Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Leader Victor Wembanyama readies for clash with Nikola Jokic

Victor Wembanyama stays at No. 1 ahead of Friday's marquee battle, plus breaking down how rookies are impacting their team records.

In their first meeting in November, Victor Wembanyama scored 22 points while Nikola Jokic nearly had a 39-point triple-double.

Boil it all down — the glimpses of brilliance, the breakthroughs of learning, the occasional splat when one of them hits the proverbial wall — and the essence of an NBA rookie’s season is Herm Edwards-level simple: You Draft and develop the top prospects to win the game.

Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someday soon, as Humphrey Bogart’s character says in “Casablanca.” Some of the most elite rookies in league history have had immediate impacts on their teams’ records. Many won championships eventually.

Beginning with Bob Pettit in 1955, 25 of the 63 players who won or shared the Rookie of the Year award through 2015 won rings. That’s a better percentage (39.6%) than teams typically get with lesser players. (We cut off at 2015 because the ROY winners since then still are chasing their first titles.)

So we added a category to this week’s Kia Rookie Ladder for this week only, comparing each team’s record with the new guy to its mark through the same number of games last season.

Weekly Recap

• What conclusions can we draw? There’s no obvious trend, first of all. Four of the nine teams with rookies on this week’s Ladder have improved in W-L results from a year ago, but four have slipped further. Brandin Podziemski’s Golden State at 34-30 is right where it was through 64 games last season.

• San Antonio’s Victor Wembanyama, for being one of the most watchable and exciting rookies ever with oodles of greatness awaiting, hasn’t helped the Spurs in the standings. And even if we look only at their record when he has played (13-45), they were 14-44 in their first 48 games last season.

• Except in the most obvious cases, it’s hard to isolate a rookie’s contributions to winning or losing. In OKC, for example, has Chet Holmgren been the reason for its 14-game improvement? He’s been more of a final puzzle piece for a deep team that was maturing and improving around him. How do we apportion Houston’s 15-victory climb between Cam Whitmore, Amen Thompson, their teammates’ play and coach Ime Udoka’s arrival?

• Portland’s Scoot Henderson fell short of the Ladder again, with injuries and poor shooting holding him back. But it’s worth noting that the Blazers are 15-30 when the Class of 2023’s third pick plays, compared to 3-16 when he hasn’t.

• A week of opportunity, as 19 rookies averaged at least 10 points since March 6. Eleven grabbed five rebounds or more per game and eight dished at least three assists per game.

Storyline to Watch

Current and future MVPs. Tune in if you can Friday night when Denver plays at San Antonio (8:30 ET, NBA League Pass) to see Nikola Jokic face Wembanyama for the second of four potential meetings this season. Arguably the best center in the NBA, Jokic had 39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists as the Nuggets won the first clash in November. Wembanyama, projected as Jokic’s and Joel Embiid’s successor as the top big man, had 22 points, 11 rebounds, six steals and four blocks in defeat. The schedule pits their teams twice more in April (April 2 and 12).

Latest rankings

(All stats through Tuesday, March 12)

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

1. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 20.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 3.4 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 1
Draft pick: No. 1
Impact on winning: -3 (14-52 vs. 17-49)

Wembanyama had another solid week, averaging 20 points and 12 rebounds, as well as 4.5 assists and a +2.0 rating. He shot just 40.5% overall and 31.3% on 3-pointers and the big man got attention on the wrong end of some rookie-on-rookie pain inflicted by the Warriors’ Trayce Jackson-Davis. But here at the Ladder, no player ever will take guff for holding his ground vs. bailing out in a more cowardly “business decision.”

2. Chet Holmgren, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 16.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 2
Draft pick: No. 2 (2022)
Impact on winning: +14 (45-20 vs. 31-34)

His scoring average dropped and his shooting dipped, but Holmgren was a +14.3 while on the floor in OKC’s 3-1 week. His stats and highlights have taken a back seat to the Thunder’s team ambitions, with ROY voters soon having to weigh its winning ways against Wembanyama’s more impressive individual moments and numbers.

3. Brandon Miller, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 17 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.4 apg
Last Ladder: No. 3
Draft pick: No. 2 overall
Impact on winning: -4 (16-49 vs. 20-45)

Bad enough to get him, still bad now that they’ve got him. Like so many top rookies before him, Miller gets a pass on his team’s record and is seen instead as key to an eventual solution. For the week, he averaged 21 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists while passing Holmgren in scoring average, though he lugged at -9.0.

4. Jaime Jaquez Jr., Miami Heat

Season stats: 12.8 ppg, 4 rpg, 2.6 apg
Last Ladder: No. 4
Draft pick: No. 18
Impact on winning: +2 (35-29 vs. 33-31)

The four-year UCLA product qualifies as a rookie here, of course, but he doesn’t get viewed that way in the Heat locker room or, frankly, based on his contributions relative to more established NBA players. Jaquez made 65.4% of his shots last week, including 4-of-8 from deep.

5. Dereck Lively II, Dallas Mavericks

Season stats: 8.9 ppg, 7 rpg, 1.5 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 7
Draft pick: No. 12
Impact on winning: +4 (37-28 vs. 33-32)

As awesome as Luka Doncic is, he doesn’t rack up big assist totals without the teammates he targets making their shots. No one in Dallas is doing that more reliably than Lively in the symbiotic on-court connection the two have built. Seven of Lively’s buckets in Chicago Monday (he shot 11-of-12) came off Doncic passes.

The Next 5

6. Brandin Podziemski, Golden State Warriors

Season stats: 9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
Last Ladder: No. 5
Draft pick: No. 19
Impact on winning: 0 (34-30 vs. 34-30)

A “does the little things” kind of guy who, if he isn’t taking charges, is calling for coaches’ challenges that prove successful.

7. Keyonte George, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 12.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 4.4 apg
Last Ladder: No. 6
Draft pick: No. 16
Impact on winning: -3 (28-37 vs. 31-34)

George topped all rookies this week at 27.5 ppg while shooting 55.9% overall and 55.6% on 3-pointers.

8. Cam Whitmore, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: No. 8
Draft pick: No. 20
Impact on winning: +15 (30-35 vs. 15-50)

Playing up from the disappointment of his Draft position hasn’t hurt Whitmore and probably has helped him.

9. Amen Thompson, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 7.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 10
Draft pick: No. 4
Impact on winning: +15 (30-35 vs. 15-50)

One of the brightest spots in Houston’s 3-1 week, averaging 10.3 points with a +5.8 rating.

10. Ausar Thompson, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.9 apg
Last Ladder: No. 9
Draft pick: No. 5
Impact on winning: -4 (11-53 vs. 15-49)

Strong offensive night vs. the Nets, less so vs. the Mavs, +2.0 while the Pistons outscored by 14 when he sat.

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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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