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NBA ROTY Ladder 1.0: A Pair of Unicorns Headline a Tight Race

Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) drives past San Antonio Spurs center Victor Wembanyama (1) during the second quarter at Paycom Center.

The NBA Rookie of the Year award is among the most prestigious in the league’s trophy case. LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, and Michael Jordan are just a handful of the legends whose stacked NBA trophy cases began with this honour. This year’s rookie class has many players hoping to etch their name into the history books, but at the moment, two unicorns stand above the rest: Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama.

Despite a combined height of 14 feet and five inches, both players have the agility, ball handling, and shooting of a typical guard, seemingly defying reality every time they step on the court. Nearing the quarter-mark of the season, it appears these two are poised to deliver one of the most hotly-contested ROTY races in history. Perhaps not since James vs Carmelo Anthony in 2003-04 have we had a race as fascinating as this one is shaping up to be.

There’s no shortage of candidates on the fringe, too. There are currently 11 rookies playing 25+ minutes per game this season. It’s rare for that many players to earn a prominent role in their team’s rotation this early in their careers, which is a testament to both the talent and depth of the 2023 draft class. Can any of these guys make a run for the trophy? Or are we destined for a showdown between two unicorns for the rest of the way? Below is my analysis of the 12 rookies in contention for the award.

NBA ROTY Ladder 1.0: A Pair of Unicorns Headline a Tight Race

1. Chet Holmgren

Stats: 16.9 PPG (2nd) 7.9 RPG (3rd) 2.6 APG (5th) 1.0 SPG (6th) 2.4 BPG (2nd) .636 TS% (3rd) +5.4 EPM (1st) – [Stat rankings among the 22 rookies that have played at least 100 minutes this season]

Selecting the top spot for this ranking was far from easy. Wembanyama currently leads in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks, giving him an extremely compelling case. As great as he’s been, I still believe Holmgren, who is not far behind in those categories, warrants this spot due to his unreal efficiency and overall impact. He’s shooting 51.9% from the field, 37.6% from three, and 86.5% from the foul line. His impact metrics are off the charts for a rookie, rating him as one of the top two-way players in the NBA. Adding to his case, he’s been a major contributor for an Oklahoma City Thunder team that is currently second place in the Western Conference at 13-7, while the San Antonio Spurs are on a 14-game losing streak and sit dead last in the West with a record of 3-16.

For my money, Holmgren belongs in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year this season. He is the cream of the crop in a rookie class oozing with defensive specialists. He’s posting ridiculous rim protection numbers and anchoring one of the league’s best defenses. His 2.4 BPG ranks fifth in the NBA, and he’s holding opponents to just 54.9% shooting at the rim, placing him just behind former DPOY finalists Joel Embiid (52.5%) and Brook Lopez (52.4%).

Holmgren also has the second-best D-EPM, one of the top advanced metrics for evaluating defensive impact. While Wembanyama has moments of dominance on that end, he still needs to improve some deficiencies before reaching the best defender status in the league, which Holmgren is challenging for. That slight defensive edge, combined with his efficiency and team success, makes him my pick for the NBA ROTY frontrunner thus far.

2. Victor Wembanyama

Stats: 18.9 PPG (1st) 9.7 RPG (1st) 2.5 APG (7th) 1.3 SPG (1st) 2.6 BPG (1st) .522 TS% (16th) +0.5 EPM (4th)

Wembanyama would be an easy choice for the top spot in almost any other year. The Spurs have struggled this season, but that hardly falls on Wembanyama’s shoulders. San Antonio allows about eight fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, thanks to his enormous rim protection (his BPG is third in the NBA) and opponent FG% at the rim (52.7%). He’s also leading the Spurs in every major stat aside from assists.

He still needs to improve his shot selection and efficiency, as he’s settling for too many tough jumpers. Regardless, it’s hard to deny how impactful he is when those shots fall. He’s only been getting better, too, averaging 19.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.5 steals, and 2.8 blocks over his last four games. Holmgren will have a tough time holding onto that top spot if Wembanyama keeps this up.

3. Ausar Thompson

Stats: 10.4 PPG (6th) 8.9 RPG (2nd) 2.5 APG (6th) 1.0 SPG (4th) 1.4 BPG (4th) .500 TS% (18th) -1.6 EPM (7th)

Ausar Thompson’s relentless hustle and high basketball IQ make him an incredibly impactful player. At just six-foot-seven, Thompson is one of the best offensive rebounders and shot blockers in the NBA this season. He’s a menace on defense, hounding star players like Kawhi Leonard and having some head-turning feats of athleticism.

The offensive side of the ball is still a work in progress, as Thompson doesn’t have the best handle and is a putrid shooter. However, he still finds ways to make an impact with his energy and athleticism serving him well in transition, cuts, and on the boards. He’s also a terrific passer who makes quick decisions to punish late rotations. Barring injuries, it’s hard to see anyone topping the unicorns on this list, but if anybody has a shot, it’s Thompson.

4. Jaime Jaquez Jr.

Stats: 12.1 PPG (5th) 3.7 RPG (9th) 2.5 APG (5th) 1.0 SPG (3rd) 0.2 BPG (15th) .606 TS% (7th) -1.9 EPM (6th)

Jaime Jaquez Jr. plays basketball like a seasoned veteran and doesn’t look anything like a rookie on the court. His maturity and poise always stand out, consistently being in the right spots and making the correct reads. This quality has earned coach Erik Spoelstra’s trust in recent weeks, becoming a permanent fixture at the top of the Miami Heat’s rotation and being consistently relied on to close out games in clutch time. He earned Spoelstra’s trust with excellent contributions over his last 13 games, averaging 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.0 steals while shooting 52.6% from the field and 44.4% from three.

5. Derrick Lively II

Stats: 8.7 PPG (9th) 7.6 RPG (4th) 1.1 APG (15th) 0.6 SPG (9th) 1.6 BPG (3rd) .723 TS% (2nd) 0.7 EPM (3rd)

Thanks to the unicorns, Dereck Lively II is somehow only the third-best rim protector in this draft class. But he, too, is already emerging as one of the best in the league in that area. Lively’s 1.5 BPG is tied for 16th in the NBA, and he’s holding opponents to just 55.6% shooting at the rim, 24th among players that defend at least four attempts per game. The Dallas Mavericks’ defense allows 8.0 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, showing enormous value. His offensive game is pretty limited, but his size pairs well with Luka Doncic’s playmaking chops, making him an efficient lob threat and roll man.

6. Brandon Miller

Stats: 14.2 PPG (3rd) 4.2 RPG (7th) 2.1 APG (10th) 0.6 SPG (8th) 0.5 BPG (8th) .547 TS% (13th) -2.8 EPM (11th)

Second overall pick, Brandon Miller, has been a steady contributor all season long. He has solid defense and consistent scoring on respectable efficiency. Miller ranks third in scoring among rookies and has just two games where he didn’t score in double-digits. He doesn’t yet stand out in any particular area but has been one of the better all-around rookies with few flaws in his game.

7. Jordan Hawkins

Stats: 12.5 PPG (4th) 3.7 RPG (8th) 1.7 APG (11th) 0.5 SPG (17th) 0.0 BPG (22nd) .550 TS% (12th) -4.4 EPM (20th)

Despite playing for a very deep New Orleans Pelicans team, Jordan Hawkins has worked his way into a key role in the rotation thanks to his ridiculous movement shooting. He’s the best in the class for hitting tough shots. This serves him well when he gets hot; already having three 25+ point games to his name. His efficiency and scoring fluctuate, but his overall impact ranks among the best in the class.

8. Keyonte George

Stats: 10.3 PPG (7th) 3.3 RPG (11th) 5.2 APG (1st) 0.5 SPG (15th) 0.1 BPG (17th) .474 TS% (20th) -4.9 EPM (19th)

Keyonte George could end up being one of the best players in this class. His playmaking and shot creation chops stand out as arguably the best of this group, giving him immense offensive potential. He’s still learning to channel his skills and needs to improve his efficiency, defense, and consistency. But George could be one of the best in the long term.

9. Bilal Coulibaly

Stats: 8.5 PPG (10th) 3.6 RPG (10th) 1.7 APG (12th) 1.2 SPG (2nd) 0.7 BPG (5th) .628 TS% (5th) -4.1 EPM (20th)

One of the many defensive standouts in this class is Bilal Coulibaly. He has quickly silenced the doubters who questioned the Washington Wizards for selecting him seventh overall. On top of his dynamic defense, he’s also been efficient with solid slashing and playmaking. He’s still raw, but as one of the younger players in the class, he’s got a lot of room to grow. He has already been pretty good for someone considered more of a long-term project.

10. Cason Wallace

Stats: 7.4 PPG (12th) 2.4 RPG (13th) 1.3 APG (14th) 0.6 SPG (10th) 0.4 BPG (9th) .723 TS% (2nd) -0.9 EPM (5th)

Yet another fantastic defender in this class, Cason Wallace harasses guards like a young Jrue Holiday. In a loaded Thunder backcourt, Wallace’s elite defense and efficient shooting have helped him emerge as their top backup option behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, and Josh Giddey. He has even garnered coach Mark Daigneault’s trust in clutch-time situations. The only thing holding Wallace back is a lack of minutes, but those have steadily increased as of late. Look for him to challenge for a higher spot in the coming months.

11. Marcus Sasser

Stats: 7.9 PPG (11th) 1.9 RPG (17th) 2.8 APG (3rd) 0.7 SPG (7th) 0.1 BPG (17th) .565 TS% (9th) -3.0 EPM (11th)

Marcus Sasser is one of the more underrated rookies in this class. He’s one of the few bright spots on an otherwise dreadful Detroit Pistons team. He’s already scored over 20 points twice this season and has four games with six or more assists. Consistency has been an issue, recording eight games with one or no assists and nine games with six or fewer points. However, much of this can be blamed on his inconsistent usage within the lineup. His minutes fluctuate between 26-30 in one game to 5-10 in the next. Hopefully, Monty Williams will start utilizing this gem more consistently.

12. Scoot Henderson

Stats: 9.2 PPG (8th) 2.6 RPG (12th) 4.2 APG (2nd) 0.5 SPG (12th) 0.1 BPG (20th) .420 TS% (22nd) -2.3 EPM (9th)

Third-overall pick Scoot Henderson hasn’t gotten off to the best start. Especially as he deals with injuries and struggles to adjust to the NBA pace. He currently has the worst efficiency of any rookie who has played at least 100 minutes this season. This is a symptom of poor shot selection and playing too fast. However, he’s looked better as of late and is undeniably one of the more talented players in this class. The Portland Trail Blazers trust him and will continue to give him opportunities as they embrace their rebuild. He could push himself into the NBA ROTY race in the coming months if he can find his rhythm.

The Next Best

Honourable mentions to defensive specialists Toumani Camara and Anthony Black. Also, bench scorers Craig Porter Jr., Brandin Podziemski, and Sasha Vezenkov warrant All-Rookie Team consideration. Fourth-overall pick Amen Thompson is also worth watching once he returns from injury.

The Last Word on the NBA ROTY Ladder

This has been one of the better rookie classes in recent memory. The collective defensive talent among this group is astounding for such young players, and the depth is very impressive. The two unicorns have been unbelievable and should continue to make this a classic NBA ROTY race. In ten years, I expect to see many of these players vying for All-Star and All-NBA selections, while Holmgren and Wembanyama could compete for MVPs.


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