Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Jalen Williams rises to No. 2 in latest ranking

The Thunder forward continues to impress with his all-around skills.

Thunder rookie Jalen Williams joined elite OKC company with his showing Sunday vs. Utah

Kevin Durant did it, Russell Westbrook did it and now Jalen Williams has done it.

Williams became the third rookie in franchise history to put up 30 points, five rebounds and five assists with his performance — a season-best 32 points, actually — Sunday in Oklahoma City’s victory against Utah.

The 6-foot-6 two-way player hit 12 of his 15 shots, including four of five from the arc, with two blocks and two assists. As a result, he has vaulted into the No. 2 spot in the latest edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder, crashing what had been an exclusive 1-2 club of Paolo Banchero and Bennedict Mathurin for most of this 2022-23 season.

If there were a Most Improved Rookie award, Williams would be a favorite to win it. Over the past month, Williams has averaged 20.2 points in 11 games, shooting 57.4% with 5.1 rpg and 4.4 apg. He has logged a plus-3.4 average while helping OKC go 5-6 during that span.

Compare that to Williams’ welcome-to-the-NBA first 11 games — 8.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.7 apg on 52.6% shooting and a minus-6.2 — and his pattern of improvement from high school through three years at Santa Clara is alive and well.

Increased familiarity with his role, his team and the league has helped Williams get comfortable, which in turn lets him make opponents feel rather uncomfortable.

“I know where I’m going to be at on the floor,” he said recently. “I know kind of what the rotation is going to look like. I just attribute it to being more comfortable, working on my game and figuring out a routine.”

With his size and his handle, Williams has been ideal in this positionless basketball era. He has an aggressiveness that shows up at both ends, from here and here to here, here and here.

Said Thunder coach Mark Daigneault: “He always reverts to playing the right way so when he is on the gas and a teammate is open, he is spraying the ball. … When you’re playing with that kind of force and speed at that size, it is hard to handle.”

A sprained right wrist scratched the rookie from Tuesday’s triumph vs. Golden State. Fortunately for him, it was another Williams on OKC’s roster who had his season ended by a wrist injury: forward Kenrich Williams ruptured a ligament in his left wrist last week against Sacramento, requiring surgery.

Banchero continues to hold the top rung but there is a new face and some big hair in the Orlando rookie’s rear-view mirror.

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, 6.6 rpg, 3.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 21.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder: No. 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Paolo Banchero drops in 31 points to power the Magic past the Hornets.

Banchero maintained his grip on the top spot, his favorite status for upcoming Rookie of the Year balloting and his dominance among the East’s newcomers, snagging his third consecutive Rookie of the Month award in the conference. He has had to grind a bit more lately, compensating for accuracy issues by upping his shots to 18.8 per game last week and fighting through a 1-for-35 stretch from the arc by going 5-of-15 his past three games. He ranks 10th in the NBA in free throw attempts, shooting more than vets such as Pascal Siakam, Jalen Brunson and Nikola Jokic.

2. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 13.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.1 apg
Since last Ladder: 25.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 5.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 4
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

Jalen Williams dominated vs. the Jazz with 32 points on Sunday.

Williams might not have enough schedule left to chase down Banchero in the ROY balloting, but here’s another item for his resume: Since the calendar flipped to 2023, no one in the NBA has amassed more steals. He has 60 in 28 appearances, for an average of 2.14 that has him slightly ahead of Washington’s Delon Wright (2.07). Makes sense that Williams, arguably the top steal in the 2022 Draft, would excel in that stat.

3. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 16.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: No. 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Bennedict Mathurin had 17 points in a big win vs. Chicago last week.

Mathurin’s production has dipped in the six games since the All-Star break, from 17.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 31.9 3FG% to 13.5, 3.8 and 27.8%. Also, his ability to get to the foul line has gone from 6.0 free throw attempts pre-break to 4.5 since. Fortunately for the Pacers, they have gone 3-3 in this latest stretch. The native of Montreal apparently is interested in playing for Team Canada in this summer’s FIBA World Cup, per The Athletic.

4. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg
Since last Ladder: 13.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 4.5 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 3
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

A bout of non-Covid illness sidelined Kessler from Tuesday’s loss at Dallas, and he was saddled with a minus-9.0 in the Jazz’s two other losses this week. But the big guy did earn the West’s Rookie of the Month honor for February, he’s tied for ninth in rebound percentage (17.3) and at 14.6 trails only the Bucks’ Brook Lopez (18.1) in contested 2-pointers per game.

5. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 7.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 6
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Played his way back into the Top 5 with consecutive double-doubles vs. Portland and Washington. Totaled 39 points and 25 assists with six turnovers, though he couldn’t end Pistons’ losing streak that has reached nine games. And while he’s shooting 41.8% overall, that bumps to 47.5% in the final three minutes of quarters.

The Next 7:

6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: No. 5
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Hit 6 3FG this week, 35 shy of breaking Donovan Mitchell’s rookie record.

7. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 10.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder: No. 8
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

Analytics: Breaking down his performances by … hair color?

8. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 11.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder: No. 7
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Shooting perks up (53.8%/41.7%) his past three games.

9. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 9.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.8 spg
Since last Ladder: 13.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.2 spg
Last Ladder: No. 10
Draft pick: No. 17 pick overall

Didn’t neglect his D (2 steals, 2 blocks) when scoring 20 vs. SAS.

10. Malaki Branham, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 9.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder: No. 12
Draft pick: No. 20 pick overall

Some felt he was robbed of Feb. Rookie of Month (16.8, 3.8, 2.7).

11. Mark Williams, Charlotte Hornets

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.1 bpg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 0.8 bpg
Last Ladder: No. 11
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

New per-36 darling: 16.9 points, 13.0 rebounds, with 63.9 FG%.

12. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.1 apg
Since last Ladder: DNP
Last Ladder: No. 9
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

If sore ankle didn’t stymie him, Pistons’ crowded frontcourt might.

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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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