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Paolo Banchero and 10 sophomores to watch in 2023-24

While there isn't an official Sophomore of the Year Award, these up and coming players might be the ones to keep an eye on.

Kia NBA All-Rookie First Team selections Keegan Murray and Paolo Banchero excelled during their rookie seasons.

Just because the NBA doesn’t offer an official Sophomore of the Year Award doesn’t mean it shouldn’t.

While it’s exciting and important to commemorate the best newcomers with Kia Rookie of the Year acclaim, each young player’s continued development is key to his individual career and value to his team. Besides, a guy’s first taste of NBA action can be sour for any number of reasons, from the heightened speed of gameplay and new opponents’ relative skill level to a heavier workload and their particular coach’s philosophy on playing rookies.

Sometimes it just takes a year to get one’s NBA legs.

There are lots of examples of top players taking a little extra time, as evidenced by recent ROY winners who soon got leapfrogged by peers: Emeka Okafor (2005) by Dwight Howard, Tyreke Evans (2010) by Stephen Curry, Michael Carter-Williams (2014) by Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon (2017) by both Jamal Murray and Jaylen Brown. Not to pick on anyone, but Year 2 can be quite different from Year 1.

So let’s go with this: The 10 players listed here represent the starting field for a very unofficial, mythical Sophomore of the Year Award.

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Paolo Banchero entered the NBA with a big splash and was rewarded with the 2023 KIa NBA Rookie of the Year.

Rookie notes: Banchero ran away with the 2022-23 Kia Rookie of the Year award, getting 98 of the 100 first-place votes. The 6-foot-10 native of Seattle averaged 20.0 points and 6.9 rebounds, scored 20 or more 40 times, got up 15.6 shots nightly to lead the Magic’s young core and finished ninth in the NBA in free throw attempts.

What’s next: Roster needs called for Team USA to cast Banchero as a backup center in the FIBA World Cup competition this summer, but he’ll be back to his ball-handling, face-up ways with Orlando. Now, like Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson before him – each of whom averaged 20 points as a rookie – Banchero can shoot for an All-Star berth in Year 2. That, more involved defense and leadership could help the Magic reach the playoffs.

2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Jalen Williams of the Oklahoma City Thunder was named to the Kia NBA All-Rookie First Team.

Rookie notes: Drafted 12th overall, Williams’ runner-up finish in ROY voting was the sort of overachievement that has marked his young basketball career. He helped the Thunder reach the Play-In Tournament, averaged 14.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals and won more games in his first year than franchise legends Kevin Durant (20) or Russell Westbrook (23).

What’s next: Williams’ history of continuous improvement should have OKC teammates and fans excited. He boosted his scoring by 50% and hiked his numbers across the board after the All-Star break. With a stint this summer on the USA Select Team and some muscle added in the offseason, the versatile 6-foot-6 wing should slot in nicely as a sidekick to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and cohort with Josh Giddey and “redshirt” rookie big man Chet Holmgren. Statistically, Williams could stand to shoot more, from the floor and from the line.

3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Walker Kessler of the Utah Jazz was named to the 2022-23 Kia All-NBA Rookie First Team.

Rookie notes: Completing the trio of top Rookie vote-getters from last spring, Kessler played his way to prominence from the 22nd overall spot in the 2022 NBA Draft. He averaged a modest 23 minutes, but his production pro-rated to 36 minutes – 14.4 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 3.7 blocks – helped Jazz fans move on from the man (Rudy Gobert) he replaced. His opportunistic shooting – 72% overall, 81.3% inside three feet – was formidable, too.

What’s next: Kessler isn’t a go-to scorer but he certainly should get more than the 5.6 field goal attempts he averaged last season. He can improve his mobility at both ends, which will boost him beyond his effective rim protection. Some think the 7-foot-1 center from Atlanta will have an edge after his underused role for Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. Jaren Jackson Jr. struggled against other national teams’ bigs, yet coach Steve Kerr let Kessler languish on the bench.

4. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Bennedict Mathurin of the Indiana Pacers was named to the Kia 2022-23 All-NBA Rookie First Team

Rookie notes: The newcomer from Quebec, by way of Mexico and Arizona, got some love in Kia Sixth Man balloting, and rightly so – no NBA player scored more points (1,028) off the bench in 2022-23. His usage and his points per minute both ticked up even as his playing time dipped as a reserve (27.7 mpg) vs. a starter (31.5).

What’s next: Mathurin led all rookies in free throws attempted and made, ranking in the Top 15 among all NBA players in both. Much of that came from attacking the rim. His mid- and deep-range shooting needs work (Mathurin shot below 40% anywhere beyond three feet). But if we take seriously teammate Myles Turner’s words, Turner and Tyrese Haliburton will have a dynamo alongside them this season. In a summertime podcast, Turner stated of the ultra-confident Mathurin: “His mentality is everything. He really has that Kobe-like killer mentality.”

5. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Keegan Murray of the Sacramento Kings was named to the Kia NBA All-Rookie First Team.

Rookie notes: The fourth pick in 2022, Murray started 78 of his 80 appearances for Sacramento. He more than earned his role by averaging 12.2 points and hitting 41.1% of his 3-point attempts. His 206 makes from the arc set a new rookie record, blowing by Donovan Mitchell’s 187 in 2017-18. Murray averaged 7.3 points off catch-and-shoot opportunities, fifth-most in the NBA.

What’s next: More than most of the top rookies, Murray got a legit playoff baptism in the seven-game series against Golden State. It took him a minute to get his postseason legs (3.3 ppg, 23.1 FG% in Games 1-3) but the 6-foot-8 forward got the hang of it from there (14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 51.1% in Games 4-7). Sacramento is hoping Murray can blossom from a fourth- or fifth-scoring option to second or third on most nights.

6. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Jaden Ivey of the Detroit Pistons was named to the 2022-23 Kia NBA All-Rookie Second Team.

Rookie notes: Thanks to Cade Cunningham’s shin injury, which limited Detroit’s primary offensive initiator to 12 games, Ivey got a lot of ready-or-not reps. He mostly responded well, averaging 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.2 turnovers while shooting 41.9% overall. The 6-foot-4 product of South Bend, Ind., and Purdue scored in double figures 69 times, led all rookies in assists and was second in 3-pointers.

What’s next: The Pistons’ kiddie corps floundered all season – they were 16-58 when Ivey played, 1-7 when he didn’t – and it’s time to win more games. One of new coach Monty Williams’ key tasks will be sorting out the backcourt options with Cunningham, Ivey and first-round pick Ausar Thompson vying for minutes and the ball (not unlike divvying opportunities for young bigs Jalen Duren and James Wiseman). Unless Ivey slips into a sixth-man role, he’ll need to be more of a complementary player than he was last season.

7. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets

Jabari Smith Jr. of the Houston Rockets was named to the 2022-23 Kia NBA All-Rookie Second Team.

Rookie notes: Based on his Draft spot (No. 2) and scouting reports that had him vying for the top spot, Smith spent most of 2022-23 looking like a disappointment. He averaged 12.8 points and shot 40.8%, and his development wasn’t a top priority surrounded by so many other Houston youngsters. But he salvaged a second-team All-Rookie berth by getting traction in his final 20 games (15.8 ppg, 47.2%).

What’s next: The lanky 6-foot-10 forward planted a flag in Las Vegas by dominating the two Summer League games he played, then dedicated his offseason to putting last season behind him. He worked out with Kevin Durant and sounds ready to make individual and team strides: “We are just going into every game with the same mindset like we have something to prove.” Having point guard Fred VanVleet on the floor to organize what looked too often like an AAU team run amok should serve both Smith’s game and that of fellow soph Tari Eason (also an All-Rookie second-teamer).

8. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers

Take a look at Shaedon Sharpe’s top plays and high-flying moments from the 2022-23 season.

Rookie notes: Had Sharpe done over most of 2022-23 what he did in his final 11 appearances – 22.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 34.8 minutes, 46.6%, 38.4% on 3s – new teammate Scoot Henderson might be trying to give the Blazers back-to-back ROY winners. Sharpe’s first 69 games were more limited: 7.9 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.8 apg in 20.2 minutes. He was unleashed late and the home stretch mattered little, but it whet Portland fans’ appetites.

What’s next: The 6-foot-6 wing showed enough, including some thunderous dunks, that he was one reason Portland shifted from trying to win for Damian Lillard to embracing a rebuild. He shot poorly in Las Vegas, presumably working to improve from the mid-range, but he just turned 20 six weeks after the Blazers’ season ended. His fit with Henderson will be key to watch, not unlike Cunningham and Ivey in Detroit.

9. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Jeremy Sochan showed his dynamic skills on both ends of the court during his rookie season with the San Antonio Spurs.

Rookie notes: Raise your hand if your lasting impressions of Sochan’s rookie season were his spectrum of hair colors and his odd 1-handed form on foul shots. He merited an “incomplete” grade after missing 25 games with injuries and playing only 11 times after Feb. 1. But he had a three-month sweet spot in which he averaged 26.6 minutes, 11.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while showing the go-nowhere Spurs great versatility on the wing as a defender.

What’s next: As with most things in San Antonio this season, Sochan’s development and value will hinge on his place in orbit around phenom draftee Victor Wembanyama. Given the Spurs’ plan to use the new guy at power forward, Sochan will need to boost his shooting if he hopes to siphon time at small forward from Keldon Johnson. He mostly stuck to the restricted area and scatter-shot from the arc (24.6%, 14.7% from the corners).

10. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Rookie notes: The 15th pick in 2022, the 7-foot-1 big man with a ballyhooed 7-foot-7 wingspan thrived after Charlotte traded Mason Plumlee to the Clippers on Feb. 9. Thirteen of his 17 starts and eight of his 11 double-doubles came after All-Star Weekend. The otherwise 18-47 Hornets were 9-8 when Williams started and 1-16 in the games he missed with injuries.

What’s next: A budding pick-and-roll chemistry with playmaker LaMelo Ball has coach Steve Clifford and the team’s fans intrigued. It’s unrealistic to expect Williams’ per-36 production – 16.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks – to accompany longer minutes (he averaged 19.3 as a rookie). But his rim protection and 63.7% accuracy on judicious shot selection should translate.

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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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