Among all the flashy plays these rookies have made over the past week, one moment that really stood out was the trade that took place between LeBron James and Jabari Smith Jr. when the Lakers faced the Rockets. The rookie told the four-time champion that he played against his father in his first league game.
You can hear the genuine shock in James’ voice when he says, “Really?” after Smith informed him that his father had lined up opposite him in his NBA debut against Sacramento. To make James really feel his age, Smith added, “You feel old, don’t you?” It was a great moment to illustrate how long James has been doing this, and at a high level.
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 leaderboard, but rather a reflection of what the player has done over the past week.
If there was a defensive rookie of the year, Kessler would have run away with the award. It’s not every day you see a freshman come into the league and have an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball. That’s because the game moves too fast and talent like Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Kevin Durant aren’t on every college team. So when a rookie shows up and shows that he has what it takes to defend at a high level, once he enters the league, you pay attention to it.
Enter Kessler, a 7-0 center who became a Utah rim defense specialist, filling the void left by Rudy Gobert. Against Gobert and the Timberwolves, Kessler recorded 20 points and 21 rebounds, becoming the first Jazz rookie to score 20 points and 20 rebounds in franchise history. He is also the first rookie in league history to post such a line of stats since Gorgy Dieng did in 2014. Incidentally, nine of those 21 rebounds were offensive, and yes, Gobert played that game, showing that Kessler is more than capable of holding his own against the multiple Defensive Player of the Year winner.
But what really stood out, aside from rebounding and second-chance opportunities, was how well Kessler moved defensively, even as athletic defenders slid down to the rim.
He also moves well in space against big men who can put the ball on the ground, as shown in this block against Luca Garza:
If this is the starting point for Kessler’s defense, then in a couple of years he will be a great defender. And for jazz to get Other a staunch defensive backbone in the middle after just changing anchor last summer, that’s great news.
It can be boring to see Banchero on this list every week, but it just goes to show how impressive he has been consistently this season. I pick him for Rookie of the Year and he should win easily at the end of the season, and the low-pressure minutes he gets with Orlando are doing great things for the Magic in terms of development. He had another week filling stats everywhere and recorded his seventh double-double of the season by defeating the Trail Blazers.
Banchero’s success this season, like Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson before him, has spurred Orlando’s recovery. While the playoffs may not be available this season, it’s possible that the Magic will be on the hunt for at least a spot at this time next year. Something else that might even be closer to reality is that Banchero will be an All-Star for the first time next year. He may not have votes this season, but in the last round of voting he was one of the top 10 hitters in the East and if he continues his ascent in his sophomore year, voters will have no choice but to vote for him.
Although Maturin was primarily a lighter off the bench for Indiana, a recent injury to Tyrese Haliburton saw him included in the starting lineup and in his first start this week, he dropped 26 points 50 percent off the field in a loss to the Hawks. Maturin was primarily used as an accurate three-point shooter for the Pacers, but against the Hawks, he only made one shot from deep as he relentlessly attacked the paint with many hard shots.
Maturin has become Indiana’s darling, and his performance against the Hawks proves he can hit in many different ways. In the CBS Sports midseason awards predictions, I picked Malcolm Brogdon to be the sixth player of the year, but Maturin wouldn’t be a completely wild choice. He leads the league in bench scoring (17.5 points), averages four rebounds, and while he’s been having trouble shooting three-pointers lately, there was a moment early in the season where he hit almost automatically from deep. He probably won’t win the award, but the fact that he’s even up for election is one piece of evidence that Indiana has something special about this kid.