NBA Rookie Rankings: Jabari Smith turns the corner after a strong week; AJ Griffin hits game winner for Hawks

In honor of this week’s edition of the Rookie Ladder, which runs on Thanksgiving, it only seems appropriate to reflect on what some of these teams have to be thankful for when it comes to their young players. The Indiana Pacers should be grateful that they have two rookies in Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard who could start for them. Mathurin has Rookie of the Year potential coming off the bench, but Nembhard has started and is making solid contributions from both ends of the floor.

The Orlando Magic should be thankful that, at least for now, it looks like they’ve picked No. 1 in Paolo Banchero. While still out with an ankle injury, Banchero is already proving to be by far the best rookie of the season. When paired with Franz Wagner, who also had a stellar rookie season last year, the Magic appear to form an impressive young core. Teams like the Pistons should be grateful the Kings passed on Jaden Ivey β€” although Keegan Murray isn’t a dimwit either β€” and the Trail Blazers should be grateful Shaedon Sharpe is making such a strong impression off the bench.

Now it’s time to break down this week’s NBA rookie rankings. Keep in mind that these leaderboards only reflect a rookie’s weekly performance, not the overall season. These are not rookie of the year rankings, but a reflection of what the player has accomplished over the past week.

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In a loss to the Golden State Warriors this week, Smith broke out of a shooting slump in big style, hitting a career-high 22 points with 8 of 14 from the field, followed by seven rebounds. Prior to this game, Smith had shot just 31.3 percent from the field in the season, and while one game is certainly not a trend, it bodes well for the No. 3 overall.

Smith came off the screens and pulled up for 3 seconds, variously scoring the rebound from the middle area and hitting the edge. It was a full offensive game for Smith, who also showed off his defensive skills.

Smith’s performance against the Warriors was a highlight of his progress over the past few games after a slow start to the season. In his last six games, he averaged 12.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, and improved 38.5 percent from field and 30.6 percent from depth. Those numbers might not look terrific, especially his shooting efficiency, but when you compare them to the 10 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 30.3/30 shooting splits he had in his first 10 games of the season, you can see that he starts to turn a corner.

After the loss to the Warriors, Smith opened up about his turnaround game.

“I feel like I’m in a good headspace,” Smith said. “I give myself credit for just keeping a cool head. A lot of people can’t get through these shootings and things like that and still go out there every night and still try to contribute, still have a good attitude. And just, I’m happy for me. Yes, I’m just ready for the next game. Ready to see how the season continues.

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Griffin’s week began with a 17-point performance against the Toronto Raptors, a game in which he sent fans home happily after converting a layup from a long pass from Trae Young when time was up to play the Leading the Hawks to an overtime win over the Raptors:

First of all, let’s appreciate the Hawks’ beautiful game to even as easy a peek after the time is up. Young simply whizzes past three Raptors defenders to get into open space, then delivers the ball at the perfect time for Griffin to take the shot. Hat to Griffin for knowing he had to cut to the brim while Young came down the floor for the easy layup. Simply beautiful design all round.

After that exciting finish, Griffin was promoted to the starting lineup in the following game, where he again finished with 17 points, along with three steals and two rebounds. Atlanta eventually lost that game to the Cavaliers, but Hawks coach Nate McMillan still praised his rookie forward.

“He did a good job,” said McMillan. β€œHe’s been making some shots out there and he’s been able to make some 3s and be productive. The challenge would be on the defensive end of the floor for him, but I thought he played the way he played – with confidence. He’s going to make some mistakes but I thought they were aggressive mistakes. I thought he played well.”

After playing just eight minutes a night for the first few weeks of the season, Griffin has now settled in to a consistent 21 minutes a night. He probably won’t pick up 17 points off the bench every night on a deep Hawks team, but he contributes when needed and takes on any role Atlanta needs of him.

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In a win over the Denver Nuggets, Ivey accumulated just seven points on 3-of-11 from the field and 1-of-4 from downtown. It was an uncharacteristic goal-scoring effort compared to what we’ve come to expect from the rookie guard this season, but while he didn’t score many points, he still helped his team win with his passing. Ivey had five assists, six rebounds and a steal, rounding out a performance that highlighted his presenting skills while his shooting went stone cold. That ball pass into the weakside corner with a doubles team on him was particularly impressive and a great indicator that the rookie can operate under defensive pressure:

Ivey has become Detroit’s leading guard while Cade Cunningham is still sidelined, opening up a wealth of opportunities in the process. He’s certainly up for Rookie of the Year talk and if he continues to score at an efficient level like he did last week in a 24-point game where he went 8-of-14 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep , then it won’t be surprising to see him with this hardware at the end of the season.

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Mathurin is another guy in the running for Rookie of the Year and what was most impressive about his performance is that he keeps putting up monster numbers coming off the bench. In a win over the Magic, he finished with 22 points, five rebounds and a plus 13 point difference. The Pacers score a point more on the floor than they did on the bench, and while that may seem inconsequential, the fact that a rookie makes that much of an impression even coming off the bench is a significant achievement.

Including his performance against Orlando, Mathurin has hit the 20-point mark seven times this season – all while coming off the bench – which ranks second among rookies behind Paolo Banchero. His 42.1 percent from 3-point territory ranks 14th in the league among guys making five or more tries per game, making him a reliable inner-city threat to Indiana. I say this every week, but it’s only a matter of time before Rick Carlisle starts Mathurin, and when that happens he’ll have even more opportunities to showcase his talent.

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Williams is a great example of building on every accomplishment and continually evolving as a rookie. In the last week and a half alone he has had 13, 16, 10 and 14 points overall. That 16-point performance against the Grizzlies was also coupled with seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. It was a complete effort from Williams, who played a key role in Thunder keeping that game close against a strong Memphis team.

What has made Williams even more impressive in recent games is his defense. He has a ridiculous wingspan of 7-2, and he makes good use of that when guarding the perimeter. Just look at how he uses his length to disrupt David Roddy mid-dribble, leading to a steal and an assist from Williams at the other end:

In a young team that already includes gifted passers like Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams is another formidable presenter for the Thunder to build around.


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