Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: 2022 Class delivering in the clutch

AJ Griffin hits his 2nd game-winning buzzer-beater, the No. 3 pick climbs and the top pick maintains his spot at the top.

Hawks' AJ Griffin is the first rookie to hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters since Toni Kukoc in 1993-94.

If the newly christened Kia Rookie of the Year trophy is named after Wilt Chamberlain and the newly created award for clutch performances carries Jerry West’s name, then Atlanta newbie AJ Griffin might be in line for some combo variation. Let’s call it the Wilt West trophy.

What, you prefer Jerry Chamberlain instead?

Griffin has many rungs to climb still to reach the top of the Kia Rookie Ladder, but he’s making progress. Especially given his buzzer-beater Sunday to beat Chicago in overtime — it was the 6-foot-6 guard’s second such thrill play of the season.

Back on Nov. 19, Griffin got behind the Toronto defense, took a last-ditch lead pass from Trae Young and converted his layup while in the air to beat the Raptors. This time, his finish against the Bulls was even more improbable: he looped toward the basket for separation from defender Derrick Jones Jr., caught Jalen Johnson’s inbounds lob and twisted himself for the winning layup, all with :00.5 seconds on the clock.

Pandemonium ensued after the third lead change in the game’s final second.

Griffin by no means is a finished NBA product. His shooting has trended in the wrong direction as the season has played out. And of course, at 19 he’s the third youngest player in the league.

But he does have the pedigree, with those 39 games at Duke last season, and the bloodline as the son of former NBA guard (current Raptors assistant) Adrian Griffin. As the No. 16 pick in June, he has a number of rival teams either second-guessing their selections or wishing Griffin had slid just a little.

He has moved into the starting lineup in Dejounte Murray’s injury absence and upped his role to 28.5 minutes per game, getting up more than 13 shots nightly. He has made at least one 3-pointer in his past 13 games.

And for the record, Griffin is the first rookie since Chicago’s Toni Kukoc in 1993-94 to have multiple game-winning buzzer beaters, according to ESPN Stats. Add Andrew Nembhard’s decisive shot to beat the Lakers in L.A. a couple of weeks ago and the Class of 2022 is looking pretty good on late-impact plays.

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

(All stats through Tuesday, Dec. 13)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 21.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 22.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

The big fella has picked up where he left off prior to his seven-game absence with a sprained ankle. He has scored 20 points or more in seven of 10 games since his return and in 16 of his 21 appearances overall. That includes each of the Magic’s three victories since last week. His coaches are encouraging him to launch 3-pointers, too, despite his 25.3% rate — nearly a quarter of his shots overall have come from behind the arc.

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Mathurin continues to impress. It’s been a couple of weeks since he racked up 20 points in a game, but he remains a Pacers fixture off the bench. With a team-best 161 free-throw attempts, he has gotten to the line almost as much as the next two Indiana players combined (Myles Turner 102, Tyrese Haliburton 72). “I feel like I have no choice but to be great,” he told The Athletic recently. “I want to influence the kids [back in Montreal] to believe in themselves. … I want to give them motivation.”

3. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

It was Smith’s defense that got attention on Sunday with his work against Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks star scored a season-low 16 points in his team’s loss in Houston and was a minus-11 to Smith’s plus-13. Then the Rockets’ slender shooter got 14 points and eight boards in Tuesday’s victory over Phoenix. Smith’s shooting woes are a fading memory — he hit 51% overall and half of his 3-pointers last week.

4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Through November, the Kings’ wing had sputtered along hitting 31.7% of his 3-pointers and 39.8% of his attempts overall. In six games in December, his accuracy has been, well, more accurate: 48.7% from the arc and 51.7% overall. You might not have known, from his 50% success in both categories since the last Ladder, that he’s been bothered by left thumb soreness. But it did seem to catch up Tuesday at Philadelphia when Murray shot 1-of-5 for three points.

5. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Shot selection has been a growing problem, both in the quality of Ivey’s attempts and in the timing (too many early shots). And it shows, as he has been successful on just 34.2% of his field-goal attempts and 25% of his threes. Thank goodness for his drives, at least. Ivey has converted about 61% at the rim but is down around 30% from anywhere else. So why is he jacking up more than a third of his shots from deep?

The Next 5:

6. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 10.1 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Handles starting role, bumping production to 14.4 points in 30.7 minutes.

7. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.7 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

Variety of skills, roles calls to mind last year’s ROY Scottie Barnes.

8. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 6.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.3 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder: 10
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

Jokic’s triple-double stung Sat. but 11.0, 9.0, 82% FG in 2 games so far vs. DEN.

9. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 8.9 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 31 overall

Stepped up – 18 points, 6-of-12 – on Haliburton’s 0-for-9 night vs. MIA.

T-10. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 6.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.3 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Rookie leader in total rebounds had 38 this week and shot 11-of-13.

T-10. Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 5.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Five straight starts subbing for defensive ace Herb Jones.

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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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