

1.3

8

Christian Koloko

Toronto Raptors

4.2

3.6

0.5

0.2

1.4

9

Jeremy Sochan

San Antonio Spurs

7.7

4.1

1.8

0.9

0.5

10

AJ Griffin

Atlanta Hawks

8.4

2

0.7

0.8

0.1

11

Tari Eason

Houston Rockets

8.7

5.2

1

1.5

0.5

12

Jalen Duren

Detroit Pistons

7.1

7.5

0.3

0.4

1.1

13

Andrew Nembhard

Indiana Pacers

6.7

2.1

3.1

0.9

0.1

14

MarJon Beauchamp

Milwaukee Bucks

5.9

3.4

0.5

0.5

0.2

15

Jabari Smith Jr.

Houston Rockets

10.9

6.9

0.8

0.3

1.1

Paolo Banchero — No. 1

Assuming Paolo Banchero gets healthy soon after missing Orlando’s past seven games with an ankle injury, there’s a real All-Star conversation available immediately about him, something that rarely happens for first-year players. I can’t quite get there because I don’t necessarily know the way much of his game is translating to winning basketball — he just turned 20, so that you wouldn’t expect it to — however the conversation is cheap, and he’s been probably the most impressive rookie of this season by a healthy amount as a consequence of his shot-creation gifts.

Banchero is a reputable top-two option on an NBA team immediately, which is ridiculous to say a few rookie. We’re obviously in an up-tempo era of basketball, so Banchero’s 23.5 points and eight.3 rebounds per game are probably a touch inflated when comparing him to historical precedents. But even in the event you reduce those numbers to twenty points and 7 rebounds per game, the variety of rookies who’ve done that over a full season is kind of limited to All-NBA or Hall of Fame quality. Since 1985, the one players to average 20 points and 7 rebounds per game as a rookie are Luka Dončić, Joel Embiid, Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, per Stathead. When the baseline for a player’s future based on their current production is All-NBA, you realize something goes right.

Banchero’s mix of size, strength and skill makes him an exceedingly rare entity. Guys who’re 6-foot-10 typically can’t handle the ball the best way he does. More often than not, it’s due to balance and inability to decelerate. Larger guys who’ve longer limbs and carry more weight are inclined to have a harder time slowing that momentum down. It’s also typically harder for guys like this to bend. Banchero has zero issues on any of those fronts, and it’s not only a comfort-level thing. The creativity and polish Banchero has as a ballhandler are going to quickly make him an almost unattainable problem for defenses to unravel in the approaching years. His level of shake is rare, and also you see it in a number of the nasty inside-out dribbles or between-the-legs crossovers he’ll hit guys with while keeping the ball low to the bottom.

Watch this one against Eric Gordon. Gordon has long been a player who does well sliding up and defending greater guys because he uses his low center gravity and arm length to concurrently contest and keep greater guys from taking him down onto the block. Here, Banchero just wrecks him and doesn’t even need to make use of his size. It’s filthy and showcases why he’s such a technically impressive ballhandler.

Born and raised within the Seattle area, Banchero at times looks like in the event you took Jamal Crawford, incorporated a lot of his nasty set-up moves and crossovers and placed them right into a center-sized frame. Beyond that, Banchero’s ability to get defenders off-balance and bully his way through contact allows him to live on the foul line. He’s taking 8.3 free throws per game to this point. The eight free-throw attempts per game as a rookie club is an exclusive one, largely reserved again for Hall of Famers. Since 1965, it’s Banchero (to this point), Michael Jordan, Griffin, Shaq, Robinson, Mourning, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elvin Hayes and Rick Barry. On top of all this, his passing and playmaking for others is incredibly high-level for an enormous and allows him to play point guard at times for Orlando.

Having said that, two things are stopping Banchero from immediate All-Star status for me. First, it’s the intersection of his shot distribution and selection together with his shooting skill immediately. Banchero is a very good shooter, and I believe long run we’re going to see him grow to be a very good one. But he’s just barely off there immediately. He lives within the midrange, something that isn’t necessarily bad for a primary shot creator. The issue is that he’s missing. He’s taken 41 midrange jumpers within the half court (4 per game) and made just 13 of them. He’s also taking 4 3-pointers per game and has made only 26 percent of those too. Banchero finishes well on the rim, and his ability to live at the road pushes him toward about league-average efficiency. But his effective field goal percentage of 49.0 percent is over 4 points below the league average.

Second, Banchero has really struggled on defense. Most rookies do, so it’s not an enormous problem at this stage, but when talking on the margins about whether someone ought to be an All-Star, it matters. He’s not a disaster on the ball, and I don’t think he’s disengaged. It’s shows up more in the best way his attention to detail wavers every so often when he’s away from the ball and in a few of his mechanical stuff. He has an inclination to hop around across the court versus staying down and sliding, which results in poor response times as he tries to get his momentum going again. He also ball watches.

Below is a superb example against the Kings. Here, Banchero is guarding Harrison Barnes. De’Aaron Fox drives, and Banchero just sinks within the lane. My bet is that he thought Wendell Carter Jr. was going to should help onto Fox to contest the shot on the rim and he needed to sink in to defend Domantas Sabonis because the dump-off option. But Bol Bol had already recovered into contest position as the large defender in the first on-ball motion, and there wasn’t any reason for it.

Again, to some extent, that is small potatoes for a player 11 games into his profession. We’re having a legitimate All-Star conversation a few rookie on this space. That’s how good Banchero has been.

Walker Kessler — No. 7

Walker Kessler is arguably the most important surprise of the rookie class. His defense and rebounding has been terrific within the quarter-hour per night he plays as backup center for the Utah Jazz. We knew he’d find a way to be defend within the NBA within the regular season — he posted one of the best block rate in over a decade in college basketball last season and did so in an athletic SEC — but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated him doing this well this early.

Kessler’s impact by way of on/off numbers has been staggering. It’s a brilliant small sample, and it’s clouded by the undeniable fact that teams are shooting only 32 percent from 3 when he’s on the market. But with him on the court, Utah has only given up 107 points per 100 possessions, versus giving up 116 per 100 when he’s off the court. Even when Kessler’s not likely having an impact on the aberrant 3-point misses, he actually is impacting what teams shoot across the rim. And when he’s on the market, teams have only made 59 percent of their shots on the basket, per PBP Stats. But an important number when considering that impact? Amongst those 54 players that contest at the least 4 shots on the rim per game, Kessler’s 10.8 contests per 36 minutes is the second-best mark within the league behind Myles Turner’s 12. He’s just continuously available, and teams continuously attempt to attack him to little avail.

Certainly one of the more fun little things to observe from this rookie class has been the best way Kessler plays cat-and-mouse with guards and bigs out of ball screens. His feet stay lively, together with his hips able to drop to chop off an angle. He’s enormous at 7-foot-1, allowing him to contest when obligatory. He keeps every part in front of him, which implies rollers rarely get behind him, and he allows his guards to get well back in front or get a rear-window contest on a jumper. He is especially good at baiting guards into taking little midrange shots and getting a late contest — and even at times simply just letting them take it and going to rebound depending on who the shooter is. That is stuff coaches like to see from drop-coverage bigs given how much of NBA basketball is a math game now. If a team resides by taking contested midrange shots, the percentages are pretty good that Utah will come out ahead.

Here’s a very good example against the Recent York Knicks, Immanuel Quickley and Jericho Sims. Watch the best way Kessler plays the gap between Quickley and Sims, keeping his feet lively and using his length to remain within the gap in order that Quickley can’t make the pass and is stuck taking a contested shot. Within the meantime, Kessler buys his defender, Malik Beasley, time to get back into the play and contest the shot. It’s textbook stuff.

The difference between Kessler and the subsequent guy we’ll speak about is his offense. Kessler has been a really reliable lob threat and dunker-spot finisher this yr for the Jazz, shooting nearly 70 percent on the rim. Despite having extremely small hands for an enormous, Kessler catches every part above chest level. And more importantly, his mobility and feel allows him already to be effective as a dribble-handoff screener. He’s a man who does all the little things very well and is on his technique to an All-Rookie team berth if he keeps this up.

Christian Koloko — No. 8

To not be outdone necessarily by Kessler, Christian Koloko has entered Toronto’s starting lineup for nearly half of its games this season and been extremely effective as a defense-first big Nick Nurse can rely on to be an impediment to opposing teams. It needs to be seen as a little bit of a surprise that Koloko has been this handy this quickly provided that he was a second-round pick and his overall frame still needs some work by way of lower-body strength. But my top two defenders in college basketball last season were Kessler and Koloko, and we now have an actual track record of one of the best collegiate defenders over the previous couple of years turning into early impact NBA defenders (Davion Mitchell, Herb Jones, Matisse Thybulle) despite the fact that defending in college basketball is commonly dissimilar schematically from defending within the NBA as a consequence of the increased space that needs to be covered.

I believe Koloko is having a fair greater impact on Toronto’s defense than Kessler is on Utah’s. The numbers by way of on/off metrics aren’t as staggering, but they’re close. Toronto gives up 105 points per 100 possessions when Koloko is on the court, versus 117 when he’s off it. And Koloko’s actually a bit more versatile by way of his coverages than Kessler. Toronto will at times play Koloko closer to the extent in ball-screen coverages or will flat drop him. Occasionally, he’s shown the flexibility to get caught out on an island with athletic guards, and Toronto can cope with the outcomes when that happens. Koloko’s mobility and length makes him such a weapon in recovery. Just ask Jaden Ivey, who’s one of the athletic guards within the league and thought he had Koloko beat on this play below until he didn’t. Koloko just swallowed up every millimeter of space Ivey had created with the blow-by in a single single stride.

It’s obviously not all about with the ability to stick out on an island. It’s also about Koloko being an infinite impediment on the rim. He doesn’t contest quite as often as Kessler, but teams are shooting just 54 percent when he’s the closest defender on shots on the rim, per the NBA site. Essentially the most mind-boggling number, though, has to do with what his presence back there allows his teammates to do. Toronto’s perimeter defense is built around long, rangy, switchable defenders — in addition to noted ball-hawk Fred VanVleet. When Koloko is on the court, per Basketball-Reference, teams turn the ball over on 20 percent of their possessions. That’s not a direct reflection of Koloko himself forcing those turnovers but slightly of his presence empowering those players to gamble a bit more and force live-ball turnovers — something that also really helps the Raptors’ offense given how bogged down that may get at times. Toronto leads the NBA in turnover percentage, and Koloko has been an enormous reason why even when he’s not the one getting deflections.

Speaking of the offense, I do think Koloko’s presence on the market hinders the Raptors in a reasonably possible way. He’s not someone opposing teams actually need to fret about on the market when he’s on the court. He’s shooting just 46 percent from the sphere, despite the undeniable fact that 45 of his 57 attempts this season have either been layups or dunks. He’s a complete non-threat if he’s not dunking. In some way, Koloko has made just nine of his 25 layup attempts this season. In the event you can stop him from dunking, he can’t really hurt you immediately because he’s not a post option, and albeit you don’t really feel all that comfortable when he has the ball in his hands away from the rim in numerous actions. He has taken only 57 shots in almost 300 minutes and isn’t really a threat as a passer. Nurse does a reasonably good job of scheming him so he doesn’t get in the best way all that usually, but Koloko has loads of work to do on the offensive end to turn out to be a league-average starting center. The excellent news for the Raptors is that his defensive ceiling is thru the roof based on the early returns. If he can work out a technique to improve his touch and feel as a passer, his defense will allow him to be a major impact player.

Jabari Smith Jr. — No. 15

That is the bummer of the rankings. Jabari Smith Jr. has really struggled early in his rookie season. I probably must have put considered one of Braun or LaRavia at No. 15, but I wanted to put in writing about Smith’s struggles. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from the sphere and 30.2 percent from 3. For a player who was the most effective shooters within the 2022 NBA Draft class and the most effective 6-foot-10-plus shooters I’ve ever evaluated, those are stunning marks. So, what’s occurring?

I believe it went a bit underrated throughout the pre-draft process that it takes Smith a pretty big period of time to load into his jump shot. And while you move from college to the NBA, those windows close much more quickly, and the rise in length results in even harder, more contested shots. This is the reason with the ability to shoot directly off the hop is so essential within the NBA. You want to find a way to load into your shot quickly. Doing it off of a one-two step allows defenders to get back into the play. Two clips below showcase that, one from Auburn and one from Houston.

He’s so open within the second shot, and it takes him so long to get his left foot set that it allows Toronto time to get well and contest. I believe it seems to even transcend that, though. It just looks like Smith is pressing to get out of what needs to be probably the most prolonged slump of his young profession. He doesn’t look shook — he’s still willing to fireside up 3s and take shots after they’re open — nevertheless it also looks as if he’s getting frustrated while you watch Rockets games.

That is ultimately the crux of the problem with Smith: Jump-shooting is what he does and what makes him special as a prospect. He has been so good at it throughout his profession that you just had to be ok with it continuing to work on the NBA level — and I still think it would. Once he gets through the slump and quickens up his load into his shot, Smith goes to be fantastic. He’s already a reasonably strong defender who wreaks havoc together with his length and athleticism across the court in help and is pretty switchable.

But when the jumper doesn’t fall — and it’s not falling immediately — Smith isn’t an efficient player on offense. He’s not a high-level passer and doesn’t have elite rim-running capabilities to run him as a pick-and-roll big to the basket to get clean looks off lobs because he’s not an excessively vertical threat. He’s not an elite shot creator as a ballhandler to find a way to create a shot for himself in a mismatch out of isolations. Smith is a shooter, and immediately, he’s going through it a bit.

I went into watching all of Smith’s tape expecting to think that situational aspects are holding him back. He’s been a powerful movement shooter throughout his profession and has only taken 4 shots off screens this season, something that theoretically can be an indictment of Stephen Silas and a training staff that’s running extremely rudimentary offensive concepts. I do think Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green often miss him being open after they’re driving to the rim. I don’t think either of those aspects are working to assist Smith all that much or put him in an awesome situation.

At the tip of the day, though, they’re not the predominant issue. Smith is missing open looks. You can run him off one million screens, and Porter could hit him on each kickout opportunity. It just doesn’t make a difference if Smith is barely going to make his shots when he has at the least 4 feet of separation from his defender at a 32 percent clip, as per the NBA site.

Jalen Green went through a protracted slump to begin last season in Houston and eventually broke out of it. My bet is Smith eventually breaks out of his slump. He’s been too good of a shooter at every level for this to proceed. Eventually he’ll turn it around, then get a probability to quicken up his release further within the offseason. Nevertheless it’s been a slog early within the season, and the defensive prowess is the one thing that allowed Smith to hold onto a spot on this list.

(Top photo of Paolo Banchero: Mike Watters / USA Today)

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