NBA Rookie Rankings: Jabari Smith Jr. flourishes in Houston; Jalen Williams efficient in OKC

With the regular season coming to a close in a few weeks, this typically means a lot of pointless games all over 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 that worth fighting for. However, this season has been weird because we are only three weeks away from the last day of the regular season and only three teams have been eliminated in the playoffs. As a result, we got high-intensity basketball in March, especially from some of the rookies. Guys like Jalen Williams are making big strides in their development, while others like Jabari Smith Jr. are finally showing their full offensive capabilities. With so much still up for grabs in terms of position in the playoffs, we’re in for a treat in the latter part of the regular season.

Now it’s time to break down this week’s Rookie Rankings. Please note that this ranking only reflects a rookie’s performance on a weekly basis, not the collective season. These are not Rookie of the Year rankings, but rather a reflection of the player’s performance over the past week.

It was a turn of the week for Smith, who scored at least 20 points in three games in a row, a first in his rookie season. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that Smith had only two 20-point games in his last 31 games. March has been Smith’s strongest month overall so far, and while his season is almost over, it’s on the upside that he’s ending the year on a high note.

After a shock victory over the Boston Celtics, Rockets teammate Jalen Green had this to say about his rookie teammate:

“He’s going crazy now. He’s in that mode,” Green said from Smith. “I’m happy for him because we know the real Jabari and he’s showing it to everyone now, everyone who doubted him, the haters, everyone, he’s showing it now.”

I wouldn’t say Smith has had a ton of haters or doubters, but he certainly hasn’t gotten the same attention as some of his rookie counterparts. But even as Smith struggled offensively, his defensive impact was still positive. Now we see both sides of his game coming together resulting in performances that many people expected from him at the start of the season.

Oh, and another tidbit on this 20-point game, Smith became the first teen in NBA history to put up three straight 20-point, 10-rebound games. He is also the first Rockets rookie since then to accomplish the feat since Hakeem Olajuwon did it in 1984.

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The jump Williams has made in recent weeks has been insane. His production and efficiency are unmatched by anyone else in this rookie class, and he’s doing it while the Thunder are still battling to secure a play-in spot in the west. His field goal percentage, which has risen to 52.1% during the season, ranks 17th throughout the competition. A list typically riddled with bigs at the top, Williams is there squashed above guys like Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard and even his teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

If you filter that list to look only at guards in the league, Williams leads the entire NBA in field goal percentage. I can’t explain to you how important that is for a rookie to do, so I’ll put it this way — it’s unprecedented. But when you see Williams play, you understand why he is so efficient: he doesn’t make many bad shots. Nearly half of his shots land on the rim, which already has a very efficient look, but he has the speed to leave his defender in the dust, making easy shots on the rim like this:

But he’s not just a dunker who benefits from strong edge cuts. With a weaker defender in front of him, like Seth Curry here, he’ll just drive past them, and with a wingspan of over six feet, Williams can pull off these kinds of hookshots that are just out of reach for looming greats. like Nic Claxton in this piece:

What’s crazy is there’s nothing terribly complicated or difficult about this, Williams is just extremely good at nailing down the fundamentals. He doesn’t cross anyone – though he certainly can if he needs to – to get to the edge, or force his way to the iron with great force, he just excels at knowing when to shoot and attacking relentlessly at those moments . Even with an elite defender like Mikal Bridges controlling him, Williams seems easy to go to the Cup and finishes with high efficiency:

Williams hesitates for a moment, makes contact with Bridges and then works his way to the edge. Nothing flashy, but still effective and dangerous. Williams has reached a point this season where he has gone from quality starter to budding star, and I don’t think anyone expected that from him, especially so early in his career.

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Like Smith, Banchero is also having a much better month of March than February so far, particularly when it comes to his 3-point shooting. After making just one three-pointer in February with 33 tries, Banchero is already 12 out of 32 out deep, a clip of 37.5%, which is his best score this season. His field goal percentage in March is also his second-highest mark of the season at 45.1%.

Banchero also received 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 boy can get to the edge. I think he’s there with Giannis to know when to pull fouls,” Ayton said.

It may seem a little premature to compare Banchero to a two-time MVP and NBA champion, but the comparison does carry some weight. Banchero and Antetokounmpo both act as forwards for their teams, and while Antetokounmpo works his way to the rim with little resistance on most occasions, Banchero has a knack for finding ways to get there with his crafty handle and size. The rookie ranks fourth among all forwards in the league in shooting error rate at 19.1%, according to Cleaning the Glass, which essentially measures how many of a player’s shot attempts end in fouls. By comparison, Antetokounmpo’s shooting error rate is 24.7%, so not far off for Banchero. The Magic rookie also has a higher free throw percentage than Antetokounmpo, at 74.8%, but that will have to be much higher if he plans to go to the foul line at such a high clip.

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Sochan gave a really interesting answer when asked why his scoring has increased since he reached the NBA after a single season with Baylor, where he only averaged 9.2 points.

“I just fill roles,” Sochan said. “With Baylor, my role was not to score. It was to be the more energetic, to be able to do everything on the floor. Just be energy. I was given a chance here from the start and I showed what I can do.”

It’s a great insight to understand the growth Sochan has shown this season. He has taken on more responsibility offensively in San Antonio and that has resulted in a big increase in scoring for the rookie. There are still parts of his game that are unrefined, such as his 3-point shooting where he only shoots 25% of the season, but his field goal percentage has been steadily increasing each month.

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Hardy is benefiting from the injuries of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, who have both been sidelined for at least three games. In that span, he earned three consecutive starts this week and racked up more than 20 points in every game. His efficiency wasn’t the best, but that’s to be expected from a rookie who hasn’t had many 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 as he has proven himself to be a better backup offensively than Frank Ntilikina in Dallas, but his defense lets much to be desired. If the Mavericks make the playoffs, Hardy could be targeted by the defense, but the scoring punch he can deliver off the bench could be valuable for a Dallas team that is incredibly lean on quality.

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