NBA Rookie Rankings: Bennedict Mathurin breaks out of shooting slump; Jabari Smith’s defense shining through

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The NBA recently announced that the Rookie of the Year award will be renamed in Wilt Chamberlain’s honor, as part of a complete overhaul of many of its end-of-the-season awards. The MVP trophy will be named after Michael Jordan, while the Defensive Player of the Year trophy has been named after Hakeem Olajuwon. The league also introduced a new award for Clutch Player of the Year, which will have a trophy named after Jerry West. If the season ended today the Clutch Award would likely go to someone like DeMar DeRozan or Jalen Brunson, both of whom are first and second in clutch scoring this season. However, consider this my bid for rookie AJ Griffin, who after this week now has two buzzer-beating, game winners to his name.

Following up a game-winning layup against the Toronto Raptors a couple weeks ago, Griffin did it again against DeRozan and the Bulls, and this time he upped the level of difficulty, but more on that below. After the game, Griffin couldn’t help but laugh and smile when asked about his second game-winner, saying “It’s starting to happen, I guess you could say, consistently.” If the Hawks manage to get to the playoffs this year and need someone to make a game-winner, at least they now know who they’re going to rely on.

Now it’s time to break down this week’s NBA Rookie Rankings. Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie’s performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season. These aren’t Rookie of the Year standings, but rather a reflection on what the player has done over the past week.

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Mathurin’s standout season might be taking a bit of a backseat recently after the rise of fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard, who has been pivotal to Indiana’s recent success. But that doesn’t mean what Mathurin’s doing is any less impressive, because he has a legit case to be Sixth Man of the Year and Rookie of the Year. His most recent performance, a 24-point outing in a win over the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday was just the latest example of that. 

Mathurin’s stat line against the Warriors was especially notable because it was the second game since the start of the month that he connected on two or more 3s. Prior to the Golden State game, Mathurin was just 4-of-34 on 3-pointers dating back to Nov. 30. Against the Warriors, Mathurin went 4-of-7 from deep, and he attributed his big night to staying committed and not getting discouraged from his cold shooting streak.

“[I’m] pretty much just sticking with it,” Mathurin said after the game. “I’ve had a couple rough games, and I’m pretty much just trying to stay locked in, putting the work in and trying to make shots.”

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Since missing seven games in November, Banchero’s production really hasn’t skipped a beat. He’s surpassed the 20-point mark in eight out of 11 games he’s played since returning, and he’s gotten a double-double on two occasions. His efficiency has taken a small step back, but fluctuation in that category is to be expected for any rookie. What’s been the most exciting about Banchero as of late is his performances are now translating to the Magic winning games. After going on a nine-game losing streak, Orlando has won its last four games against three really tough teams in the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors (twice) and Los Angeles Clippers. The two wins against the Raptors were the most notable for Banchero, as he got some revenge against a Toronto team that held him to just nine points a week prior, his lowest point total on the season.

Over two contests against the Raptors, Banchero combined for 43 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists. He shot 56 percent from the field during those two games and 37.5 percent from 3-point range. It didn’t come easy for Banchero, because Toronto’s defense made him work for every point he got, but you could tell that over the course of both games the rookie was adjusting to what the Raptors were doing, and he still found a way to get his points. 

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Smith is going to be a very good defender in the very near future. I’ve already touted his defensive prowess in weeks prior, and this week he gives me another reason to do so. In a game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Smith was the primary defender on Giannis Antetokounmpo. In possessions where Smith guarded Antetokounmpo, the two-time league MVP was limited to just eight points on 4-of-13 from the field. He went 0-2 from 3-point range, and committed two turnovers. You could tell Smith took pride in the challenge in guard Giannis, and as a result, he forced the Greek Freak into one of his worst performances of the season.

Smith did a great job of not giving Antetokounmpo any good angles to drive toward the rim, and on the times that he did he stuck to him well enough to force the NBA champion into a low-percentage shot. Then there was this tremendous block from Smith that led to a bucket on the other end for the Rockets.

There are also these two great defensive possessions from Smith where he does a perfect job at denying the entry pass to Giannis and ends up with two steals in the process.

While Smith only had six points at the end of the night, his defense helped ignite the Rockets on the other end of the floor and as a result, Houston came out on top in an upset win. 

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The versatility that Williams possesses as a 6’5 guard continues to shine through for the Thunder. His feel for the game is levels ahead of where most rookies are, and he’s constantly making the right play within the flow of the game. He can create for himself out of the pick-and-roll, he’s got great athleticism which comes through in transition, and his high IQ makes him a dangerous cutter. In a loss to the Miami Heat this week, Williams went on his own 10-run that included two 3-pointers at the start of the third quarter to get the Thunder to within four points of the lead. 

It was part of a 14-point, five-rebound, two-assist performance from Williams where he shot 60 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point territory.  

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Another week, another Griffin game-winning shot, this time against the Bulls. Funnily enough, this game-winner also came in overtime, following up his last-second layup to beat the Raptors at the buzzer a few weeks ago. But this one against the Bulls was far more impressive, as Griffin had to contort his body under the basket with a defender on him to get the shot up while also having to get it off in time.

Now that the NBA unveiled a new Clutch Award, named after Jerry West, Griffin may be in line to receive some hardware at the end of this season. But Griffin is more than just the electrifying game-winners that you see on social media, he’s played himself into a rotation spot for the Hawks, and he’s become one of Atlanta’s most productive players off the bench in recent weeks. 

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