NBA Rookie Rankings: Jabari Smith Jr. blossoming in Houston; Jalen Williams efficient in OKC
With the regular season ending in a couple of weeks, that usually means a lot of pointless league play as playoff contenders try to rest their players in preparation for something bigger, and lottery-bound teams roll out younger rosters that don’t have nothing left to fight for. However, this season has been a strange one as the final day of the regular season is only three weeks away and only three teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. As a result, we had some intense basketball in March, especially from some of the newcomers. Guys like Jalen Williams are making great strides in their development, while others like Jabari Smith Jr are finally showing off their offensive abilities to the fullest. With a lot still to be captured in terms of playoff positioning, we’re in for a treat in the final stretch of the regular season.
Now it’s time to break down this week’s rookie rankings. Keep in mind that these rankings will only reflect rookie performance on a weekly basis and not on a collective season. This is not a Rookie of the Year ranking, but rather a reflection of a player’s performance over the past week.
1. Jabari Smith
It was a watershed week for Smith, who scored at least 20 points in three straight games for the first time in his rookie season. This is even more remarkable when you consider that Smith only had two 20-point games out of his last 31 games. March overall has been Smith’s strongest month to date, and while his season is nearly over, it’s good that he’s ending the year on a high note.
After a shocking victory over the Boston Celtics, Rockets teammate Jalen Green had this to say about his fellow rookie:
“He is going crazy now. He’s in that mode,” Greene said. said Smith. “I’m happy for him because we know the real Jabari and he’s showing it right now to everyone, everyone who doubted him, the haters, everyone, he’s showing it right now.”
I wouldn’t say that Smith had a lot of haters or doubters, but he definitely didn’t get the same level of attention as some of his fellow rookies. But even when Smith struggled on offense, his defensive influence was still positive. Now we are seeing both sides of his game come together and that results in the performances many expected from him at the start of the season.
Oh, and another tidbit about that 20-point stretch: Smith became the first teenager in NBA history to have three straight games with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He is also the first Rockets rookie to accomplish this feat since Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1984.
2. Jalen Williams
The jump Williams has made over the past few weeks has been insane. His performance and efficiency are unmatched among newcomers to the class, and he does so while the Thunder is still vying for a place to play in the West. His field goal percentage, which rose to 52.1% for the season, is 17th. throughout the league. A list that is usually littered with big players at the top of the list, Williams has found himself above the likes of Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and even his teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
If you filter this list to just look at defensemen in the league, Williams leads the entire NBA in field goal percentage. I cannot explain to you how important this is for a beginner, so I will say this: it is unprecedented. But when you watch Williams play, you’ll understand why he’s so effective: he doesn’t make many bad shots. Nearly half of his shots are on the ring, which is already a highly effective form, but he quickly leaves his defender in the dust, creating light shots on the ring, such as:
But he’s not just a dunker who capitalizes on hard hitting the basket. With a weaker defender in front of him like Seth Curry, he’ll just drive past them, and with a wingspan of more than seven feet, Williams can land hook shots that are simply out of reach of oncoming big players. like Nick Claxton in this play:
What’s crazy is that there’s nothing terribly confusing or complicated about it, Williams just handles the basics supremely well. He doesn’t let anyone down – although he certainly can, if necessary – to get to the ring, or punch his way to the railroad with great force, he just knows perfectly well when to call his blow, and attacks ruthlessly at these moments. Even with an elite defender like Mikal Bridges holding him back, Williams makes the path to the cup seem easy and he finishes with high efficiency:
Williams hesitates for a while, initiates contact with Bridges, and then races to the ring. Nothing flashy, but effective and dangerous. This season, Williams has reached the point where he has gone from a quality player to an emerging star, and I don’t think anyone expected that from him, especially early in his career.
3. Paolo Banchero
Like Smith, Banchero has a much better March than February, especially when it comes to his 3-point shots. Having made just one 3-pointer in February on 33 attempts, Banchero is already 12 of 32 from deep, which is 37.5%, his most effective mark this season. His March field goal percentage is also his second-highest of the season at 45.1%.
Banchero was also praised by DeAndre Ayton ahead of Orlando’s game against the Suns this week, where the big man compared the rookie to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“From what I’ve seen, the guy can get to the ring. I think he, along with Giannis, knows when to foul,” Ayton said.
It may seem a little premature to compare Banchero to a two-time MVP and NBA champion, but such a comparison carries some weight. Bunchero and Antetokounmpo act as point guards on their respective teams, and as Antetokounmpo works his way to the rim…