Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Key storylines await as Kia ROY chase resumes

Another Victor Wembanyama vs. Chet Holmgren showdown could have a big impact on the race in the season's final weeks.

Victor Wembanyama may face a tough challenge from the field for his No. 1 spot in the Kia Rookie Ladder.

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It’s a good time of year to be an NBA rookie.

You’ve been around long enough that you’ve figured out the biggest challenges of life in the league, both on the court and off. If you hit the notorious “rookie wall,” the All-Star break offered a chance to rest and reset. If you didn’t, well, all the more reason to put youthful legs and energy to work down the stretch.

If your team is chasing a playoff spot, you clearly understand why your minutes are what they are. If it is thinking more about the Draft than the playoffs, these are games of opportunity. And the better you do, the less likely your bosses will be to seek a possible upgrade at your position in late June.

So as we present the latest Kia Rookie Ladder with about seven weeks to go, young men, restart your engines!

Weekly recap

• The 11-game slate Tuesday qualified as a rookie-palooza, with all 11 guys in this week’s rankings and most of the other Ladder contenders in action. One amusing moment: Victor Wembanyama vs. Minnesota’s Monte Morris, looking like a Twin Cities dad who prefers that his young son play hockey rather than hoops.

• A tie at No. 10? Sort of. That “T” might simply stand for “Twins” with Detroit’s Ausar Thompson and Houston’s Amen Thompson making noise commensurate lately with their draft slots at No. 5 and No. 4, respectively. Both are putting up crooked numbers in youth-heavy environments, both even need serious 3-point shooting practice (17.2% vs. 14.9%). But their athletic play at both ends has them on the rise again.

• Portland’s Scoot Henderson, the No. 3 pick last June, had played his way onto recent Ladders, but a strained adductor has kept him sidelined since the All-Star break. He’s not projected to play again until sometime next week.

Storyline to watch

Make-or-break of ROY race? That’s one way of looking at Oklahoma City’s visit to San Antonio Thursday night (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass). If Chet Holmgren is going to overtake Wembanyama in voters’ minds, this is the game to do it. When the Thunder and Spurs meet for the final time, it will be April 10, so near the schedule’s end that other priorities might prevail over a pure head-to-head clash of the Nos. 1-2 rookies.

Through two meetings so far, Wembanyama has the edge in individual stats, averaging 16 points, 13 boards, 3 assists and 2.5 blocks. Holmgren — averaging 13, 8, 3.5 and 2 — has won both nights and was plus-41 in those games compared to Wemby’s minus-41.

Latest rankings

(All stats through Tuesday, Feb. 27)

Keep track of how our rookie rankings continue to evolve throughout the season.

1. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 20.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 1
Draft pick: No. 1

The mountain of individual evidence is piercing the clouds: 31 games of 20-plus points, 31 double-doubles, his league-leading shot blocking, that 5×5 game against the Lakers, and more. And while this won’t dictate the ROY verdict, it is an indication of Wembanyama’s must-watch popularity: NBA UK reported that the rookie has topped 1 billion social-media video views, trailing only LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Much of it has been driven by this minimalist-dribbling breakout dunk highlight.

2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 17.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.7 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 2
Draft pick: No. 2 (2022)

Holmgren’s case as the top rookie can be made with his shooting, his plus/minus far superior to Wembanyama’s (+319 vs. -178) and the Thunder’s 30-victory advantage over the Spurs. But the team aspect of those last two might not translate for an award that isn’t for the “most valuable” rookie. By the way, the Holmgren-Alperen Sengun matchup on Tuesday was another battle of exciting young Western Conference bigs.

3. Brandon Miller, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 16.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.4 apg
Last Ladder: No. 3
Draft pick: No. 2 overall

After being named the East’s top rookie in January, Miller has been the busiest so far in February. He leads NBA newcomers this month in total minutes, points, buckets, shot attempts, 3-pointers made and 3-pointers taken. He has scored 10-plus points in 45 of his 52 appearances.

4. Brandin Podziemski, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
Last Ladder: No. 4
Draft pick: No. 19

He finished in single-digit scoring the past two games, but that hardly captures his across-the-board value. Consider Podziemski has 30 games of 10-plus points, 21 of five-plus rebounds and 19 of five-plus assists while leading the league with 32 charges drawn. The Warriors are 12-6 when he starts.

5. Jaime Jaquez Jr., Miami Heat

Season stats: 12.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.6 apg
Last Ladder: No. 5
Draft pick: No. 18

The “old guy” from UCLA is bouncing back from his groin injury and layoff rust. He scored 26 points on 12-of-17 shooting while starting and playing 38 minutes at Sacramento Monday. He was +4.5 and shot 52.4% since Feb. 14 as the Heat went 4-0.

The Next 5

6. Dereck Lively II, Dallas Mavericks

Season stats: 8.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 7
Draft pick: No. 12

Lively (101) and D. Gafford (106) give Mavs two of NBA’s 13 with 100+ dunks.

7. Keyonte George, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 11.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
Last Ladder: No. 10
Draft pick: No. 16

One measure of a rookie’s potential is improvement: George averaged 16.2 points in this Ladder period, shooting 43.5% overall and 47.5% on 8.0 3FG attempts over five games.

8. Cam Whitmore, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: No. 6
Draft pick: No. 20

Sixth in scoring, 17th in minutes, and so smooth.

9. Cason Wallace, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 6.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: Not ranked
Draft pick: No. 10

Sharpshooting role player has been on the fringe of the Ladder all season.

T-10. Ausar Thompson, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.9 apg
Last Ladder: No. 9
Draft pick: No. 5

T-10. Amen Thompson, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 7.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Last Ladder: Not ranked
Draft pick: No. 4

The brothers can fool people off the court if they choose and based on their similar styles and stats, they’re capable of it on the court, too.

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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 X.

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