Comps can be fun, sometimes illuminating, occasionally limiting. In sports, if you’re the one being compared to previous players, the instinctive reaction often is to swat those comparisons aside in a “I don’t want to be the next anybody, I want to be the first [fill in his own name]” way.
Among the rung holders on this edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder, guys such as Paolo Banchero (Blake Griffin, Julius Randle), Bennedict Mathurin (DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler) and Walker Kessler (Rudy Gobert) have heard their games likened to proven NBA All-Stars. But then there is Detroit Pistons guard Jaden Ivey, who doesn’t just get compared to one such great player.
By stats, Ivey could be accused of impersonating Hall of Fame-bound guard Russell Westbrook.
Consider each player’s NBA rookie season:
Ivey in 2022-23: 30.4 mpg, 15.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.9 apg. With 3.0 turnovers, 0.8 steals and 3.2 fouls. While shooting 41% overall, 33.1% from the arc and 72.7% from the line.
Westbrook in 2008-09: 32.5 mpg, 15.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.3 apg. And 3.3 turnovers, 1.3 steals and 2.3 fouls. His shooting splits: 39.8%, 27.1% and 81.5%.
Factor in their speed, both in the open court and getting to the rim, and the similarities grow. And it’s more than just coincidental.
Ivey told NBA.com in a phone interview last week that he and Westbrook worked out together last summer. They were brought into the same gym in Los Angeles by Detroit assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who worked for the Thunder from Westbrook’s second season (2009-10) through his seventh.
Westbrook, 34, currently with the LA Clippers, was an All-Rookie selection in 2008-09 and finished fourth in Kia Rookie of the Year balloting after being drafted No. 4 overall.
Ivey, 21, picked No. 5 by the Pistons last summer, figures to land on an All-Rookie squad this year and could see his name on a few ROY ballots as well. If the 6-foot-4 product of Purdue stays on the decorated Westbrook path, multiple All-Star and All-NBA selections — and even a Kia MVP — could await him.
“It’s great to be compared to a Hall of Famer,” Ivey said. “I have loved his game since I was a young kid. I’ve watched a lot of his film, to take stuff and add it to my game. I’m trying to be a great myself, so I’ve got to stay level-headed and keep working. But to be compared to Russell Westbrook is a blessing.”
Ivey said Westbrook was generous as they trained together, offering tips and sharing insights that the rookie might face in his first time through the league. “I cherished it, being able to get some of his knowledge,” Ivey said.
Ivey’s eyes have been opened by the level of competition in the NBA, as well as how difficult it is simply to win a game. With second-year guard Cade Cunningham out for most of the season, Ivey has been thrust into bigger responsibilities in Detroit’s backcourt, which has made for a bumpy road.
His passing and defense have improved, he believes. His shooting still needs work but he has focused on enhancing his mid-range game as a way to keep defenders off-balance when he attacks the paint.
“This season has been everything,” said Ivey, who even lost a few recent games and a little stamina to COVID. “I’ve been learning the NBA day-by-day. It’s what I dreamed of doing — it’s a blessing and I love it. It’s tough losing a lot of games, but I get to compete on the highest level. Win or lose, I’m learning the game.”
Given his confidence, it seemed like an appropriate question: How would you stop you?
“Shoot, you’ve got to give something with me,” Ivey said with a little swagger. “My speed is my greatest asset and I use that. I feel like I can beat anybody to the basket. I feel I’ve made strides as a passer and being able to see a second defender. Being able to make that right read, that’s what’s going to put my teammates in the position to succeed.”
It worked that way for Westbrook, and Ivey could do worse than follow in those footsteps.
The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Tuesday, March 7)
1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 20 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 5 apg
Last Ladder: No. 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall
Look, the Ladder committee gets it: The Rookie of the Year race has tightened, with OKC’s Jalen Williams in pursuit of Banchero. Consider their work in March: Banchero is averaging 20.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 3.8 apg, while shooting 43.9% (33.3 on threes), with a net rating of minus-5.7 points per 100 possessions. Orlando is 3-7 this month. Williams is at 19.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 4.9 apg, 56% (47.8%), and plus 7.9 as the Thunder have gone 6-2 when he has played. But a monthly split is not a body of work, and Banchero’s responsibilities with the Magic while toting a target on his back for opposing defenses keeps him on the top rung.
chasing one with 3:22 left 👀 pic.twitter.com/AiY0fT2lj8
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) March 20, 2023
2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season stats: 13.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 3.7 apg
Last Ladder: No. 2
Draft pick: No. 12 overall
Bouncing back from a 1-for-6 performance against Phoenix — he did have 10 rebounds and five assists to go with his five points — Williams was essential in OKC’s 101-100 victory over the Clippers Tuesday. He had 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting with eight boards, three assists, a block and a steal. Also, among rookies who have played in at least 50 games, his 11.8% assist percentage is second only to Detroit’s Jaden Ivey, who has been the Pistons’ primary ball handler.
Plus the foul! 💪 pic.twitter.com/P9HMeMsYNl
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) March 15, 2023
3. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz
Season stats: 8.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Since last Ladder: 11 ppg, 11 rpg, 4 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 3
Draft pick: No. 22 overall
Already the Utah rookie ranks among the league’s best rim protectors. He has had 10 games with at least five blocked shots, most recently in Monday’s 128-120 victory vs. the Kings, when he got Domantas Sabonis late to keep the visitors at bay. His nine double-doubles with at least three blocks and 70% shooting has topped Shaquille O’Neal (eight) for the rookie mark (since blocks became an official stat in 1973-74). Then there’s his defense inside of 10 feet, ranking behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jaren Jackson Jr. among those facing 5+ shots nightly from that range.
puttin' the 𝚋𝚕𝚘𝚌𝚔 in Blocker Kessler 🤠 pic.twitter.com/pOHCctrGSC
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) March 21, 2023
4. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 16 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 18 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 apg
Last Ladder: No. 4
Draft pick: No. 6 overall
Mathurin returned from a four-game absence due to his right ankle sprain to score 18 points against Charlotte, hitting 7-for-10 shots. He made only his seventh start, and still stands out for his production off the Pacers bench. Per the Indianapolis Star, the guard’s 16.7 ppg ranks third among NBA rookies who primarily were subs. Dallas’ Mark Aguirre averaged 18.7 ppg while coming off the bench in 31 of 51 games in 1981-82 and Sacramento’s Walt Williams chipped in 17 ppg as a reserve in 33 of 59 games in 1992-93.
Bennedict Mathurin in his first game back.
3 REB pic.twitter.com/edAwMBN3da
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) March 21, 2023
5. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 15.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 14 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 5.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 5
Draft pick: No. 5 overall
Ivey’s last-second layup in the 129-107 loss to Atlanta Tuesday rankled Hawks forward John Collins, who let Ivey hear about it. The Pistons rookie was 5-for-18 to that point, but already had secured his streak of double-digit scoring in 2023 (29 games). The combo guard has gone three straight with neither a steal nor a block. He still ranks sixth and 12th respectively in those categories among rookies.
Working💪@IveyJaden | #Pistons https://t.co/o2CpyL6LuW pic.twitter.com/SGsz8efO9u
— Detroit Pistons (@DetroitPistons) March 19, 2023
The Next 7:
6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.2 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.2 apg
Last Ladder: No. 7
Draft pick: No. 4 overall
Hit six 3-pointers vs. Jazz, now 35 shy of breaking Donovan Mitchell’s rookie record.
7. Jabari Smith Jr., Houston Rockets
Season stats: 12.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1 apg
Last Ladder: No. 8
Draft pick: No. 3 pick overall
Hit game-winning 3-pointer vs. Pelicans, then gifted game ball to his dad.
8. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs
Season stats: 10.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 3 ppg, 3 rpg, 1 apg
Last Ladder: No. 6
Draft pick: No. 9 overall
“Totally unintimidated” says coach Gregg Popovich, but has sat 4 of past 7 (knee).
9. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.2 spg
Since last Ladder: 10.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: No. 9
Draft pick: No. 17 pick overall
One of Rockets’ youngsters praised by Warriors’ Draymond Green.
10. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 8.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.5 ppg, 7 rpg, 2 apg
Last Ladder: No. 10
Draft pick: No. 13 pick overall
Had 15-13-4 vs. Denver, with 3 of the assists to fellow big James Wiseman.
11. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 8.6 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 16 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 11
Draft pick: No. 31 overall
Scored 24 in stunner vs. Bucks and 22 vs. Sixers … and then 2 (1-for-6) vs. Hornets?
12. Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs
Season stats: 9.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: Not ranked
Draft pick: No. 20 overall
Rebounding up, shooting, scoring down from notable February.
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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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