OK, so “Paolo vs. Jabari” doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way “Larry vs. Magic” does. Or even “Zion vs. Ja” at this point.
In time, it could become an ongoing duel worth watching between rookies who entered the league at the same time. Not yet. But ready or not, Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr. were scheduled to meet head-to-head Wednesday night for the second and final time in this 2022-23 regular season, with Orlando playing at Houston (8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass).
That alone was reason enough to shine the spotlight their way in this week’s edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder.
The linkage between the two prized newcomers is clear enough to fuel a rivalry: Most observers considered it a coin flip whether the Magic would select Banchero or Smith with the No. 1 pick in the 2022 Draft. The Rockets figured to end up with whoever was left, which was fine with them. Chet Holmgren, the bony 7-footer from Gonzaga, was in play at the top as well, though he wasn’t expected to – and didn’t – slip past Oklahoma City at No. 2.
Holmgren isn’t in play now, of course, sidelined for the entire season by a right foot injury suffered in a pro-am game in August. Banchero and Smith, meanwhile, are matching up for the second time after the Magic rookie dominated their first meeting.
On Nov. 7 in Orlando, Banchero scored 30 points with six rebounds, four assists and 12-for-14 free throw shooting. Smith made just one of his four shots, grabbed one rebound and scored only three points in 22 minutes. There was a back story though: He had missed the Rockets’ previous game in Minnesota while riding out an illness, caught up with the team in Florida and played without participating in a practice or shootaround. It showed.
The teenager at least had the satisfaction of seeing Houston win 134-127 and, well, of being a teenager. At 20, Banchero has a year on him and prior to the draft was expected to be more NBA-ready regardless of their selection order.
Both have progressed in Year 1. Smith’s work habits helped him boost his accuracy after an early shooting slump, even as he showed a more effective defensive side than Banchero. He has averaged 8.0 rebounds over his past seven games.
The Magic’s newcomer has been one of the most productive rookies in recent memory and lately has been stretching his shooting range out to the 3-point arc (16-for-44 in 10 games this month compared to 15-for-55 in his first 15). Banchero’s calling card has been the rut he’s wearing out with endless trips to the line – 8.4 nightly, which ranks seventh in the league and ahead of veteran scorers such as Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell and Steph Curry. He pretty much is the reason Orlando has risen from 29th in free throw attempts (19.7 per game in 2021-22) to 10th (24.7).
Neither of the two highest-picked active draftees was named Rookie of the Month in his respective conference for October/November. That’s a worthy goal for December, but not as immediate as the head-to-head battle in Houston. It is still too soon to know the Rookie of the Year outcome or whether, as with “Larry vs. Magic,” these two guys will make any playoff memories together.
For the record, Bird and Johnson went at it 18 times in regular-season meetings, Johnson’s Lakers winning 11. Each did what he routinely did best: Bird averaged 21.7 points on 50% shooting with 10.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists, while Johnson put up 19.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 11.5 assists.
As for “Zion vs. Ja,” the top two picks in 2019, Williamson’s team has won four of the five meetings. The Pelicans’ big forward has outscored the Grizzlies’ wiry point guard, 24.2 ppg to 18.8.
The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Tuesday, Dec. 20)
1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 21.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 22.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.3 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall
Banchero sank half of his 24 3-point shots and dished 5.3 assists with 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks in the Magic’s 3-1 week. In the 14 games since returning from his ankle-sprain layoff, he is averaging almost three fewer field goal attempts per game, a 16.5% decline, but his assists are up by 19%. By the way, his streak of seven consecutive games scoring 20+ points that ended Monday in Atlanta tied Shaquille O’Neal’s run 30 years ago for the longest by an Orlando rookie.
3/3 from three 🔥@Pp_doesit pic.twitter.com/V4CylRF9Y8
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) December 18, 2022
2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 17.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall
Mathurin has failed only three times in 31 appearances to score 10+ points, though he is shooting 38.2% (23.9% on 3s) since Thanksgiving. It’s an indication that he’s getting more attention from advanced scouts and opposing coaches. As Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said recently, “Teams are spending more time game-planning for him, preparing for him, making it harder for him. … It can really frustrate you. I’ve been impressed in how he has maintained an even keel.”
Bennedict Mathurin in isolation is dangerous.
he throws it down through contact.😤 pic.twitter.com/Gi86RpfvqJ
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) December 18, 2022
3. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 15.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 5 overall
Scored a career-high 30 in Detroit’s loss to Utah Tuesday, and his 10-of-14 shooting pushed his weekly shooting numbers into respectability: 55.8% overall and 40% from the arc. Ivey and Killian Hayes will divvy up Cade Cunningham’s usage and development opportunities now that last year’s No. 1 pick is done for the season (left shin surgery). Coach Dwane Casey called it a “silver lining” to the bad turn of events.
Sincerely, @IveyJaden pic.twitter.com/rYpkwM3FYG
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) December 19, 2022
4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 4 overall
Has scored in double figures in 10 of his past 11 games, six of them on the road. That’s where Murray has been less consistent, averaging 10.1 points on 38.2% shooting vs. 14.4 ppg on 49.2% shooting at Golden 1 Center. Contributing to Kings’ rise from 25th in 3FG and 24th in 3FG% to 6th and 15th now. Besides, everyone should have a fan like this.
Keegan getting it done on both ends 💪 😤#RoarWithUs pic.twitter.com/DNqt7Ljflg
— Sacramento Kings (@SacramentoKings) December 17, 2022
5. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets
Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 3 overall
Shooting yips returned with a vengeance this week: 13-of-39 overall and 1-of-15 from deep, with Smith posting a minus-45 in Houston’s losses to the Heat, the Trail Blazers and the Spurs. When the rookie hits 37% or better from the arc, the Rockets are 7-6. Otherwise, 2-15. Leads the Class of 2022 in fouls (91).
Bari hitting the turnaround jumper 👀 pic.twitter.com/UxsSWrSRho
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) December 16, 2022
The Next 5:
6. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 7.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 14.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder: T10
Draft pick: No. 13 overall
Seven games in a row with 10+ rebounds, rookie leader with 247 total.
7. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks
Season stats: 10.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 16 overall
Back to bench, shooting like a star (63.3% for week, 10 FGA per game).
8. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season stats: 10.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 12 overall
West’s Rookie of November is matching his numbers in December.
9. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
Season stats: 6.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 22 overall
His 58 blocks are 53% more than Raptors’ C. Koloko, No. 2 among rookies.
10. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 8.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 17 overall
Rockets are +11 points with Eason on court, -186 when he sits.
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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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