There’s very little argument about who is the NBA Rookie of the Year this season. The Orlando Magic’s Paolo Banchero has it in the bag.
Banchero is the favorite to win the award, averaging 20 points and 6.6 rebounds for an emerging Magic squad. He deserves the award. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some solid surprises beyond the top spot. We’ve rounded up the five best rookies beyond Banchero who deserve recognition and consideration for the All-Rookie Team at the season’s end.
Jalen Williams, OKC Thunder: 13.4 PPG, 52% FG, 4.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.4 SPG
It’s reached the point in the season where we can definitively say Williams was the steal of the
draft. Taken No. 12 overall, the 6-foot-5 boasts a 7-foot-2 wingspan that he uses to shoot over opposing defenders, corral rebounds, and lock up opposing wings on defense. His ability to play the one through four has earned him the respect to start at power forward, where he has started 49 out of 62 games this season.
Williams’ true shooting percentage of 59.6 leads all rookies, setting him up as the beneficiary of many an elite pass from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. An athletic wing was all the Thunder were really
missing. There’s hope Williams can continue growing and become a star next to SGA and Josh
Giddey. He could eventually grow into a Paul George-level player.
Williams’ quick emergence as a bonafide starter has helped to keep the Thunder in the Play-In race. Should they make it, Williams is already the second-best on-ball scorer on the team, and his ability to thrive on both sides of the ball (133.8 defensive rating, best of any rookie this season) should make him a bit of a household name by April.
Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers: 16.6 PPG, 4 RPG, .485 2p%
After he made a name for himself in the NCAA Tournament with Arizona, Bennedict Mathurin was expected to be a bucket maker in the NBA. The surprise came that he did it so fast. There’s a case to be made he is the best on-ball scorer for the Pacers, which he has earned as a reserve this season. He is fourth on the team in scoring while shooting below average from the field (42.8%) and from three (31.5%).
Once those percentages bump up to or above the league average, so shall his points per game. He is another example of why Canada is becoming the second-best basketball country in the world. He is fourth in the NBA in fast break points (248), trailing only LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and teammate Buddy Hield. He is a one-man fast break with elite handles and release, capable of breaking down defenders, creating space, and getting off shots on anyone, especially in crunch time.
Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz: 8.6 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 72.1 FG%
Rookies aren’t expected to be a difference maker on winning teams, especially those picked late in the first round. But Walker Kessler, one of the two slam-dunk acquisitions the Jazz received from Minnesota for Rudy Gobert, has been just that.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Raptor rating, Kessler is currently ranked as the 58th-best player in the NBA this season and only four spots down from Gobert. Of those in the top six in Plus-Minus defending the rim (he is sixth at minus-12.5%), Kessler defends those shots at the highest defended field goal percentage (52.1%).
Kessler is also tied for 10th in offensive rebounds per game at 3.1 per game, an insane stat for a first-year player. Only Jalen Duren surpasses him in this stat from the 2022 draft class. Want more? He also ranks fifth in blocks per game at 2.3 per game. All this to say, he is already one of the best defensive bigs in the league, and he’s only 21 years old. The Jazz received one of the best returns in NBA history for Gobert, while Kessler has already filled much of the defensive impact Gobert left in his wake, all while on a rookie scale contract. Now compare that to the $38 million Gobert is being paid this season.
Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings: 11.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 40.4 3P%
There are many reasons why the Kings are on their way to returning to the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2004. But one of the top three reasons is how the home run hit they made in this year’s NBA Draft with Keegan Murray. Murray has seamlessly slid into the starting lineup, starting all but two games for the Kings this season. His 11.9 PPG is good for sixth-best on the team. Of the players who play more than 10 minutes a game, Murray is also the team’s best three-point shooter at 40.4 percent.
The Kings are the best offensive team in the NBA, and Murray is a part of the best five-man line-ups for assists, points, field goals, three-pointers, rebounds, and steals. Even though the Kings are 25th in defensive rating, Murray is also part of the team’s best five-man defensive lineups.
In addition, the Kings are in the top half of the average age, at 26.1 years old. As older vets like Harrison Barnes and Malik Monk begin to fade in their roles, Murray will rise in his usage and role. He’s already one of the best two-way players on the team and has a ceiling to be the team’s third-best player after All-Stars Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox.
Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons: 15.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.9 APG, 0.9 SPG
Ivey was the smallest but most athletic player in the Top 10 of the draft. Every time he goes to
the rack, he is a highlight reel, setting up opposing bigs for posters.
The Pistons (16-53) might have the worst record in the NBA, but it has taken all the pressure off Ivey, allowing him to take full advantage of his offensive gifts. Since Cade Cunningham was ruled out after having shin surgery in early December, Ivey has been the team’s second-leading scorer at 15.4 PPG, third in assists at 4.9 per game, and third in minutes at 30.2. The future of the Pistons is invested in their star backcourt, both of which have All-Star potential.
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Against his fellow rookies, Ivey is third in made threes per game (1.4 per game), third in points per game, first in assists (4.9 per game), and fifth in steals (0.9 per game). In addition, Ivey stands out among rookies this season by being the only one to achieve the milestone of recording a minimum of 700 points, 200 assists, and 200 rebounds. Last season, only three players, namely Franz Wagner, Scottie Barnes, and Cunningham, managed to accomplish this feat, and that too throughout a full season. Remarkably, Ivey still has 13 games to go while hitting this milestone. Nevertheless, the future is bright in the Motor City.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo