There's been quite a bit of talk about the Rookie of the Year race in recent weeks, as we've seen Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Jalen Williams take a huge leap since the start of 2023. It's true, Williams seems to be progressing at a rapid rate, constantly outdoing his numbers from the month prior and playing an essential role in the Thunder's late-season push to secure a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
However, as brilliant as Williams has been in recent months, Orlando Magic rookie Paolo Banchero has been that all season long. It's fair to forget about how impressive the 2022 No. 1 overall pick has been this season given he's consistently put up big numbers, but we can't get sucked into recency bias when it comes to Rookie of the Year. There isn't another rookie in this class that is doing what Banchero has been doing since Day 1. If anything Williams has just made the race for the award closer than its been all 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.
Just a reminder that Banchero is 6-foot-10, 250 pounds and is doing stuff like this:
the bag is crazyyyy @Pp_doesit pic.twitter.com/FjgPj42i4G— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) March 21, 2023
He's also doing things like this:
good morning— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) March 22, 2023
still thinking about how tuff this move was from @Pp_doesit 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/kTqbfygA5b
It isn't everyday a guy of Banchero's frame is able to handle the rock like he does, get to the rim at will and score off the bounce from midrange and beyond the arc. He started this season blowing everyone away with how advanced he was in just his first year. He acts as a point-forward for the Magic, and while he might not be as devastating coming downhill as Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James, he'll surely make a defender pay for giving him too much space to create.
But let's shift gears a bit to focus on the Rookie of the Year race. There's been recent chatter surrounding the award and how Thunder guard Jalen Williams is a legitimate challenger to Banchero to take home the hardware. And while I've praised Williams' ascension over the last few months and recognize how impactful he's been to Oklahoma City winning games, Banchero has been a constant threat all season long. Banchero's averaged over 20 points in four out of six months this season, and he's the sixth-youngest rookie in NBA history to average at least 20 points in his first year. He's leading all rookies in points, is third in assists and fourth in rebounds. He's also in the top 10 in blocks per game among rookies and leads his class in free-throw attempts per game.
Although the Magic are expected to miss the playoffs and play-in entirely, Banchero's production has been the reason Orlando has surpassed its win total from a season ago. His late-game heroics, where he's totaled 80 clutch points, ranks 30th in the league and tops all rookies. That number puts him ahead of guys like Giannis, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden.
The point is, Banchero's production has been consistent all season long, and while Williams has certainly climbed up the Rookie of the Year ladder, saying he's jumped over Banchero for the top spot is a bit of a reach.
All this talk about the Rookie of the Year award and Murray may end up being the only one who matters when the playoffs start. That's a product of a Sacramento Kings team that unexpectedly ranks third in a crowded Western Conference. But this isn't just a "rookie along for the ride" situation; Murray plays a vital role in the Kings success. His 3-point shooting specifically is what is earning him all this praise.
Murray is shooting just over 40% from deep on the season, and his 175 total 3s are tied for the third-most 3-pointers made by a rookie in NBA history. He's now just 13 3-pointers away from breaking the all-time record which was set by Donovan Mitchell during the 2017-18 season when he made 187. With 10 games left for Sacramento, and Murray making over 2.5 shots from deep a night, he should pass Mitchell with ease and a few games to spare. Especially if he has another 6-for-14 night from deep in his bag, which he put up in a loss to the Utah Jazz this week. It was the ninth game this season where Murray has made at least five three-pointers, the most of any rookie this year.
In the last five games this season Hardy ranks first among rookies in points per game (20.0). His 48.7% from 3-point territory also ranks first in his class during that span. And if you watched the Dallas Mavericks come narrowly close to beating the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night then you will have noticed that aside from Luka Doncic, Hardy was the reason Dallas was in it until the very end despite being without Kyrie Irving.
While it wasn't a career high in points for Hardy -- that came in an early February win where he racked up 29 points -- the rookie dropped a cool 27 points off the bench. That was the second-highest point total not just on the Mavericks, but in the game. That's right, the second-round draft pick outscored Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole while shooting 55.6% from the field and 66.7% from 3-point range.
After the game, Doncic had high praise for his rookie teammate, not just from last night's performance, but for his overall development as of late.
"He's going to be a great, great player," Doncic said of Hardy. "He's already good, really good, but I think talking to him, understanding the game -- I think sometimes he goes really quick. I just tell him to slow down. But he's really good, and he listens. He listens to me a lot, so I think he's going to be really, really good."
When a four-time All-Star, three-time All-NBA player has that to say about you, then you know you're on the right track. Although the Mavericks have seen better days in terms of their record, where they sit a game below .500 at 36-37 and are now ninth in the West, Hardy's sudden production may play an important factor down the stretch for Dallas.
Williams' two performances this week consisted of a supremely efficient 20-point, eight-rebound, three-assist outing, as well as a five-point, 10-rebound, five-assist inefficient night. Those two games are the perfect representation of the range that Williams has. He can be the guy who can put up 20 points on an ultra-efficient performance, while also pulling down boards and dishing out assists. He can also be the guy whose shot may not be falling that night, but he's going to find a way to impact the game in other ways.
People may look at that five-point performance and call it a dud, but in reality this rebound with 25.8 seconds left in the game helped ice the game for the Thunder:
Williams played excellent defense on Devin Booker to force the ball out of his hands, then when Ish Wainright missed on an open 3-pointer, Williams corralled the long rebound and was immediately fouled sending him to the line. Williams went 1-2 on those free throws, but it kept the Thunder in the driver's seat to eke out a win.
Williams still managing to have an impact on the game outside of his scoring is a big reason why his star has continued to rise over the last couple months. It's risen so much that he now has the second-best odds to win Rookie of the Year, per Caesars Sportsbook. He likely won't go home with that hardware, but he's made the race a lot closer than it was at any point this season.
We haven't seen a lot from Agbaji, who was a lottery pick by the Cavaliers then traded to the Jazz in the deal that sent Mitchell to Cleveland. He registered quite a bit of DNP's early in the season when Utah looked like it was headed for a top-6 seed in the West, but as the Jazz have tumbled down the standings, which now have them a half-game out of the final play-in spot in the West, the former Kansas standout has seen his playing time increase. He's also been starting since the end of February due to injuries to both Collin Sexton and Jordan Clarkson.
Since starting, Agbaji is averaging 12.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and just shy of two assists a game. He's also shooting 37.1% from 3-point range on over seven attempts a game, showing that he can be a consistent threat from long range. While it's unfortunate the circumstances in which Agbaji has seen his playing time increase, it's a great opportunity for his development as the season comes to a close in a couple weeks.