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Kia Rookie Ladder: Most NBA rookies struggle with defense

In his first season, Utah's new big man has shown rare defensive instincts.

Kia Rookie Ladder: Most NBA rookies struggle with defense
Don't get it wrong: this is the latest edition of the Kia Rookie Ladder, our weekly list of the best rookies in the league. Our monthly list of the best players on defense, the Defensive Player Ladder, came out the day before.

We have never run a Defensive Rookie Ladder, and we probably never will.

Most of the time, the best rookies in a given season stand out because of how they help their teams score points and how well they do in the most common counting stats. Most of the time, their defensive skills aren't as good.

"It takes time to play game-level defense," a veteran advance scout told NBA.com. "Most of them come in as scorers, and they have to play catch-up on defense. Most of the time, people agree that there is a big learning curve. Most of the time, they don't understand how fast, hard, dedicated, and well-studied you have to be on defense.

"Most rookies have been out of high school for two years. Nothing like this has ever happened before."

This year's Rookie Ladder, which is all about the Class of 2022, is no different. If we only looked at how well the new guys defend, the top spots might look something like this:

Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

The New Orleans Pelicans player Dyson Daniels

Indiana Pacers guard Andrew Nembhard

The Indiana Pacers' Bennedict Mathurin

Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Kessler has been great at protecting the rim and getting the ball back. Even when the game is close, Daniels is on the most dangerous scorer on the other team. Nembhard has more deflections and charges than any other player.

With a defensive rating of 109.9, Mathurin has the most defensive win shares (0.1) of the group. And Banchero's offense is a big part of why he's a candidate for Kia Rookie of the Year, but he's also giving up 14.6 shots per game and making those shots 1.1% less accurate than usual.

Still, rookies don't usually make All-Defense teams. Last season, it was important enough that Evan Mobley of Cleveland and Herbert Jones of New Orleans were in the running.

"It's hard for rookies to understand the nuances of defense," said Dwane Casey, the coach of the Detroit Lions. "How hard you can work. As much as 2.9 seconds in the lane for illegal defenses. Things that you can't get away with just because you're good at sports. Young players have to learn all of these things."

Casey and his staff have been busy training defenders like Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes, Saben Lee, Deividas Sirvydis, Cade Cunningham, Luke Garza, Jaden Ivey, and Jalen Duren, who are either new to the team or just joined it.

Casey said, "Their minds are going crazy." "Training camp goes by so quickly that you can't really learn anything. And for us, teams that are trying to get better, the games are where they learn and form habits. In turn, this makes it hard to win. But that's how young men need to grow up."

With Mobley and, the year before, Isaac Okoro, the Cavs got a break from that. They actually planned their break.

"It was important to us to find players who could play both ways," said coach J.B. Bickerstaff. "Isaac showed that he could defend one-on-one, which could help him right away [in the NBA].


"Evan's defensive IQ and awareness are just so rare that they are hard to find. His brother [Isaiah, a two-way player for the Cavs] is just like him. I think his coaches and parents are to blame. Both of them feel great at this end of the floor. They think ahead, see what's going on, and understand it well."

Most of the time, though, a rookie will have to deal with what happens and doesn't happen on the defensive side.

Sam Mitchell, who works as an NBA TV analyst and was Coach of the Year with Toronto, laughed and said, "100%."

Mitchell said, "It's a mix of a few different things." "One, coaches can say anything about defense they want. But who gets paid at the end of the day? Guys who know how to score.

"I always tell my players that a young player who learns how to play defense gets on the floor first. Because you won't get 20 shots a game unless you're a high pick. You will have a part to play.

"But even those players know that if they score, they get more time on the field."

Away from the gym, most of the feedback they get is about scoring, passing, rebounding, and minutes. Family and friends love to look at box scores, which don't really show defense.

"Scoring is easy to spot," Mitchell said. "But if a guy is helping you win by playing good team defense, you have to go watch the film.

"Then we've done a bad job as coaches. We haven't paid attention to guys who score goals but don't play defense as hard. When they're young, we don't force them to be good at defense.

Here are the Ladder rankings for this week, which are mostly based on offense:

The top five 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder players this week are:

(All numbers as of Tuesday, January 17)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Statistics for the season: 21.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.8 apg

Since last Ladder: 18.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.5 apg

Last Ladder: 1 Draft pick: No. 1 overall


Don't blame the big guy for how little change there is from week to week in the rookie rankings. Even when they were ROY, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, and Karl-Anthony Towns didn't leave much room for error. Another fan is Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team lost to Orlando and Banchero at home earlier this month (25 points, 4-of-9 3-pointers). "I didn't know how big he is until I saw him in person," Kerr said. "He doesn't look that big for someone who is so skilled and moves the way he does. They go well together. They put a lot of offensive things through him."

2. The Indiana Pacers' Bennedict Mathurin

Stats for the season: 17.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg, and 1.4 apg

Since last Ladder: 18.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.3 apg

Last Ladder: 2 Draft pick: No. 6 overall

This is an interesting statistic that compares apples and oranges, but it still tells us something about the Pacers' rookie: Mathurin's scoring average off the bench is 17.5, which is the most of any player who has come off the bench at least 30 times since official starter/reserve breakdowns began in 1981–82. Since it is a career stat, Michael Jordan's 33 games as a backup player (16.7 ppg) count, but his 1,039 games as a starter don't (30.5). But it shows how valuable and useful Mathurin is. (He has averaged 14.8 points per game in his five starts, so a leading role off the bench for Indiana is a good fit for him.)

3. Jalen Williams, Thunder of Oklahoma City

Statistics for the season: 11.7 points per game, 3.9 rebounds per game, and 2.9 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.3 apg

Last Ladder: 5 Draft pick: No. 12 overall

Williams has been getting better and better. In the past few months, he has shown the same upward trend that made him a lottery pick after three years at Santa Clara. So far in January, he has averaged 12.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in up to 32 minutes per game. That includes his very good shooting at Chicago on Friday, where he made 10 of 12 shots and scored 22 points (two days before his 0-of-9 at Brooklyn).

4. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Statistics for the season: 15.1 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game, and 4.3 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.7 apg

Last Ladder: 3 Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Sunday against the Knicks, he scored 21 points and had six rebounds and six assists, giving him his seventh game with 20 or more points. His fouls have gone up (4.3 per game for the week), and he needs to work on his game in the middle of the court. But Pistons general manager Troy Weaver told The Athletic on the team's trip to Paris that the rookie is determined to be successful as a player and a person.

5. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 7.5 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game, and 0.7 assists per game. Since the last Ladder: 16.0 points per game, 14.0 rebounds per game, and 3.7 blocks per game.

Last Ladder: 8 Draft pick: No. 22 overall

After his amazing performance at Minnesota, Kessler vaulted into the Top 5 with 20 points, 21 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in the Jazz's 126-125 win. He is the first rookie in team history and the first in the league since Gorgui Dieng in 2014 to see 20/20. It looks like Utah has found a replacement for Rudy Gobert. They saved a lot of money and got nine years younger, and the other players and picks they got from the Wolves trade were just extra.

What's Next:

6. The Sacramento Kings' Keegan Murray

Statistics for the season: 11.8 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, and 1 assist per game.

Since last Ladder: 12.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 apg

Last Ladder: 4

Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Tony Parker did well because his coach, Mike Brown, taught him "tough love."

7. Houston Rockets' Jabari Smith, Jr.

Statistics for the season: 12.1 points per game, 7.0 rebounds per game, and 1.0 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 15.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.8 apg

Last Ladder: 6 Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Monday against the Lakers, he picked on LeBron and got his dad a drink.

8. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Stats for the season: 7.7 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game, and 1 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: DNP

Last Ladder: 7

Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Oops! Passport was lost, so he didn't make it to Paris with Pistons.

9. Indiana Pacers forward Andrew Nembhard

Season stats: 8.4 points per game, 3.1 rebounds per game, and 3.9 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 7.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 6.3 apg

Last Ladder: 9: The 31st pick in the draft

Third in assists, fourth in steals, and second in 3FG% among rookies.

10. San Antonio Spurs' Jeremy Sochan

Season stats: 9.0 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, and 2.4 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.3 apg

Last Ladder: Overall, it was the ninth pick in the draft.

His 21 nights with 10 or more was the most for a Spurs rookie since Kawhi's 25 nights in 2011-12.

11. Atlanta Hawks' AJ Griffin

Season stats: 9.9 points per game, 2.2 rebounds per game, and 1.0 assists per game.

Since last Ladder: 10.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.5 apg

Last Ladder: 11

Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Hit three of five long shots to help his team beat his dad's team again.

12. New Orleans Pelicans' Dyson Daniels

Stats for the season: 4.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, and 2.3 apg

Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 3.3 apg

Last Ladder: 10 Draft pick: No. 8 overall

In his first week as a starter, he played 26.2 minutes per game, took 4.7 shots, made 57.1% of them, and made two of five from beyond the arc.

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