Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Importance of playing on a winning team?

Keegan Murray and Bennedict Mathurin continue to contribute to success in Sacramento and Indiana.

Keegan Murray has been a key piece for Sacramento during its strong start to the season.

Most of the NBA’s annual awards carry some basic assumptions. The Sixth Man of the Year generally scores in bunches off the bench. The Defensive Player of the Year either protects the rim and rebounds or locks down opponents’ top scorers. The MVP carries the burden of elevating their entire team, their individual stats filtered through a respectable W-L record.

There isn’t much onus, though, on Rookie of the Year candidates. Mostly they are asked to shine relative to their draft-class peers, however, that might show itself. Individual numbers often determine the winners, with a newbie’s contribution to winning or losing mattering hardly at all.

But being in a successful environment can’t hurt a rookie – heck, it might even help in his development. For now, only three honorees on this week’s Kia Rookie Ladder can claim that distinction: Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard of the Indiana Pacers and Keegan Murray of the Sacramento Kings.

Those three are the only “rotation rookies” in the league – as in, playing at least half-time (24+ minutes) – on teams with winning records. Combined, the Pacers (21-17) and the Kings (20-16) are 41-33, a .554 winning percentage.

The other three rookies on the Ladder’s Top 5 are on teams that have gone 33-81, .289. That includes Paolo Banchero’s Magic (13-24), Jaden Ivey’s Pistons (10-30) and Jabari Smith Jr.’s Rockets (10-27).

If you go 12 deep to capture every player on this Ladder, nine of them are playing on teams that are 108 games below .500. That includes AJ Griffin and Walker Kessler, due to the recent skids of the Hawks and the Jazz respectively.

The three “winners” so far aren’t just benefiting from being around success. They’re part of it. Mathurin is as effective as any sixth man in the NBA, with a feisty demeanor that gives Indiana some swag. Nembhard is solid and steady with the ball that meshes well with starter Tyrese Haliburton’s more energetic style. And Murray adds depth and floor-spacing to a Kings resurgence built around De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Kevin Huerter and sixth man Malik Monk.

But the others on this Ladder are in good company. Winning as a rookie is a rare thing. That primarily is due to a draft system designed to send top prospects to the losingest franchises.

Consider that, of the past 25 Rookie of the Year winners, only six played for teams that finished above .500. The shortlist:

  • 2022: Scottie Barnes, Toronto, 48-34
  • 2018: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia, 52-30
  • 2017: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee, 42-40
  • 2003: Amar’e Stoudemire, Phoenix, 44-38
  • 2001: Mike Miller, Orlando, 43-39
  • 1998: Tim Duncan, San Antonio, 56-26

LeBron James didn’t do it in 2003-04 – the Cavs finished 35-47 in James’ debut season – any more than Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan before him.

And only seven of the past 25 ROY winners – Duncan, Miller, Stoudemire, Rose, Brogdon, Simmons and Barnes – experienced the playoffs to cap their rookie years. That’s something only Mathurin, Nembhard and Murray currently are on pace to achieve.

A Ladder note: With the start of a new calendar year, the committee has extended the rankings to 12 rungs from 10. In a fairly deep Class of 2022, holding down the number of weekly honorees has become increasingly arbitrary – even as newbies such as Shaedon Sharpe, Dyson Daniels, David Roddy, Christian Koloko and others still vie for spots.

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

(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 3)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 20.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Banchero snagged his first Rookie of the Month among Eastern Conference eligible with 19.1 points per game, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists – even though his numbers in October/November were a bit better. Magic coach Jamahl Mosley likes that the rookie “continues to put a body of work in being first in the gym, last in the gym and studying film and understanding the ebbs and flows of the game and how he can continue to work to get better.”

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 19.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

The bench was the story of Indiana’s victory Monday over Toronto (54-7 scoring dominance compared to Raptors’ reserves) and Mathurin was its leading scorer with 21. And on a night when no Pacers starter cracked positive territory, the rookie was plus-21 in the eight-point victory. The 9.7 free throws he averaged last week would rank fifth overall behind Giannis Antetokounmpo (13.1), Joel Embiid (11.6), Luka Doncic (11.2) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10.1).

3. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

It was Murray’s distinction as Rookie of the Month in the Western Conference that bumped him up a spot this week. The Kings wing averaged 12.7 points and 3.5 rebounds in 28.6 minutes, sinking 46.4% of his 3-point attempts, to help Sacramento go 8-6 in December. Not bad for a guy who’s hardly a finished product. And despite a wrapped left hand (which doesn’t matter much if you don’t use it).

4. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Ivey ended 2022 on an off-note, scoring a single point, missing his four shots and posting a minus-14 in Detroit’s Dec. 31 victory at Minnesota. He started 2023 two nights later with 13 points on 3-of-11 shooting at Portland. His ability to get to the rim means an ability to get to the line, and he has averaged 6.8 free throw attempts over his past nine games.

5. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Smith might be lagging a little compared to top rung-holders Banchero and Mathurin but he’s doing just fine within his NBA family tree. Compared at similar points in their careers – 36 appearances – father Jabari Smith Sr. was averaging 3.1 points and 1.2 rebounds in 7.7 minutes. Meanwhile cousin Kwame Brown, the No. 1 pick overall in 2001, was averaging 3.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 11.4 minutes for the Wizards.

The Next 7:

6. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

In blowout of Celtics, 21 points (10-of-14 2FGA), six assists.

7. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 7.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 4.8 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.8 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Thriving as starter (past 13 games) in two-big tandem with Isaiah Stewart.

8. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 6.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

Per Gobert’s 32.1 mpg last year: 11.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.1 bpg, 72.8 FG%.

9. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 8.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: T10
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

Hitting 71.4% with 1-handed FT form, vs. 45.8% before.

10. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 10.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Fourth among rookies in 3FGA green light (4.5 per), hitting 37%.

11. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers  

Season stats: 8.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 4.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder: T10
Draft pick: No. 31 pick overall

In Indiana W’s: 46.6% on threes, 73 assists to 24 turnovers.

12. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 8.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 5.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 17 overall

Averaging 15.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.2 steals per 36 minutes.

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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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