Kia Rookie Ladder: Paolo Banchero seems primed for some hardware

Paolo Banchero has been a strong performer all season for the Magic.

Reports of a real rung race here at the Kia Rookie Ladder, as Mark Twain might have said, were exaggerated.

Paolo Banchero’s status as the favorite to snag the NBA’s Kia Rookie of the Year Award isn’t dead at all. In fact, it’s looking and feeling rather chipper with five days left in the regular season.

Granted, Banchero’s grip on the top spot for nearly the entire season — on the strength of his fast start (22.7 points per game in his first 15 games), followed by East rookie honors in December, January and February — drained suspense from the award chase. But a thirst for something more competitive, a tighter award chase to add some intrigue when ballots are cast in the final days, has been wishful thinking, salted with a little recency bias.

The reality is that other Class of 2022 members such as the Indiana Pacers’ Bennedict Mathurin, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Jalen Williams, the Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler and a couple more have been jockeying for second or third place and berths on the All-Rookie first team. The Ladder committee accounts for only one vote in the NBA’s official awards campaign, but it’s hard to imagine any of those rivals leap-frogging the Orlando Magic’s prized forward.

Consider the case for Williams, a valuable piece for OKC now and into the future based on his variety of skills. Here is the post-All-Star split for the ever-improving wing from Santa Clara that has him breathing down Banchero’s neck: 19.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 4.3 apg, helping his team go 10-13 in that time.

Banchero’s numbers over the same time frame: 20.2 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 4.1 apg and a 10-10 stretch for the Magic. And in the two-thirds of the season prior to All-Star, Banchero easily was the more impactful player.

That’s not to suggest the Ladder has no sense of humor. Consider this humorous Tweet from a couple of weeks ago from an OKC beat writer. (We’re dead-set against explaining punchlines here at HQ, but for context, that’s the Thunder’s Jaylin Williams, the No. 34 overall pick, reacting on Draft night to the team’s selection of Jalen Williams 22 spots earlier.)

And now, here’s a look at the top rookies this season with 12 days to go in 2022-23.

The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Tuesday, April 4)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 20.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Certainly, the big guy’s coach, Jamahl Mosley, is biased. But the suggestion that someone might ace out Banchero as ROY struck Mosley as way wrong. “It’s not a race,” the coach told reporters, before listing his reasons why. And’s Tim McMahon noted: “Every rookie who has averaged at least 19 points, six rebounds and three assists since the ABA-NBA merger has won Rookie of the Year. Banchero will join Luka Doncic, Blake Griffin, Grant Hill, Larry Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Walter Davis in that club.”

2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 14.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder: No. 2
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

How much has Thunder coach Mark Daigneault come to rely on Williams? So much so that he wound up with a technical foul and had to burn a timeout Tuesday at Golden State when the referees didn’t properly permit the versatile rookie to sub in midway through the fourth quarter. OKC wound up losing by 11 but a one-possession game ballooned to a six-point Warriors lead with the error (acknowledged afterward in a pool report by crew chief Courtney Kirkland).

3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Since last Ladder: 11.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.7 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 3
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

An inadvertent elbow to the head from teammate Talen Horton-Tucker Monday sent Kessler into concussion protocol, possibly clipping short his rookie season. His 20 double-doubles top all rookies, and he ranks fourth in the NBA in total blocks and blocks per game (2.3), and first in field-goal percentage (.720). As a starter: 11.5 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.7 bpg.

4. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 16.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 5.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 7.8 apg
Last Ladder: No. 4
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Against Miami on Tuesday, Ivey had his third game with at least 30 points and five assists. The last rookie to have more? Luka Doncic four years ago, when the Dallas guard did it six times. Ivey leads all rookies with 365 assists (Andrew Nembhard, 313) and he’s third in points (1,136). That’s the most scored by a Pistons rookie since Grant Hill (1,394) 28 years ago. He’s also 10th in the NBA in turnovers (223) and ninth in fouls (231), signs of the force-feeding Detroit has done with him.

5. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 16.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: No. 5
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Mathurin hasn’t hit his 3s at a high rate — 5-of-18 over his last four games and 32% all season — but he did set a new Indiana record for most 3-pointers by a rookie. He has 97 now, passing Chris Duarte’s 94 from last season. Though he has started in his past eight appearances, Mathurin still leads the league in points off the bench (1,028) and trips to the foul line by a bench player (353, more than 100 more than anyone else).

The Next 7:

6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.5 apg
Last Ladder: No. 6
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Blew by Donovan Mitchell’s rookie mark for 3-pointers made, now has 201 on 41.6%.

7. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.8 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 7
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Had 16 points, 13 rebounds and was a plus-17 in upset of Denver on Tuesday.

8. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 9.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 9
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Paul George on podcast: “Hope they don’t stunt that kid’s growth.”

9. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 8
Draft pick: No. 17 pick overall

His 82 steals tops all NBA reserves. Sixth in minutes, 10th in points, too.

10. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 9.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 9.7 apg
Last Ladder: No. 11
Draft pick: No. 31 overall

Second among rookies in total assists, plus 3.67 assist/turnover since January.

11. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 11.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder: No. 10
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

This might be it (right knee injury), 56 games in glimpse of Spurs’ future.

12. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers

Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 26.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.0 apg
Last Ladder: No. 12
Draft pick: No. 7 pick overall

Eight nights of 20+ points, seven in his past eight games.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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