Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Defense takes time for most 1st-year players

Utah's rookie big man has shown rare defensive instincts in his debut season.

Jazz rookie Walker Kessler has been impactful on defense during his debut season.

Let’s not get it twisted: this is the latest edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder, our weekly ranking of the league’s newcomers. One day earlier, our Defensive Player Ladder dropped, a monthly round-up of players who excel at that end of the court.

What we don’t run — never have and probably never will — is a Defensive Rookie Ladder.

With rare exceptions, the top rookies in a given season get noticed for how they help their teams put points on the board and the numbers they log in the most traditional counting-stats categories. Their defensive skills are usually less impactful.

“Playing in-game level defense definitely takes time,” one veteran advance scout told “Most of them come in as scorers and defensively, they have to catch up. It’s usually accepted that there’s a big learning curve. A lot of times they don’t understand the speed, the effort, the dedication, the study you need to put in defensively.

“Most rookies now are two years out of high school. They’ve never seen anything like this.”

The Class of 2022, the focus of this season’s Rookie Ladder, is no different. If we were to rank the new guys strictly according to their defense, the top rungs might look something like this:

  1. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
  2. Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans
  3. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers
  4. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
  5. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Kessler’s rim protection and rebounding have been special. Daniels is drawing duty on opponents’ most dangerous scorers, even in crunch time. Nembhard tops his peers in deflections and charges drawn.

Mathurin tops the group in defensive win shares (0.100) with a 109.9 defensive rating. And Banchero, though his offense carries his Kia Rookie of the Year candidacy, is defending 14.6 shots per game and limiting those shooters 1.1% below their usual accuracy.

Still, you aren’t likely to see rookies on All-Defense teams. That Cleveland’s Evan Mobley and New Orleans’ Herbert Jones earned consideration last season was notable enough.

“The nuances defensively are so difficult for rookies,” Detroit coach Dwane Casey said. “How physical you can get. Illegal defenses, as far as 2.9 [seconds] in the lane. Things you can’t get away with just on athletic ability. They’re all things that young players have to learn.”

Casey and his staff have had their hands full developing defenders with a herd of recent or current rookies: Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, Saben Lee, Deividas Sirvydis, Cade Cunningham, Luke Garza, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren.

“Their heads are spinning,” Casey said. “Training camp goes by so fast, you don’t have a chance to really learn it. And with us, teams that are rebuilding, the games are where they’re learning and building their habits. In turn, it’s tough to win. But that’s how you have to grow young guys.”

The Cavaliers caught a break from that with Mobley and, the season before, Isaac Okoro. Actually, they designed their break.

“It was a priority for us to find two-way players,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “Isaac showed the ability to guard 1-on-1 and that has an opportunity to translate right away [to the NBA].

“Evan is just extremely rare, his defensive IQ and awareness. His brother [Isaiah, a Cavs’ two-way player] is the same way. I credit his coaches, his parents. They both have a great feeling at that end of the floor. They anticipate, they see things and they understand it at a high level.”

Mostly, though, a rookie is going to take his lumps and get his butt chewed by what does and doesn’t happen on the defensive side.

“100%,” laughed Sam Mitchell, NBA TV analyst and former Coach of the Year with Toronto.

“It’s a combination of a few things,” Mitchell said. “One, coaches can say what they want to say about defense. But at the end of the day, who gets paid? The guys who can score.

“I tell players all the time: a young guy who picks up the defensive concepts, they get on the floor quickest. Because unless you’re a high pick, you’re not going to get 20 shots a game. You’re going to be in a role.

“But even those players have figured out, if they score, their minutes go up.”

Most of the feedback they get — away from the gym — dwells on scoring, passing, rebounding and minutes. Family and friends pour over box scorers, where defense isn’t really captured.

“It’s easy to identify scoring,” Mitchell said. “But if a guy is playing good team defense and helping you win, you’ve got to go watch the film.

“And then we as coaches have done a bad job. We have turned a blind eye to guys that score but don’t give us the same commitment on defense. We don’t hold their feet to the fire about defense when they’re young.”

Here are this week’s Ladder ranking, mostly determined by offense:

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

(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 17)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 21.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Don’t blame the big dude for how little suspense there is in the rookie rankings from week to week. Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Karl-Anthony Towns never left much wiggle room in their ROY seasons, either. Another recent admirer: Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team lost at home earlier this month to Orlando and Banchero (25 points, 4-of-9 3-pointers). “The thing I didn’t realize until I saw him is how big he is,” Kerr said. “For someone that skilled and moves the way he does, you don’t expect to see that size. Great combination. … They’re running a lot of things [offensively] through him.”

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

This is a fun stat, an apples vs. oranges comparison that still tells us something about the Pacers’ rookie: Mathurin’s scoring average off the bench (17.5) is the highest in NBA history dating back to official starter/reserve breakdowns (1981-82), among players in at least 30 appearances off the bench. It might not track perfectly — it’s a career stat, so Michael Jordan’s 33 games as a backup (16.7 ppg) count while his 1,039 as a starter (30.5) don’t. But it speaks to Mathurin’s value and potential. (By the way, he has averaged 14.8 ppg in five starts, so a lead role off Indiana’s bench suits him.)

3. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

It’s been a continuous improvement for Williams, who has shown in months the same upward arc that turned him, across three seasons at Santa Clara, into a lottery pick. His work in January so far: 12.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.8 apg while up to 32 minutes per game. That includes his highly efficient 10-of-12 shooting for 22 points at Chicago on Friday (two days before his 0-of-9 at Brooklyn).

4. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Notched his seventh game of 20-plus points Sunday with 21 against the Knicks, plus six rebounds and six assists. His fouls are up (4.3 per game for the week) and he needs to work on his mid-range game. But the rookie elicited some encouraging words from Pistons GM Troy Weaver to The Athletic on the team’s trip to Paris: “He is dogged on wanting to be successful, as a player and person.”

5. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 7.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 3.7 bpg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

Not just a jump, not just a leap — it’s a vault for Kessler into the Top 5 after his eye-popping work at Minnesota: 20 points, 21 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in the Jazz’s 126-125 victory. He’s the first rookie in franchise history to see 20/20 and the first in the league since Gorgui Dieng in 2014. Looks like Utah has found its Rudy Gobert replacement, saving millions and getting nine years younger, with those other players and picks in the Wolves trade as gravy.

The Next 7:

6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Getting “tough love” coaching from coach Mike Brown that helped Tony Parker thrive.

7. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Teased LeBron and got Dad some pub Monday vs. Lakers.

8. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 7.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Oops! Did not make it to Paris with Pistons reportedly due to lost passport.

9. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers 

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 6.3 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 31 pick overall

Rank among rooks: 3rd in assists, 4th in steals, 2nd in 3FG%.

10. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 9.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder: 12
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

His 21 nights of 10+ = most by Spurs rookie since Kawhi (25) in 2011-12.

11. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 9.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Last Ladder: 11
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Nailed 3-of-5 from deep to help beat his Pops’ Raptors again.

12. Dyson Daniels, New Orleans Pelicans

Season stats: 4.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder: 10
Draft pick: No. 8 overall

Week as starter: 26.2 mpg, 4.7 shots, 57.1% and 2-of-5 from arc.

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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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