Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Paolo Banchero returns as 2022 Class continues to shine

The No. 1 overall pick is back for Orlando, while Indiana's rookies turned heads in Los Angeles.

NBA TV breaks down how Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard hit a game-winner vs. the Lakers.

Two comebacks dominate the narrative of this week’s Kia Rookie Ladder.

The first is No. 1 pick Paolo Banchero’s return to action — and mostly to form — with the Orlando Magic after missing seven games to injury. The other is what the Indiana Pacers pulled off against the Lakers Monday, overcoming a 17-point deficit in the final nine minutes with strong performances from a pair of Ladder rung holders.

Banchero’s comeback from a 17-day layoff is of greater importance to the Magic and the Class of 2022 sorting itself out for Kia Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie consideration. Despite the Magic’s somewhat better 3-4 record while the big man was out, everyone knows the team’s development and long-term success centers on the 20-year-old with the dazzling mix of size, skill, confidence and work ethic.

The best of Banchero’s three performances since last week’s Ladder came Monday in Brooklyn, when he scored 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting. He also had a ringside seat for the 45 points on 19-of-24 accuracy dropped on him and the Magic by Kevin Durant, who briefly was a member of the Seattle SuperSonics while Banchero was growing up in that city.

“A full-circle moment” the Orlando rookie said of facing the Nets’ Hall of Famer-in-waiting.

Afterward, Banchero got Durant’s jersey, with a basic reminder for fully tapping his potential: “The work don’t stop.”

“I try to be observant of guys like that,” Banchero told reporters. “How they talk to their teammates, how they play the game, how they go about the game. You can always pick something up from a player like him.”

If there was any silver lining to Banchero’s absence beyond some rest and recuperation, it was the bigger role opened for teammate Bol Bol. The 7-foot-2 Bol was averaging 11.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 22.7 minutes while taking 6.7 shots per game before Banchero got hurt. Those numbers bumped up during the star rookie’s layoff to 15.7 points, 10.4 boards, 30.4 minutes and 12.0 shots.

Bol got the sort of reps that could pay off as the season unspools. He also got a big boost from Banchero, relative to multi-skilled wunderkind Victor Wembanyama over whom NBA teams are eagerly anticipating.

“Everyone talks about the Victor dude from France,” Banchero said. “I’m not trying to compare them, but Bol’s 7-foot-2, shoots threes, brings it up the court, makes passes, and blocks shots. I feel like people kind of forget about him, but Bol’s a freak of nature.”

The other comeback of note for the Ladder was the Pacers’ chase-down of LeBron James & Co., with rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard playing pivotal roles.

Mathurin, who moved into the No. 1 spot here while Banchero was out, maintained his hold with another strong week. He played all 12 minutes in the fourth quarter, helping Indiana turn a 101-84 deficit into a 116-115 triumph. The super-sub scored eight points with four rebounds in his team’s 32-22 dominance in the quarter.

Nembhard also played the entire fourth and chipped in six of his 12 points — none bigger than the 3-point shot he hit as the buzzer sounded.

As with Bol’s extra opportunities, the experience of playing well on a grand stage, in a clutch situation, and prevailing can only help both Pacers newbies.

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

(All stats through Tuesday, Nov. 29)

1. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 19.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 18.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

Rarely if ever does anyone hold a rookie responsible for his team’s W-L record. But when his arrival and contributions lead to victories, that’s a nice bonus (a la 2022 ROY Scottie Barnes and runner-up Evan Mobley last season). Mathurin isn’t far behind Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner as far as impact on Indiana’s 12-8 success and no rookie has tasted victory more often. His net rating (+0.5) compares favorably to Paolo Banchero’s (-5.9) in his 2-12 results through 14 appearances.

2. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 22.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Resuming his climb toward the top of the Ladder after missing seven consecutive games, Banchero came back strong from the left ankle sprain. Still, his production in Orlando’s three latest losses showed a bit of rust compared to his pre-injury work. He continues to have the respect of the referees like no other rookie, shooting 27 free throws since his return and ranking ninth in the NBA overall with 8.4 attempts per game.

3. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 16.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 4.3 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 6.0 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Learn more about Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey and his connections to Detroit.

Injuries have made attempts to evaluate the Pistons’ season feel like looking into a funhouse mirror. Cade Cunningham went down (among others) and Ivey’s usage increased. Then the rookie played five games in seven nights before missing the past three with knee soreness. His lone performance lately was his 16-5-6 in Detroit’s victory at Utah last Wednesday.

4. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 11.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 0.7 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Shooting accuracy, Smith’s most glaring flaw so far, has perked up; he has hit 43.8% overall and 47.8% from the arc in the four games leading up to Houston’s game at Denver Wednesday. The rumblings of trade interest from rival NBA teams hoping to buy low on the 19-year-old are another good reason not to lose faith in his potential. Since Nov. 9, he has put up 13.3 ppg and 8.9 rpg in nine appearances.

5. Tari Eason, Houston Rockets

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 0.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 17 overall

With two Top 5 rookies on the current Ladder, a starting backcourt scoring 40 points nightly and Alperen Sengun’s second-year leap, Houston’s 5-15 record is getting annoying. Eason’s role is limited by the staff’s focus on developing teammates and he ranks seventh among Rockets in minutes played. But he’s a double-double guy pro-rated to 36 minutes (16.4 points, 10.2 rebounds). He has shot poorly the past five games (35%/27%) but get a load of this distinction: Since 1984, only eight rookies totaled more offensive rebounds and steals through 20 games than Eason.

The Next 5:

6. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 10.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.3 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Averaged 7.5 ppg, 34% FG in Nov. after 17.4, 49.3% in Oct.

7. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 9.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

Top 10 in class in total points, assists, steals, blocks, FG%.

8. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 6.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 5.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Offensive-rebound savant shot 6-of-7 in loss to Knicks.

9. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 8.4 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 8.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.8 apg
Last Ladder: T-10
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Fourth among rotation rookies at 17.3 points per 36 min.

T-10. Andrew Nembhard, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 7.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: T-10
Draft pick: No. 31 overall

Missed four games with left knee bruise, roared back vs. LAL.

T-10. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 5.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 4.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 0.0 apg
Last Ladder: Not ranked
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

Tops rookies with 1.5 blocks per game, 71.7% FG shooting.

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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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