We've finally reached the All-Star break, a much-needed break for everyone in the league before the final stretch of the season. We'll see most of the top rookies from this class compete in the Rising Stars Challenge, and Detroit Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey secured an invite to the Skills Challenge. But for everyone else not participating in the weekend's festivities, it's a time when first-year players can take a breather before finishing out the last 20-ish games.
It'll be interesting to see which rookies come out of the All-Star break with renewed energy, and which ones are already thinking about their summer vacations at the end of the season. Though the stretch after the All-Star break is most important for playoff-contending teams, those games are also important for rookies to end their season on a high note before heading into the offseason.
Now it's time to break down this week's 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 the player's performance over the past week.
At the time of writing this, Williams has the fifth-best odds of winning Rookie of the Year. That's in part because the award typically goes to the first-year player that has the highest counting stats. Right now Paolo Banchero is the odds-on favorite to win, and for good reason, he's had a standout year with the Magic. However, Williams at fifth seems incredibly low considering how consistently he's played this season.
Last week he was spoiling LeBron James' record-breaking night with a performance that featured 25 points, seven rebounds and six steals (!!!). This week, while his numbers weren't quite as gaudy, his efficiency made an impact for the Thunder on offense, shooting 56.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep. He doesn't shoot the ball nearly as much as some of his rookie counterparts, but when he does he's incredibly efficient. His effectiveness around the rim, where he's shooting 71 percent, has him in the 82nd percentile among other wing players in the entire league. Williams does most of his damage around the rim, which often results in dunks like this:
Even with three defenders collapsing on him, Williams still finishes the dunk. He's a great third option to have alongside Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, and his versatility in being able to play with or without the ball in his hands makes him an easy player to plug into any scenario for OKC. Though he likely won't win Rookie of the Year, he should certainly be a top-3 finalist for the award.
On the last day of 2022, Ivey finished a Pistons win with just one point, while going 0 for 4 from the field in 20 minutes of action. Detroit leaned on its veteran bench to storm back for a win against the Timberwolves in that game, but it was an uncharacteristic performance from the rookie who had just racked up 22 points the night prior. However, since that dud of a game, Ivey has proceeded to score 10+ points in 20 straight games, and as I touched on last week, his efficiency has improved, too.
Ivey may not be getting enough attention on a rebuilding Pistons team, but if you watch him play you can see the flashes of a budding star. He possesses crazy athleticism and speed, which he's learned how to use over the course of the season, he's got a quick handle that can dizzy defenders, and he can get to the rim pretty much at will.
Or this tough challenge at the rim against the much bigger Pascal Siakam, where he contorts his body just enough to get the bucket:
At the beginning of the season, Ivey probably doesn't make that second bucket which shows just how far he's come in just 55 games.
Another week, another entry in Banchero's Rookie of the Year candidacy. The highlight this week came in an impressive win on the road against the Chicago Bulls in which Banchero led his team with 22 points. On the surface, this might just look like one of those surprising wins by a rebuilding team, but when you dig a little deeper you'll see the context of this game is what really makes Banchero's game stand out.
Let's rewind to Jan. 28, when the Magic played the Bulls at home in an uninspiring 128-109 loss. Banchero finished that game with just nine points while going 3 of 14 from the field. It tied Banchero's second-lowest point total of the season and broke a 14-game streak of him putting up 10+ points. Fast forward to Monday night and Banchero had a much-improved outing, where he used his handle to get past bigger defenders like Nikola Vucevic:
...and he used his size to discard smaller defenders like Goran Dragic for and-1 opportunities:
He also dished out three assists and swatted three shots in that game, giving Orlando its 24th win of the season, two more than what they won all of last season.
Since being elevated to the starting lineup last week due to injuries in San Antonio, Branham has made the most of his opportunity. Last week it was putting up a career-high 27 points, this week it was putting together back-to-back efficient performances for the Spurs, shooting north of 70 percent in two games. Though both performances came in losses for the Spurs, the 23-point, six-rebound outing against the Hornets highlighted the versatility of Braham's game.
All night long Branham was making Hornets guard LaMelo Ball look ridiculous on defense with his off-ball movement. The first time it happened, Ball made the right read and almost had a steal, but Branham corralled it for the layup:
The second time, Ball tried to play in the passing lane, but Branham left him in the dust and cut to the rim for a dunk:
The third time, Ball got overzealous and tried to go for a steal that was never there to begin with to the detriment of his teammates, and it was just open takeoff for Branham at the rim:
On this fourth time, Ball again jumped into the passing lane to try and anticipate a steal, but Keita Bates-Diop just held the ball for a second longer while Branham again faked out Ball for the cut to the rim and finished with a floater.
It was a masterclass by the rookie in off-ball movement, and while the Spurs still lost the game, Branham showed why he should be getting more minutes even when San Antonio's injured players return.
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It was a rough week for the Pacers, who went just 1-3 in their games, but it wasn't due to a lack of production from Mathurin, who had two outings of at least 20 points. But it was Mathurin's lowest-scoring game of the week, a 14-point outing against the Bulls, that was the most impactful to help Indiana to its only win of the week. Mathurin scored half of his points in the fourth quarter to help lead a Pacers that was once down by 24 points to storm back for the win. His transition layup with 8:50 left in the fourth quarter completed the comeback for the Pacers, giving them a 92-90 lead, and they managed to hold off the Bulls for the win.