Amongst all the highlight plays made by these rookies over the last week, one moment that really stood out was an exchange that happened between LeBron James and Jabari Smith Jr. when the Lakers faced the Rockets. The rookie informed the four-time champion that he played against his father in his first game in the league.
Jabari Smith Jr tells Lebron he played against Jabari's Dad in his first NBA game 😂 pic.twitter.com/PxIYyTMQys— CJ Fogler AKA Perc70 #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) January 17, 2023
You can hear the genuine shock in James' voice when he says "Really?" after Smith informed him that his dad lined up opposite of him in his NBA debut against Sacramento. To make James really feel his age, Smith followed up with "You feel old don't you?" It was a cool moment to illustrate just how long James has been doing this and at a high level, too.
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 what the player has done over the past week.
If there were a Defensive Rookie of the Year Kessler would run away with the award. It's not every day you see a first-year player come into the league and immediately make an impact on the defensive side of the ball. That's because the game is moving too fast and there aren't a bunch of talents like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant on every college team. So when a rookie comes along and shows they have what it takes to defend at a high level as soon as they enter the league, you take notice.
Enter Kessler, a 7-0 center who has become a rim protection savant in Utah, filling the void left behind by Rudy Gobert. In a matchup against Gobert and the Timberwolves, Kessler posted 20 points and 21 rebounds, becoming the first Jazz rookie to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game in franchise history. He's also the first rookie in league history to post that stat line since Gorgui Dieng did it in 2014. By the way, nine of those 21 rebounds were on the offensive end, and yes, Gobert played in that game, showing that Kessler is more than capable of holding his own against a multiple Defensive Player of the Year winner.
But what really stood out aside from the rebounds and the second-chance opportunities, is just how well Kessler moves on defense, even when athletic guards are moving downhill toward the rim.
He also moves well in space against big men who can put the ball on the ground, as seen in this block against Luka Garza:
If this is the starting point for Kessler's defense, then he's going to be a great defender in a couple of years' time. And for the Jazz to get another defensive stalwart in the middle after just trading away an anchor last summer, this is great news.
It may get boring to see Banchero on this list every week, but it just shows how impressive he's been consistently this season. He's my pick for Rookie of the Year, something he should win handily at season's end, and the low-pressure minutes he's getting in Orlando are yielding great results for the Magic from a development standpoint. He had another week filling the stat sheet everywhere, and notched his seventh double-double of the season in a win over the Trail Blazers.
Banchero's success this season, much like Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson before him, has fast-tracked Orlando's rebuild. Though the playoffs may be out of reach this season, it's entirely possible that this time next year the Magic could be in the hunt for at least a play-in spot. Something else that may even be closer to reality is Banchero becoming a first-time All-Star next year. He may not have the votes this season, but on the latest ballot, he was in the top 10 of forwards in the East, and if he continues this ascension into his sophomore season the voters will have no choice but to vote him in.
Though Mathurin has primarily been a spark plug off the bench for Indiana, with the recent injury to Tyrese Haliburton he's been inserted into the starting lineup, and in his first start this week he dropped 26 points on 50 percent from the field in a loss to the Hawks. Mathurin's been primarily used as a spot-up 3-point shooter for the Pacers, but against the Hawks, he attempted just one shot from deep, as he mercilessly attacked the paint with a variety of tough shots.
Mathurin has become a scoring darling for Indiana, and that performance against the Hawks proves that he can provide offense in a variety of ways. In CBS Sports' midseason awards predictions, I chose Malcolm Brogdon to win Sixth Man of the Year, but Mathurin wouldn't be an entirely wild selection. He's leading the league in bench scoring, (17.5 points), he is averaging four rebounds and though he's been struggling with his 3-point shot as of late, there was a point early in the season where he was nearly automatic from deep. He likely won't win the award, but the fact that he's even in the running is proof alone that Indiana has something special with this kid.
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Ivey's efficiency is going in the opposite direction of what you'd like to see, going from shooting 46 percent from the field in the first month of the season, followed by two and a half months of shooting 40 percent. Those numbers aren't ideal, but you hope that with all these low-pressure reps he's getting that efficiency is bound to jump up at some point either this season or next year.
The efficiency aside, though, Ivey's shown time and time again that he's just a flat-out scorer. He racked up 21 points against the Knicks this past week to go along with six assists, marking his third straight game of 5 assists or more. His improvement as a facilitator is what's really been eye-catching, a byproduct of his larger role with Cade Cunningham out for the season.
There's been a whole lot of chatter about the Rockets' young core, and not in a positive light, none of which has anything to do with Smith. The Rockets have a bunch of individually talented players on their roster, but in terms of playing team basketball, it doesn't always succeed. It's a problem some rebuilding teams find themselves in from time to time. But through all that noise Smith has shown his defensive chops on more than one occasion against some of the top stars in this league. And he has broken free from an early shooting slump at the start of the season.
Smith's 27-point outing against the Kings, in which he shot 55 percent from the field was just the latest example of his talent, and while he's still struggling to connect efficiently from deep, he has no trouble getting buckets inside the arc.