2023 NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings: Paolo Banchero Leading, But Race Is Tightening

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBAFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 3, 2023

2023 NBA Rookie of the Year Rankings: Paolo Banchero Leading, But Race Is Tightening

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    Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero (5) is defended by Detroit Pistons center Jalen Duren during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
    AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

    Paolo Banchero holds the same spot in the NBA Rookie of the Year rankings that he did during this summer's draft: No. 1.

    He is the most productive player in this class and the one most easily projected into future stardom.

    Saying that, though, his efficiency did wane during the month of December, a stretch that coincided with some of the best basketball we've seen yet from some of the other top first-year hoopers. It isn't enough to unseat Banchero, but the gap between him and the field isn't as wide as it was.

10-6: Sochan, Griffin, Duren, Kessler, Williams

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    OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - DECEMBER 14:  Jalen Williams #8 of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives to the basket during the game against the Miami Heat on December 14, 2022 at Paycom Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

    10. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

    Sochan does a lot of the little things that helps teams win games, and since the rebuilding Spurs aren't doing much winning, it can be easy to overlook his impact—especially when he's shooting just 21.0 percent from range and 58.8 percent at the stripe. Still, few rookies made bigger imprints on the stat sheet during December, when he averaged 11.0 points, 6.2 boards, 3.2 assists and 0.6 blocks.


    9. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

    Griffin is a 19-year-old rookie who plays like a well-seasoned pro. He stays within himself, expertly filling the coveted three-and-D archetype while sprinkling in a bit of off-the-dribble ability. Among the seven rookies averaging double-digit points, he has the second-best connection rate from the field (46.4) and outside (37.2). He's also second in steals (1.0) despite being just 10th in minutes (21.8).


    8. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

    Duren is a rim-runner doing what rim-runners should do: protecting the paint, controlling the glass and finishing from close range. He has started Detroit's last 12 games, averaging 11.4 rebounds and 8.9 points on 65.2 percent shooting. For the season, he's had seven multiblock performances and held opponents 4.7 percentage points below their average shooting rates within six feet.


    7. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

    Who knew when the Jazz landed Kessler—and a boatload more—in the summer swap of Rudy Gobert that Utah was actually upgrading on the interior?

    OK, that's mostly a tongue-in-cheek take for now, but Kessler is bettering his Salt Lake City predecessor in field-goal percentage (72.9 to 67.1), blocks per 36 minutes (3.5 to 1.5) and shooting percentage allowed at the rim (54.9 to 60.3). Kessler also bests Gobert and every rookie in this class with a plus-0.7 estimated plus-minus, which ranks in the 78th percentile, per Dunks & Threes.


    6. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

    The Thunder have been friskier than expected this season, and Williams' play has been a big reason why. His 11.4 points per game are the fourth-most on the team and the sixth-most among rookies. His 51.4 field-goal percentage easily paces the top 10, and he's fourth in assists with 2.6 per night.

5. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 26:  Jabari Smith Jr. #1 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against the Chicago Bulls on December 26, 2022 at United Center in Chicago, Illinois. Houston defeated Chicago 133-118.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Smith is learning all the ins and outs of the roller coaster that is the NBA regular season. His cold spells can be frigid—he shot worse than 36 percent in nine of his first 10 outings—but his high-level flashes of floor-spacing and paint protection are spellbinding.

    He is one of 10 players with at least 60 triples and 30 blocks, and he's the lone freshman in that club. He is also on pace to be only the fifth qualified rookie ever to at least two threes and one block per 36 minutes.

    He looks like a legitimate building block, and that's exactly what Houston hoped to land when it invested the No. 3 pick in him.

    His 38.8 field-goal percentage remains unsightly, and he's not at all a playmaker (0.9 assists against 1.3 turnovers), so that holds down his ranking a bit. He is, however, trending in the right direction with December being his best month for scoring (12.7 points per game) and field-goal shooting (43.4 percent).

4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

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    SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 28: Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings surveys the court during the game against the Denver Nuggets on December 28, 2022 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

    Murray's numbers paint him as rock-solid, which is strange because that label typically implies a level of consistency that this summer's No. 4 pick has yet to capture.

    He's had a few runs where it appears as if the light bulb has clicked and he's suddenly beaming toward stardom. Without fail, though, the rookie wall always finds its way back into his path.

    He plays on a better team than most of his lottery peers, which is equal parts blessing and curse for our purposes. On one hand, he gets a bump for significance, since he's starting and handling major minutes for a club with serious playoff aspirations. On the other, he's nowhere near the top of the food chain in Sacramento's offense, so his numbers are a bit muted.

    It's tempting to slot him a spot higher, since the Kings are winning games and winning his minutes by 2.9 points per 100 possessions. He just doesn't quite have the numbers needed to usurp our No. 3 freshman, though.

3. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

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    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - DECEMBER 30: Jaden Ivey #23 of the Detroit Pistons dribbles up the court against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at United Center on December 30, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images,)
    Michael Reaves/Getty Images,

    Given the acceleration of Ivey's zero-to-a-million burst, it's only natural to hope that same blazing speed could fast-forward his development. Especially when, on certain nights, he makes it seem as if the light bulb has clicked.

    Twice in the latter stages of December, he topped 20 points. The first was a career-high 30-point eruption in which he made 71.4 percent of his field goals and both of his long-range looks. The other saw him tally 22 points on only 10 field-goal attempts, as he went 8-of-9 at the stripe and dished out six assists against three turnovers.

    Catch him on his good nights, and you'd swear future stardom was a mere formality.

    "What (Ivey) does every single night, he plays hard, he attacks and he gets downhill," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told The Athletic's James L. Edwards III. "Soon, he'll see, 'OK, I have to get a mid-range shot. Now, I have to improve my three-point shooting.' That'll open up everything for him. The change of pace, change of speeds ... he'll get that."

    Ivey's jumper is very much a work in progress. He's only made 31.8 percent of them all year. Fine-tuning his form and improving his shot selection would be massive.

    Efficiency-wise, he's a step behind the top two rookies on our rankings—41.2/31.5/73.2 slash—but his combination of 15.1 points, 4.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game is impossible to ignore.

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

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    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - DECEMBER 14:  Bennedict Mathurin #00 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates after making a three point shot against the Golden State Warriors at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on December 14, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana.    NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    For much of this season, the rookie rankings have featured Banchero at the top, then a gap between he and Mathurin and finally another gap between Mathurin and the rest.

    That second gap is shrinking—not to the point of knocking Mathurin out of the No. 2 spot, but enough to wonder whether he'll be able to hold it going forward.

    December was rough. Well, a lot of it was, at least. Even in an overall down month, he still dropped 18 points and eight rebounds on the Washington Wizards, blitzed the Golden State Warriors for 24 points and four triples and reeled off 23 points with eight free throws against the Cleveland Cavaliers. His scoring is obviously ignitable, and he can be a walking flame-thrower when he has it rolling.

    Still, the rookie wall seemingly got the best of him last month, as he managed just a 39.4 field-goal percentage (21.5 from deep) and had more turnovers (23) than assists (22). That not only put the field hotter on his heels, it also failed to trim the separation between him and Banchero.

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

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    DETROIT, MICHIGAN - DECEMBER 28: Paolo Banchero #5 of the Orlando Magic looks on against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena on December 28, 2022 in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
    Nic Antaya/Getty Images

    December was, on balance, a downer for Banchero. He posted his worst monthly field-goal percentage of 40.7 and coughed up three giveaways per game.

    Of course, it was also a month in which he netted 20-plus points in 10 of 15 outings, including a stretch of seven consecutive contests. Yeah, it's been that kind of debut year for the top pick.

    If his current average holds, he'd join Zion Williamson, Luka Dončić, Donovan Mitchell and Joel Embiid as the only rookies to average 20-plus points this decade. Banchero's 54.2 true shooting percentage ranks 22nd among the 51 freshmen to ever average 20 points.

    He already holds court with the Association's top point producers. Just 31 players in the entire league can match his nightly output of 20.9 points and 3.9 assists. Only 18 average more than his 3.3 isolation points per game. Just 11 top his nightly average of 7.9 free-throw attempts.

    He looks like an elite offensive player—as a 20-year-old rookie. His lead might be (slightly) shrinking in the Rookie of the Year running, but he's not at all in jeopardy of losing it.


    Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com and accurate through Sunday.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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