NBA Rookie Rankings: Jabari Smith turning a corner after strong week; AJ Griffin hits game-winner for Hawks

In honor of this week’s edition of Rookie Rankings running on Thanksgiving, it only seems fitting to think about what some of these teams have to be thankful for when it comes to their young players. For instance, the Indiana Pacers should be thankful for the fact that they have two rookies who could be starting for them right now in Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. Mathurin has Rookie of the Year potential and he’s still coming off the bench, but Nembhard has been starting and is making solid contributions on both ends of the floor.

The Orlando Magic should be thankful that at least right now it appears as though they nailed the No. 1 pick in taking Paolo Banchero. While Banchero is still sidelined with an ankle injury, he’s already proving to be far and away the best rookie this season. When you pair him with Franz Wagner, who also had a standout rookie season last year, the Magic seem to be forming an impressive young core. Teams like the Pistons should be thankful that the Kings passed on Jaden Ivey — though Keegan Murray is no slouch either — and the Trail Blazers should be grateful that Shaedon Sharpe is making such a strong impact off the bench already. 

Now it’s time to break down this week’s NBA 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 what the player has done over the past week.

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In a loss to the Golden State Warriors this week, Smith broke out of a shooting slump in a big way, putting up a career-high 22 points on 8-of-14 from the field to go with seven rebounds. Prior to that game, Smith had been shooting just 31.3 percent from the field on the season, and while one game certainly isn’t a trend, it’s a positive sign for the No. 3 overall pick.

Smith was coming off screens and pulling up for 3s, scoring off the bounce from midrange and scoring at the rim in a variety of ways. It was a complete offensive game for Smith, who showed off his defensive chops as well.

Smith’s performance against the Warriors was a culmination of his progress over the last handful of games after a slow start to the season. In his last six games, he’s averaging 12.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and shooting an improved 38.5 percent from the field and 30.6 percent from deep. Those numbers may not look outstanding, especially his shooting efficiency, but when you compare it to the 10 points, 5.6 rebounds and 30.3/30 shooting splits he was averaging in the first 10 games of the season, you can see that he’s starting to turn a corner.

After the loss to the Warriors, Smith spoke about his turnaround game.

“I feel like I’m in a good headspace,” Smith said. “I commend myself for just keeping my head. A lot of people can’t go through these shooting slumps and stuff like that and still go out there every night and still try to contribute, still have a good attitude. And just, I’m happy for myself. Yeah, I’m just ready for the next game. Ready to see how the season keeps going.” 

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Griffin’s week started with a 17-point performance against Toronto Raptors, a game in which he sent the fans home happy after converting a layup on a long pass from Trae Young as time expired to lift the Hawks to an overtime victory over the Raptors:

First off, let’s just appreciate that beautiful play by the Hawks to even get that easy of a look off with time expiring. Young just zooms past three Raptors defenders to get into the open court, then delivers the ball at the perfect time for Griffin to get the shot off. Tip of the hat to Griffin for knowing to cut to the rim with Young coming down the floor to get the easy layup. Just beautiful execution all around.

After that exciting finish, Griffin was then elevated to the starting lineup in the following game in which he again finished with 17 points, to go along with three steals and two rebounds. Atlanta ended up dropping that game to the Cavaliers, but Hawks coach Nate McMillan still commended his rookie forward.

“He did a good job,” McMillan said. “He made some shots out there and was able to make some 3s and be productive. The challenge was going to be for him on the defensive end of the floor, but I thought he has been playing the way he has been playing — with confidence. He is going to make some mistakes but I thought they were aggressive mistakes. I thought he played OK.”

After playing just eight minutes a night in the first couple weeks of the season, Griffin has now played himself into a steady 21 minutes a night. He’s likely not going to put up 17 points on a nightly basis off the bench on a deep Hawks team, but he’s contributing when needed and filling in for whatever role Atlanta needs him to fill.  

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In a win over the Denver Nuggets, Ivey put up just seven points on 3-of-11 from the field and 1-of-4 from downtown. It was an uncharacteristic scoring performance from what we’ve come to expect from the rookie guard this season, but while he didn’t rack up a ton of points, he still helped his team to a win with his passing. Ivey had five assists to go along with six rebounds and a steal, rounding out a performance that highlighted his skills as a facilitator while his shooting went ice-cold. This bullet pass to the weakside corner with a double team on him was especially impressive, and a great indicator that the rookie can operate under defensive pressure:

Ivey has become Detroit’s lead guard with Cade Cunningham still sidelined, and it’s opened up a wealth of opportunity as a result. He’s certainly in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and if he continues to score at an efficient level like he did this past week in a 24-point outing in which he went 8-of-14 from the field and 4-of-4 from deep, then it won’t be surprising to see him holding that hardware at the end of the season.

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Mathurin is another guy in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, and what’s been most impressive about his output is that he’s putting up monster numbers all while coming off the bench. In a win over the Magic, he finished with 22 points, five rebounds, and a plus-13-point differential. The Pacers score one point more when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s on the bench, and while that may seem inconsequential, the fact that a rookie is making even that much of an impact while coming off the bench is a significant accomplishment.

Including his performance against Orlando, Mathurin has reached the 20-point mark seven times already this season — all while coming off the bench — which ranks second among rookies behind Paolo Banchero. His 42.1 percent from 3-point territory ranks 14th in the entire league among guys who take five or more attempts per game, making him a reliable threat from downtown for Indiana. I say this every week, but it’s only a matter of time before Rick Carlisle starts Mathurin, and when that happens, he’ll get even more opportunities to show off his talents. 

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Williams is a great example of building on each performance and continuously progressing as a rookie. In the past week and a half alone he’s had point totals of 13, 16, 10 and 14. That 16-point performance against the Grizzlies was also coupled with seven assists, six rebounds and two steals. It was a complete performance from Williams who played a key role in the Thunder keeping that game close against a potent Memphis team. 

What’s even more impressive about Williams over the past few games is his defense. He’s got a ridiculous 7-2 wingspan, and he puts that to good use when guarding out on the perimeter. Just look at how he uses his length to disrupt David Roddy mid-dribble, which results in a steal and an assist by Williams at the other end:

On a young team where there are already gifted passers like Josh Giddey and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Williams is yet another impressive facilitator that the Thunder have to build around. 

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