NBA Rookie Rankings: Jalen Williams is productive in OKC, while Jabari Smith Jr. thrives in Houston

With the regular season coming to a conclusion in a few weeks, there will likely be a lot of pointless games throughout the league as teams in the running for the playoffs try to rest veterans in anticipation of something larger and lottery-bound teams field younger lineups with nothing left to play for. Only three weeks remain until the end of the regular season, but only three clubs have been eliminated from playoff contention, making this season peculiar. As a result, March has seen some intense basketball, particularly from some rookies.

Some players, like Jalen Williams, are developing tremendously, while others, like Jabari Smith Jr., are now showing off their full offensive potential. We are in for a treat during the next few weeks of the regular season because there is still so much to play for in terms of playoff positioning.

It’s time to analyze the rookie rankings for this week. Remember that these rankings only take into account a rookie’s performance from week to week, not over the entire season. These rankings represent an evaluation of the player’s performance over the previous week rather than the Rookie of the Year standings.

For Smith, who scored at least 20 points in three straight games for the first time in his rookie year, it was a turning moment in the season. When you consider that over his previous 31 games, Smith only had two 20-point performances, it becomes even more noteworthy. Smith’s season is nearly done, but the fact that he may be finishing the year on a high note is encouraging. March in general has been Smith’s greatest month thus far.

After a surprising win over the Boston Celtics, Rockets teammate Jalen Green had this to say of his rookie teammate:

“He’s currently going insane. He is acting that way “About Smith, Green said. “I’m delighted for him because we know the true Jabari and he’s displaying it right now to everyone,” she said. “He’s showing it right now to everyone who doubted him, the naysayers, everyone.”

Smith hasn’t drawn as much attention as other of his rookie competitors, but I wouldn’t say that he has had a lot of critics or doubters either. But even when Smith had offensive issues, his defensive contributions were still beneficial. Now that both aspects of his game are working together, he is putting on performances that many had anticipated at the beginning of the season.

Oh, and another interesting fact about this 20-point game stretch: Smith made NBA history by being the first adolescent to record three straight 20-point games with 10 rebounds. He is also the first Rockets rookie since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984 to achieve that distinction.

Williams has jumped a ridiculous amount in the past few weeks. Nobody else in this rookie class has been as productive or as efficient as he has been, and he is doing it while the Thunder are still vying for a play-in position in the West. His season field goal percentage has crept up to 52.1%, which places him 17th in the entire league. Williams has found himself crammed in there above people like Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, and even his colleague Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a roster that is generally loaded with bigs at the top.

If you narrow down that list to only include guards from throughout the league, Williams has the highest field goal % in the NBA. It’s unparalleled, and I can’t begin to tell you what a big thing that is for a rookie to do. Williams doesn’t take many bad shots, which is why you can see why he is so effective when you see him play. He makes over half of his shots around the rim, which is already a high-efficiency look, but his agility allows him to beat his opponent to the basket and create simple baskets like these:

But he is more than simply a dunker who scores points on powerful rim cuts. With a smaller defender in front of him like Seth Curry right here, he’ll simply drive right past them, and with a wingspan that reaches over seven feet, Williams can knock off hook shots like this that are just out of reach of looming bigs like Nic Claxton on this play:

What’s amazing is that nothing about this is particularly complicated or tough; Williams is simply exceptional at mastering the essentials. He doesn’t use immense power to bulldoze his way to the basket or cross people up to get there; rather, he excels at anticipating when to take his shot and launching a relentless attack at certain times. Williams makes getting to the cup look simple despite having a top defender like Mikal Bridges checking him, and he is completing with great efficiency:

Williams pauses for a brief period before making contact with Bridges and barreling toward the basket. Nothing fancy, yet dangerous and effective. Williams has progressed this season from a solid starter to a blossoming star, something I don’t think anyone anticipated, especially so early in his career. Similar to Smith, Banchero is now having a much better March than February, particularly in terms of his 3-point shooting. Banchero has already 12 of 32 from 3-point range, a 37.5% clip, which is his most effective performance this season after making just one of 33 attempts in February. With a 45.1% rate in March, his field goal percentage ranked second highest overall for the year.

Deandre Ayton also gave Banchero great praise prior to Orlando’s game against the Suns this week, drawing a comparison between the rookie and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“The youngster can reach the rim, based on what I’ve observed. He’s on par with Giannis, in my opinion, in terms of knowing when to draw fouls “said Ayton.

When comparing Banchero to a two-time MVP and NBA champion, it might seem a little early, but the analogy has some merit. Both Banchero and Antetokounmpo serve as point forwards for their respective clubs, but Banchero has a propensity for finding ways to get to the hoop with his shifty hands and size while Antetokounmpo typically does so with little opposition. According to Cleaning the Glass, a site that essentially counts the proportion of a player’s shot attempts that result in fouls, the rookie ranks fourth among all forwards in the NBA in shooting foul percentage at 19.1%. Banchero is not too far off considering Antetokounmpo’s shooting percentage when fouled is 24.7%. The Magic rookie’s free-throw percentage, which is higher than Antetokounmpo’s at 74.8%, needs to be much higher if he wants to shoot foul shots at such a high rate.

When asked why his scoring had increased since entering the NBA after just one season at Baylor, where he averaged just 9.2 points, Sochan had a rather intriguing response.

I merely play roles, Sochan claimed. “My job at Baylor wasn’t to score. Being the energy person would enable him to perform every task on the floor. Basically, just be energy. I received an opportunity from the start here and I’ve been able to display what I can accomplish.”

Understanding the development that Sochan has shown this season provides wonderful insight. In San Antonio, he has been given more offensive responsibilities, and as a result, the rookie’s scoring has significantly increased. While there are still some rough edges in his game, such as his season 3-point shooting average of just 25%, his field goal percentage has steadily improved month over month.

Hardy is gaining from Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving’s ailments, which have both held them out for at least three games each. He received three consecutive starts this week during that time and scored 20 points or more in each game. He hasn’t been as efficient as he could have been, but that is to be expected from a rookie who hasn’t played a lot of consistent minutes throughout the season. It will be fascinating to see how Hardy’s minutes are handled after Doncic and Irving return, as he has already outperformed Frank Ntilikina as a backup guard offensively in Dallas, but his defense could require some work. Hardy might be targeted on defense if the Mavericks advance to the playoffs, but the scoring punch he can provide off the bench could be helpful for a Dallas squad that is severely lacking in quality depth.