NBA Rookie Rankings: Jabari Smith Jr. blossoming in Houston; Jalen Williams efficient in OKC
With the regular season winding down in a couple weeks that typically means a lot of meaningless Games across the league as playoff contenders try to rest players in preparation for something bigger and lottery-bound squads roll out younger lineups with nothing left worth fighting for. However, this season has been a weird one in that we're just three weeks away from the last day of the regular season and only three teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. As a result we've gotten some high-intensity basketball in March, especially from some rookies. Guys like Jalen Williams are making major strides in their development, while others, like Jabari Smith Jr., are finally showcasing their full offensive capabilities. With so much still up for grabs in terms of playoff positioning we're in for a treat down 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 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.
It was a tide turning week for Smith, who put up at least 20 points in three straight games, a first in his rookie season. It's even more notable when you consider that Smith had only two 20-point games over his last 31 games. March, in general, has been Smith's strongest month to date, and while his season is almost over, it's a positive that he may be ending the year on a high note.
After a shocking win over the Boston Celtics, Rockets teammate Jalen Green had this to say of his rookie teammate:
"He's going crazy right now. He's in that mode," Green said of Smith. "I'm happy for him cause we know the real Jabari and he's showing it right now to everybody, everyone who doubted him, the haters, everyone, he's showing it right now."
I wouldn't say that Smith has had a ton of haters or doubters, but he certainly hasn't received the same level of attention as some of his rookie counterparts. But even when Smith was struggling offensively, his defensive impact was still a positive. Now we're seeing both sides of his game come together and it's resulting in performances that many people expected from him at the start of the season.
Oh, and another tidbit about this 20-point Game stretch, Smith became the first teenager in NBA History to put up three-straight 20-point, 10-rebound Games. He's also the first Rockets rookie since to accomplish that feat since Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1984.
The leap that Williams has taken over the last several weeks has been insane. His production and efficiency have been unmatched by anyone else in this rookie class, and he's doing it while the Thunder are still fighting to secure a play-in spot out West. His field goal percentage, which has creeped up to 52.1% on the season, ranks 17th in the whole league. A list that is typically littered with bigs at the top of it, Williams has found himself squished in there above guys like Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and even his teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
If you filter that list to just look at guards around the league, Williams leads the entire NBA in field goal percentage. I can't explain to you how big of a deal that is for a rookie to do, so I'll say it this way -- it's unprecedented. But when you watch Williams play, you'll understand why he's so efficient: he doesn't take many bad shots. Nearly half of his shots come at the rim, which is already a high efficiency look, but he has a quickness to leave his defender in the dust, creating easy shots at the rim like this:
But he's not just a dunker who benefits off strong cuts to the rim. With a weaker defender in front of him like Seth Curry right here, he'll simply drive right past them, and with a wingspan that reaches over seven feet, Williams can pull off hook shots like this that are just out of reach of looming bigs like Nic Claxton on this play:
What's crazy is nothing about this is terribly intricate or difficult, Williams is just supremely good at nailing down the fundamentals. He's not crossing anyone up -- though he certainly can if needed -- to get to the rim, or bulldozing his way to the iron with great strength, he's just excelling at knowing when to call his shot and attacking relentlessly in those moments. Even with an elite defender like Mikal Bridges checking him, Williams makes getting to the cup look easy and he's finishing with high efficiency:
Williams hesitates for a moment, initiates contact with Bridges then barrels his way to the rim. Nothing flashy, yet effective and dangerous. Williams has reached a point this season where he's gone from quality starter to budding star, and I don't think anyone expected that from him, especially not this early in his career.
Like Smith, Banchero is also having a far better March than February so far, specifically when it comes to his 3-point shooting. After making just one 3-pointer in February on 33 attempts, Banchero is already 12 of 32 from deep, a 37.5% clip, which is his most efficient mark this season. His field goal percentage in March is also his second-highest mark on the season at 45.1%.
Banchero also received some high praise from 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 kid can get to the rim. I think he's up there with Giannis on knowing when to draw fouls," Ayton said.
It may seem a little premature to compare Banchero to a two-time MVP and NBA champion, but the comparison does hold some weight. Banchero and Antetokounmpo both act as point-forwards for their teams, and while Antetokounmpo steamrolls his way to the rim with little resistance on most occasions, Banchero has a knack for finding ways to get to there with his shifty handle and size. The rookie is fourth among all forwards in the league in shooting fouled percentage at 19.1%, per Cleaning the Glass, which essentially measures how many of a player's shots attempts end in fouls. For comparison, Antetokounmpo's shooting fouled percentage is 24.7%, so not too far off for Banchero. The Magic rookie also has a higher free-throw percentage than Antetokounmpo, at 74.8%, but that will need to be far higher if he plans on getting to the foul line at a high clip like that.
Sochan gave a really interesting answer when asked why his scoring his picked up since he's reached the NBA after a single season at Baylor where he averaged just 9.2 points.
"I just fill roles," Sochan said. "At Baylor, my role wasn't to score. It was to be the energy guy, to be able to do everything on the floor. Just be energy really. I got an opportunity from the start here and I've been able to showcase what I can do."
It's great insight to understand the growth that Sochan has displayed this season. He's taken on more responsibility offensively in San Antonio and it has resulted in a major uptick in scoring for the rookie. There are still parts of his game that are unrefined, like his 3-point shooting where he's shooting just 25% on the season, but his field goal percentage has continually increased with each passing month.
Hardy is benefiting from injuries to Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving that have kept both sidelined for at least three games. In that span, he earned three-straight starts this week and he's put up 20+ points in each contest. His efficiency hasn't been the best, but that's to be expected from a rookie that hasn't received a bunch of consistent minutes over the course of the season. With Doncic and Irving expected to return in the near future it will be interesting to see how Hardy's minutes are handled, because he's proven that he's a more capable backup guard offensively than Frank Ntilikina in Dallas, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. If the Mavericks make the playoffs, Hardy could be targeted on defense, but the scoring punch he's capable of bringing off the bench could be valuable for a Dallas team that is incredibly thin on quality depth.
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