With the flip of the calendar turning to February that means we’re in the midst of the busiest month during the NBA season. The trade deadline is just a few days away on Feb. 9, followed by All-Star Weekend just over a week later. For the rookies, All-Star Weekend means participation in the 2023 Jordan Rising Stars tournament on Feb. 17, and this year the pool of first-year players to choose from was deep. The rookies who will be representing their teams during the Rising Stars tournament are:
- Paolo Banchero (Orlando Magic)
- Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons)
- AJ Griffin (Atlanta Hawks)
- Jaden Ivey (Detroit Pistons)
- Walker Kessler (Utah Jazz)
- Bennedict Mathurin (Indiana Pacers)
- Keegan Murray (Sacramento Kings)
- Andrew Nembhard (Indiana Pacers)
- Jabari Smith Jr. (Houston Rockets)
- Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)
- Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder)
All of these players are completely deserving of this honor, as they’ve all been highlighted multiple times during these weekly rankings. That list also isn’t exhaustive of the several other rookies who are having solid seasons for their teams, which shows just how deep the 2022 NBA Draft really was.
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.
Entering the trade deadline the Jazz have made it known that the only untouchable players on their roster are Lauri Markkanen, who could very well earn his first All-Star selection when reserves are announced, and Kessler, the 7-foot rookie who continues to raise the following question from everyone who watches him: How did he slip to No. 22 in the draft?
A couple of weeks ago Kessler turned heads when he posted a 20-point, 21-rebound double-double, and this week he did something similar with a 17-point, 14-rebound, 7-block performance in a win over the Raptors. He’s the first player since Dwight Howard in 2009 to post that stat line while shooting at least 80 percent from the field. He’s also the only player this season to record seven blocks in two games.
Every number from that stat line is more impressive than the last, and it’s all connected to how Kessler plays the game. He’s aggressive on the offensive glass which leads to second-chance opportunities for himself.
His blocks create transition opportunities for the Jazz, which then results in dunks like this at the other end for the rookie:
Kessler’s ability to time blocks and impact shots without drawing fouls is rare to see from a rookie. Because of his height and length, he can cover a great amount of space but he also has cat-like agility to make last-second blocks.
“He’s very quick off the floor late, if that makes sense,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said after the win against Toronto. “He doesn’t just give himself up early, he’s able to close a lot of space with his last step and his length.”
Eason had one of the most bizarre box scores you’ll see not just from a rookie, but from any player in the league. In a win against the Thunder this week, Eason grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, a number rarely seen in the league. In fact, it has happened three other times in NBA history. Popeye Jones accomplished that feat in 1994, Zydrunas Ilgauskas did it in 2005, and Tristan Thompson did it in 2014. It’s something that apparently happens roughly every decade, and Eason is the one to do it for this decade.
You would think with that many offensive boards Eason must’ve had a monster game grabbing rebounds on the other end, but weirdly enough he only had one defensive rebound. It’s a strange boxscore to stare at, but if you’ve watched Eason play at all this season you’ll notice he’s a ballhawk when it comes to offensive rebounds.
Just look at the commitment from Eason on this play where he gets four offensive boards on one possession and is finally rewarded with the and-1 after all his hard work.
He ranks third among all rookies in offensive rebounds this season at 2.4 a game, but the two guys ahead of him — Kessler and Jalen Duren — are starting for their teams while averaging over 20 minutes a game. Eason is doing all of this while coming off the bench and playing 19 minutes a night. The rebounding leads to second-chance points for Eason and the Rockets, and on a night where Houston was without two of its leading scorers in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., Eason’s aggressiveness on the offensive glass helped the Rockets to shock the Thunder in a win.
Mathurin has now scored at least 20 points in five games, capped off by a 27-point, eight-rebound performance against the Grizzlies. Though the Pacers have gone just 1-4 during Mathurin’s impressive stint of games, he continues to prove his worth off the bench for a skidding Pacers team. But we all know Mathurin can rack up points, what stands out most during this stretch is he’s averaging 6.2 rebounds a game. In that two-point loss to Memphis, he led Indiana in total rebounds while coming off the bench. In Mathurin’s last two games combined, he’s grabbed 16 rebounds in total seven of which have come on the offensive glass.
It’s an impressive area of Mathurin’s game that has unfolded in recent weeks. When he grabs those defensive boards he’s pushing the tempo immediately for the Pacers, often getting into the paint for an easy bucket. When he crashes the offensive glass it gives Indiana either an opportunity to reset or Mathurin another scoring opportunity.
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The Magic pulled off a major upset win over the Sixers this week in which Banchero scored 29 points on 50 percent from the field and 60 percent from deep. He also had nine rebounds and three assists in the win. It’s just the latest example of Banchero really playing up to the competition, which we’ve already seen countless times against the Boston Celtics this season. Banchero was essentially unstoppable in that first matchup against Philadelphia, taking it straight to the chest of Joel Embiid on one occasion, and maneuvering through pick-and-rolls with ease multiple times.
But what goes up must come down, and two days later when the Magic played the Sixers again, Banchero was held to an inefficient 13 points in the loss. It was bound to happen after Philadelphia surrendered a 21-point lead to a 20-win Orlando team. But it proved that Banchero isn’t afraid of the moment, even against some of the best teams in the league.
Sochan put up a career-high 30 points against the Phoenix Suns this week, in which he connected on three 3-pointers, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out five assists. We’re starting to see several parts of Sochan’s game come together and it’s changing the ceiling of what his career could be. His continual improvement in his 3-point shooting hints that with more development perhaps he can do some damage from long-range a couple of years from now. But this week his assists have turned heads in showing there’s clearly a lot of untapped potential for this kid going forward.