With the NBA season about 50 games in, we rank the top rookies in the league. Magic frosh Paolo Banchero is the odds-on-favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year, but others like Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler are making a push.
1. Walker Kessler — Utah Jazz
Kessler, the former five-star recruit who began his college career at UNC before finishing at Auburn, has been a revelation for the surprising Jazz. While always supremely talented, there were questions about Kessler’s willingness to play with physicality. In college, he was able to avoid contact on most nights, which is not the case in the NBA. After a slow start this season, Kessler’s turned into a menace around the rim on both ends, so much on defense he’s made folks forget about three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Kessler’s numbers this season, 7.0 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game and 2.0 blocks per game, jump off the screen at you. Since December, those numbers are 9.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game.
But it’s his impact for the Utah Jazz defensively that’s been so vital. He’s the anchor of an improving unit, but he’s also a capable scorer, and not just on lobs and put-backs like Gobert.
Walker Kessler is the first rookie in Jazz franchise history to record 20+ PTS and 20+ REB in a game.
He's also the first rookie to drop 20+ PTS and 20+ REB on 65%+ shooting since 1993. pic.twitter.com/KswOeUU1xD
— NBA History (@NBAHistory) January 16, 2023
2. Paolo Banchero — Orlando Magic
Banchero was and still is the most NBA-ready player in this rookie class. With an NBA body and skil lset, the 6-foot-10 250-pounder has utilized his great size and strength to average nearly 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists per game. The Magic are 18-29 but 3-1 against the Celtics, who hold the best record in the league, and in those games the former Duke star has been sensational. He’s averaging 24/5/3 this season against the Celtics.
With a skill set likened to that of former Duke brother Jayson Tatum, Banchero seems to raise his play against him. Rookie of the Year is his to lose at this point.
3. Bennedict Mathurin — Indiana Pacers
The former Arizona Wildcats star has been arguably the best two-way rookie this season, and he’s doing it off the bench. Averaging 17.2 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game, he could also garner some votes for NBA Sixth Man of the Year.
Mathurin is a key piece for a rising Pacers team looking to build around the rookie and star point guard Tyrese Haliburton. He also leads all bench scorers in total points this season.
Pacers point guard T.J. McConnell recently raved about his rookie teammate’s rare athleticism and physical strength.
“His ability to get to the rim and get fouled — it’s an art and a skill,” McConnell said.
“He’s mastered it. He’s playing at an incredibly high level, and he bails us out when we need some points. He has pretty much done that all year, and we’re lucky to have him.”
4. Jaden Ivey — Detroit Pistons
The former Purdue star is must-see television on a nightly basis. And while he probably won’t win Rookie of the Year, he’s the most exciting player in this draft class. Blessed with elite quickness and bounce, Ivey’s athleticism makes up for his raw jump shot. With franchise player Cade Cunningham out for the year, Ivey has been thrust into a position of making others better while also still being asked to score.
He’s averaging 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists. The Cade/Ivey backcourt in the Motor City has some real promise.
— NBA Highlights (@NBATransaction7) January 20, 2023
5. Keegan Murray — Sacramento Kings
Coming into his rookie season, Murray couldn’t have though he’d be a member of a potential playoff team. But he is with the Kings under first-year head coach Mike Brown sitting at 27-19 and in third place in the Western Conference. That has changed the development of Murray, who’s now being asked to contribute to a winning team hoping to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06, the longest drought in the league.
Despite some early season struggles, Murray has rebounded nicely to average nearly 12 points, four rebounds and some very underrated defense for the surprising Kings.