We’re about halfway into the NBA season, which means it’s time for the second 2023-24 edition of The Athletic’s Rookie Rankings.
To refresh: We rank the league’s top 15 rookies to this point, based on how they have performed as NBA players. These are not based on how they are doing at the time of the rankings or a projection of the players they will become. They are full-season assessments of how they have played to this point.
What do I look for when I rank players? Minutes and role matter. What is each rookie getting asked to do? How often are they seeing the court? Are they being asked to create offense for their teams? Is their role limited, and how successful are they in that role? How successful is the team with them within that role? What is the degree of difficulty of said role? Is the player logging real minutes on a good team or eating up minutes on a bad team that doesn’t have anyone better?
This is an art, not a science. The rankings involve examining numbers and analyzing a painstaking amount of tape, and I value the latter more.
The structure is as follows: I rank the rookies, write about four of them in-depth, then explain the rest of the rankings with some notes. Typically, I do a People’s Choice section in these rankings where I ask the readers to pick one of the players I write about. However, because this second edition is running half a month later than normal, I locked in on four guys I felt needed to be written about. The People’s Choice will return in the next edition.
Note that I made overseas signings like Sasha Vezenkov and Vasilije Micić ineligible for these rankings because they’re professional veterans with a proven track record outside of the NBA.
Role change makes Wemby an elite defender
Over the last month, Wembanyama has begun his ascent toward the top of the Rookie of the Year race. The level to which he’s figuring out the NBA is rapid. I still have Chet Holmgren clearly at the top of the race – he’s the second-best player on a top-three team in a loaded Western Conference –but Wembanyama is ascending. Over his last 18 games, he’s averaging 21.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 49.8 percent from the field, all improvements from his start to the season.
Why use the last 18 games as a sample? It’s when the Spurs moved Zach Collins to the bench and made Wembanyama a center on a full-time basis. While it’s clear Wembanyama’s offense has benefited, it pales in comparison to the impact he’s made on defense since the switch.
It goes beyond Wembanyama’s 3.7 blocks-per-game average over those 18 contests. The Spurs, generally one of the worst defenses in the league this season, have allowed just 116.6 points per 100 possessions when Wembanyama is on the court since the lineup switch.
Putting Wembanyama at center not only stations him around the basket, where he can use his 8-foot wingspan to affect shots. It also makes it a lot harder for opponents to keep him out of the action, as they could when Wembanyama was defending more perimeter players early in the season. There are many more fours who can shoot in today’s NBA than fives, which forced Wenbamyana further away from the rim in general. If his assignment lifted from the corner to the wing as another opponent drove, he had to at least be cognizant of where beyond the 3-point line his man would end up.
Now, though, Wembanyama can impact each action more easily. Most teams run the majority of their ball screens through screening centers to keep bigs involved in the play. That allows Wembanyama to take full advantage of his length; he’s a tremendous drop defender, able to cut off drives while still positioning himself in gaps and keeping close enough to the roller to cut off a lob pass. Look at how Wembanyama completely erases this pick-and-roll involving Trae Young, arguably the best guard in the league at attacking bigs in ball screen. He prevents Young from shooting a floater initially, bats away Young’s lob pass and still recovers to swat Young’s quick-shot floater on the rebound.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has gone even further to weaponize Wembanyama’s length and balance. When opponents deploy non-shooting wings, the Spurs will match Wembanyama onto them instead of the center, allowing him to ignore them, sit in the paint and make life miserable for everyone. When the Spurs played the New Orleans Pelicans, Wembanyama entirely sagged off Pels wing Dyson Daniels, a career sub-30 percent 3-point shooter on low volume. Look at how this condensed the court and closed potential Pelicans driving lanes for the Pelicans. The Spurs only gave up 1.19 points per possession with Wembanyama on the court in this game — he was usually guarding Daniels or Herb Jones, another reluctant shooter — versus an absurd 1.5 points per possession with him off the court.
This may seem nuts, but when Wembanyama is playing as a big, he is already one of the best defenders in the league as a rookie. I would have him on an All-Defense team right now and wouldn’t think twice about it. Taylor Snarr’s Estimated Plus-Minus model has Wembanyama rated as one of the best defenders in the league right now, with a plus-3.0 defensive rating.
Again: These are full-season rankings, so Holmgren still sits at the top. If I had to vote for Rookie of the Year right now, I’d vote Holmgren. But with the way Wembanyama is playing since this adjustment in his usage, I bet he catches up by the end of the season and wins the award.
Aldridge: Joel Embiid’s 70 took the NBA back to unprecedented heights
When the Heat drafted Jaquez last June, my immediate response was, “Of course they picked him.” At UCLA, Jaquez embodied everything the Heat look for in players. He’s tough. He’s fearless. He’s willing to fight on defense. Offensively, his craft, footwork and intelligence were tailor made for their system.
Well, all of that has translated to the NBA immediately, and then some. My goodness, has Jaquez been critically important for the Heat before a recent groin injury. No Heat player logged more total minutes in the first half of the season than Jaquez, and he’s been spectacular in that time. He’s averaging 14 points in 30 minutes per game while shooting 51 percent from the field, 35 percent from 3 and 84 percent from the line, and those marks jump to 16 a game on similar percentages since he entered Miami’s rotation on Nov. 11. I was an enormous fan of Jaquez over the course of the last three years at UCLA, and even I didn’t expect him to be an immediate NBA starter.
The intersection of Jaquez’s craft, skill and basketball intelligence is the biggest reason for his early success. He handles the ball incredibly well for his size, keeping it on a string and changing paces consistently. His spin move is quick, and he starts his shooting motion before he even finishes the move to keep defenders off-balance. He knocks down enough 3-point shots. He has an innate understanding of how to move without the ball and space the floor for his teammates. If he’s on the opposite side and sees his defender stuck in a one-on-two situation defending corner and wing shooters, he’s going to cut along the baseline or wing for a bucket. But if he sees Jimmy Butler wanting to drive, he’ll stay in the corner and wait for a kickout.
All of this makes Jaquez an extremely versatile player for coaches. They can use him in ball screens. They can flash him into the mid-post for drives. They can spot him up for 3 to space the floor or attack heavy closeouts to keep defenses rotating. They can use him on the block to post mismatches. He can create offense going one-on-one. He’s an awesome cutter. He sets a ton of screens for others, both on and off the ball. He hunts mismatches. He crashes the glass. On top of it, he’s physical and constantly bumps opponents to establish position. Opponents have to be on top of what he’s doing — on or off the ball — every minute he’s on the court, and it feels like a hassle.
He’s the best version of a basketball vulture, collecting 16 points a night on all sorts of scraps. This possession against the Phoenix Suns illustrates this trait. He sets up in the dunker spot under the basket, between two defenders who haven’t played much together in Devin Booker and Bol Bol. As soon as Miami runs a flare action with Duncan Robinson and Kevin Love, Jaquez sees Booker and Bol ball-watching, immediately cuts backdoor behind them and gets an easy layup.
Erik Spoelstra, the newly minted highest-paid coach in NBA history, gets an assist for Jaquez’s early success. Jaquez would be useful in other places because each of his attributes can translate anywhere, but I don’t think another coach would be as willing to weaponize his special traits and empower him to be himself. Instead of fitting Jaquez into a roleplaying box, Spoelstra has taken what he does well and supercharged it. How many coaches would let a 6-foot-6 rookie wing post-up multiple times per game? Jaquez is excellent at it, finding mismatches and even at times creating them himself. When including kickout passes, Jaquez’s post-ups yield the second-most points per possession among the 70 players to have posted up at least 25 times this season, per Synergy Sports.
This possessions encapsulates almost everything you need to know about Jaquez. He bumps Orlando Magic wing Chuma Okeke to establish position for a mid-post play immediately and gets the entry pass. Once he recognizes he doesn’t have it, he gets into the second part of the action with a dribble handoff to Heat guard Josh Richardson. From there, Jaquez rolls short, then re-screens back for Richardson a second time, making enough contact to force Orlando point guard Cole Anthony to switch. From there, Jaquez bullies Anthony down on the block with a jab step, drive, spin move and a spin back before finishing with an easy shot at the rim.
He’s constantly doing stuff out there, and you cannot rest for a split second when guarding him.
I’m not sure where the Golden State Warriors would be without Podziemski, which is a startling statement in and of itself for a team that hoped to contend for a title. His ability to come into Steve Kerr’s offense and fit like a glove has been enormous as the team struggles to get any momentum. Klay Thompson struggled early in the season. Draymond Green has only played 16 games. Kevon Looney has not been himself, and Andrew Wiggins has, frankly, been unplayable at times. But Podziemski has been extremely steady by doing all of the little things and taking advantage of opportunities given to him.
Since entering the rotation full time on Nov. 30, Podziemski is averaging nearly 11 points, six rebounds, four assists and a steal per game while shooting 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3. The production is there. More importantly, he’s an energy giver for a team that desperately needs it. He’s just constantly in motion. Whereas Jaquez is opportunistic, Podziemski is like the Energizer bunny, hopping around and trying to lose his man.
This is the prototypical possession involving Podziemski. He comes around a screen to take a pass before quickly getting into essentially a dribble handoff double-drag screen for Stephen Curry. Big man Trayce Jackson-Davis rolls, and Podziemski pops out above the arc. Curry throws a cross-court skip pass over to Dario Šarić, who resets into a dribble handoff for Podziemski himself. But instead of stopping after giving the ball up when cut off, Podziemski sees how far Nikola Jokić is playing off Jackson-Davis and continues through to the corner for another dribble handoff, this time to get up a quick shot. Because Podziemski is an adept shooter with a lightning-quick release, you have to stay attached to him at all times behind the arc.
Beyond that, he’s exceptionally hard to defend because he’s constantly doing stuff. He moves the ball extremely quickly, usually processing the best option for aiding the offense as a whole before he even receives the ball. He’s all about getting his team great shots and being the best complementary player he can be out on the court. Sometimes, that’s cutting off the ball. Sometimes, that’s crashing the glass, where he innately reads the ball off the rim incredibly well.
On a team that has, at times, desperately needed someone who can create something on offense, especially in non-Curry minutes, Podziemski’s basketball intelligence, skill level and motor has been a necessity. When Podziemski is on the court, the Warriors have scored 121.3 points per 100 possessions. He’s been a huge help.
There are concerns about Podziemski’s long-term upside, many of which are on defense. He is willing on that end and thinks the game well as a team defender, but opponents have attacked him on the ball due to his lack of size, reach and strength. On a team still struggling to figure out its defensive identity — especially over the last 10 games, when they’ve allowed a staggering 127 points per 100 possessions, last in the league — Podziemski’s limitations present another issue to overcome.
But Podziemski is so useful on offense that he continues to be a valuable presence to the Warriors. I’m starting to wonder if having him will allow the team to trade Moses Moody in an attempt to make the shake-up deal they so desperately need.
Brandin Podziemski is the rare rookie thriving on the Warriors
Cam Whitmore looks like a steal
Whitmore’s place in these rankings inspired the most internal debate. His 13 games since entering the rotation on a more full-time basis have been among the most impressive stretches of any rookie outside of Wembanyama and Holmgren. However, he’s played less than 300 minutes this season, about one-quarter of the minutes many other rookies have received. To split the difference, I ranked him at No. 13. 53-
Over his last 13 games, Whitmore has played about 19 minutes per night and averaged 11 points and 3.7 rebounds per contest. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3 and 65 percent from the line. Offensively, he’s been superb off the ball, and his intersection of explosiveness and power has translated immediately. He drills catch-and-shoot 3s and, when closed out upon, will relocate into a one-dribble pull-up or size opponents up for a two-dribble stepback. He’s an absolute freight train getting downhill in transition. On his drives, he possesses an uncommon level of body control for a power wing, with the ability to decelerate into Euro steps or explosively rise into power slams over bigs. He’ll look like he’s coming downhill to throw down a poster and instead stop for a floater.
But if you’re scoring almost 22 points per 36 minutes like Whitmore is, you also have to be able to create off the bounce. That’s starting to come too. He’s starting to figure out how to use his combination of power and deceleration to hammer mismatches and get to the paint.
Here’s a great example from the Rockets’ recent win against the Bucks, where Whitmore catches Damian Lillard in a cross-match. Watch how Whitmore sets Lillard up to get him slightly off balanced, then moves Lillard backwards with his shoulder to get the rim with ease. This looks way easier than it is. There aren’t a ton of teenage wings who can do this.
Whitmore is far from perfect. He’s still not seeing the floor particularly well as a passer, which was the knock on him in college and as a high-school aged player. Defensively, it’s an adventure off the ball; his engagement seems to be there, but he’s still learning where he needs to be. (The good news is that he’s so useful on offense that he’s getting the necessary reps to work through those issues in high-leverage moments.) He has displayed some positive moments as a defender on the ball, showcasing a real ability to switch onto many different players. His chest is strong and extremely hard to drive through. It’s not all bad on that en, even if it’s going to take some time.
The Rockets ending up with Whitmore at No. 20 after a long slide on draft night looks like an enormous win. We’ll see how much upside he ends up having. Scouts around the league are already wondering if Whitmore can be the kind of shot-creating wing scorer teams endlessly seek throughout the scouting process.
Overall, the Rockets look loaded on the wing long term, with Whitmore and Jabari Smith Jr. playing well and Tari Eason continuing to wreak havoc with his energy and strength when healthy. Jalen Green, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft, continues to play a bigger role than any of those three, although his step backward as a third-year player has certainly raised some questions about his long-term future.
Ultimately, Whitmore’s emergence gives the Rockets more options as they try to figure out the exact mix that makes sense for them moving forward. I’d expect Whitmore to keep getting more and more minutes.
Chet Holmgren remains No. 1 and my pick for midseason Rookie of the Year, though I’m open to being swayed on that and think there is a great chance Wembanyama catches him. Holmgren’s ruthless efficiency puts him over the top for me. Spurs fans can point to the fact that Wembanyama has it harder, and they’re right. But the results on offense still look drastically better for Holmgren’s team even when you take fellow superstar Shai Gilgeous-Alexander off the court. Thunder lineups with Holmgren but without SGA still average 115.6 points per 100 possessions; Spurs lineups with Wembanyama for the Spurs average 108.6. In the 127 minutes when Holmgren has been on the court without any of Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey or Lu Dort – a small sample, to be clear — the Thunder average 110.8 points per 100 and actually have a net rating of +4.05. Holmgren is typically playing with fellow starter Jalen Williams during those times, but the rest of the guys with them are bench players, and the Thunder are still succeeding.
The main skill difference between the two right now is Wembanyama is not nearly the shooter Holmgren is yet. Holmgren makes 38-to 40-percent of his 3s and is also a remarkably efficient finisher on the interior. Wembanyama has been remarkable for his size as a pull-up threat from 3 this season, but he’s only making 25.4 percent of his 3s off the catch.
The other stark difference between the two comes in the negative plays Holmgren doesn’t make. If you look only at highlights, Wembanyama has Holmgren beat. He has a flair for the spectacular. But Holmgren has been more consistent and steady on a possession-by-possession basis, and that matters when you’re trying to win games and make the playoffs, as opposed to prioritizing player and roster development.
Dereck Lively II drops a spot to No. 4, but that’s not his fault. He’s been terrific; Jaquez just came on in such a vital role that he needed to move up. But Lively is my fourth and final clear choice for midseason first-team All-Rookie. He has been superb for a rookie defending the interior, he rebounds and he’s gaining more synergy in ball screens with Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving seemingly every day. He’s their center of the future and might end up as a top-10 defender in the league.
The final spot in the top five came down to Podziemski and Brandon Miller. I went with Miller because it didn’t feel right to drop him out of the top five due to the circumstances of his last month. His stretch from Nov. 18 to Dec. 20, when he averaged 16.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3 and 84 percent from the line, is still the best extended run of any rookie not named Holmgren, Wembanyama or Jaquez this season. Miller sprained his ankle Dec. 23, missed a game, then got sick around the end of 2023 and wasn’t quite right for a stretch of games. Then, he landed hard on his back after a dunk attempt and missed a couple more games. Hopefully he gets healthy and we see the best of him the rest of the way.
Cason Wallace versus Keyonte George for spot No. 7 was the next dilemma. Wallace has been terrific on defense and is extremely steady in his role for a winning team. The Thunder can count on him for 15 to 20 minutes per night of tough defense, good decisions and efficient shot making off the bench. That consistency ended up winning the day for me over George, whose highs are a bit higher than Wallace’s, but is a lot more hit or miss. To be fair, George is asked to do more, and his passing has really helped lift the Jazz over this last month of hot play. But while George is awesome, sometimes such as against when he canned four 3s, dished out four assists and was a huge part of an upset win over Milwaukee earlier this month, he also has games like the one Oklahoma City last week, when he only playing 15 minutes because his shot wasn’t falling and struggled defensively to contain the the pressure from Oklahoma City’s guards. I went with Wallace’s full-season performance so far, but George certainly has been useful.
Jordan Hawkins seems to be the first guy to lose his spot in New Orleans’ rotation when players return from injury or Willie Green decided to tighten his rotation, but I’ve been mostly impressed with what I’ve seen. He’s doing his job, averaging 11 points and shooting 39 percent from 3 while enhancing the Pelicans’ floor spacing and 3-point attempts. But his defense remains an adventure.
Bilal Coulibaly has been in the Wizards’ rotation from Day One and looks like he belongs on an NBA court. He takes and makes open 3s, he finds easy cutting lanes and transition opportunities, and is energetic on defense. He’s just limited beyond that. The Wizards typically hide him in the corners on offense, and his handle isn’t quite tight enough yet unless he has real open space to attack. But I wasn’t expecting Coulibaly, who doesn’t turn 20 until July, to be able to hold up in real NBA minutes this season given his youth and inexperience. The fact that he doesn’t look out of place already is a remarkably good sign for the Wizards.
For Victor Wembanyama and Bilal Coulibaly, a ‘dream’ comes true this weekend
The Scoot Henderson roller coaster continues. He’ll have three games when he looks like he’s figured it out, then a stretch of three games when he’s all over the place, turning the ball over and struggling to find efficient shots for himself. In other words, he’s a teenage point guard playing in the NBA.
I’m not sure people fully comprehend how difficult that is and how poor the results typically are. There’s only one lottery one-and-done point guard 6-foot-4 or shorter who has experienced real success as a rookie in the last decade: Trae Young. De’Aaron Fox was one of the worst players in the NBA in his rookie season, averaging 11.6 points and 4.4 assists in 28 minutes per night with a 47.8 true shooting percentage. Darius Garland and Coby White were arguably the worst players in the league in 2019-20 – Garland averaged 12.3 points and 3.9 assists with a 49.8 true shooting percentage while struggling immensely on defense, while White similarly struggled on defense while averaging 13.2 points with a 50.6 true shooting percentage. Lonzo Ball averaged 10.2 points with a 44.4 true shooting percentage. Jamal Murray averaged 9.9 points with a 50.8 true shooting percentage. On and on.
The hardest thing an NBA team can ask of a player in this league is to be a teenage point guard. It’s been proven time and again. When one stands out, as Young did, we should appreciate it because it signifies the player being special. But early struggles for these playrers aren’t disqualifying either, as the names above show. Teenagers lack the experience to know how to deal with the myriad things on their plate at once as a ballhandler in the modern NBA.
In Henderson’s case, he’s actually getting to every spot he wants on the court, but failing to produce the right final product. His shooting struggles have been well-documented, but I’m less concerned about them long-term. He’s taking about two pull-up 3s per game and making them at a 36.7 percent clip; that’s the shot he really needs to stop defenders from going under his ball screen. His issues have mostly come off the catch, where Henderson has made just 21.4 percent of his two attempts per game. With guys like Henderson who have had the ball in their hands their entire lives, I tend to give a little bit of latitude as they figure out how to play off the ball as a shooter. Getting the footwork and balance right can take a couple of years.
The more concerning problem for Henderson has been his poor finishing. He’s still clearly adjusting to the length and athleticism of the NBA. The thing I underestimated most as I evaluated him entering the league is how little NBA-level interior size there is in the G League. Anyone who can protect the rim at a reasonable level – outside of Jay Huff – is already in the NBA. Henderson didn’t get a ton of reps against bigs who can cause issues for him, and it’s caused him to be one of the worst finishers at the basket in the NBA this season. But, again, he’s at least getting to his spots and learning how to draw fouls – he’s up to nearly four free throw attempts per game over his last 19 contests. I think he’ll eventually get better around the basket.
How high a level can Henderson reach given these early struggles. Given the rookie struggles of those prominent names listed above, I think it’s way too early to even begin to guess. Can he get to a reasonable level as a shooter, and can he get to a good level as a finisher? Those will be the swing skills.
But I don’t see much of a reason to feel differently one way or the other about Henderson’s long-term prospects. Being a teenage point guard is hard, and history tells us we shouldn’t write one off because of a tough start.
(Top photo of Victor Wembanyama: Winslow Townson / USA Today; top photo of Jaime Jaquez Jr.: Sam Navarro / USA Today)