The Biggest Strength, Weakness Of Each Top-5 Rookie (So Far)November 19, 2022
Four of the top-five selections from this summer’s Draft are quickly approaching the midterm portion of their first NBA semester (get well soon, Chet Holmgren). Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr., Keegan Murray, and Jaden Ivey have all played at least 350 minutes. They’re all logging 29+ minutes a night, which makes it easy to compile initial returns on their games. Given the infantile nature of their presumptive careers, any hardline stances would be rash and faulty.
That, however, does not mean we can’t assess what we’ve seen from this quartet through one month and identify some strengths and areas of improvement for each of them. So, let’s do exactly that, praising one aspect of their skill-set and noting another that presents room for growth.
Biggest strength: An advanced driving game
Though on the mend with a sprained ankle the past week and a half, Banchero’s roared out to a prolific start. The 20-year-old is averaging 23.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists on 55.6 percent true shooting. He’s been remarkably consistent, scoring at least 20 points in all but two of his 11 games. He doesn’t even yet know an NBA reality where he scores fewer than 15. He leads all rookies in Estimated Plus-Minus at plus-2.1 (39th overall), stationed right above All-Star guards Kyrie Irving and Dejounte Murray. Assuming he returns soon from his injury, an All-Star label next to his own name this year isn’t too far-fetched. He’s that good already.
Offensive superstardom awaits him. The primary reason for such a future stems from an adept slashing game. He’s a powerful 6’10, 250-pound tank downhill, merging strength, explosion, footwork, and a silky handle. His technical refinement, in conjunction with a special athletic profile, belies his first-year status.
According to NBA.com, he’s logging 13.3 drives per game and generating points on 69.2 percent of them, two marks that parallel Giannis Antentokoumpo (14.5, 73.8 percent), the gold standard for high-volume, big man slashers. The fluidity with which he moves and dribbles at his size, while also gracefully mashing through defenders when necessary, is a marvel to watch.
Only 44 percent of his makes at the rim are assisted (88th percentile among forwards), per Cleaning The Glass. He’s shooting 68 percent there (55th percentile). Overwhelmingly, he’s converting or drawing fouls (.472 free-throw rate). Banchero’s jumper has largely escaped him to open his career (26 percent from deep, 40 percent from midrange), but he’s still playing like a tremendous offensive talent because he’s already a dynamo attacking downhill. His array of physical gifts and advanced perimeter skills are the reason why.
Biggest area of improvement: Off-ball awareness
For all of his offensive exploits, Banchero’s defense is often a detriment. He’s a good rebounder and, when he analyzes rotations properly, an impactful secondary rim protector. That’s the extent of his reliably beneficial contributions. His awareness lags behind. He labors through screens, an understandable issue at his stature. More pressing, though, is his general lack of attentiveness. He loses cutters, fails to properly rotate on the weakside in help-the-helper scenarios, and just generally seems to not recognize or adhere to his responsibilities off the ball.
Apathy may not be the correct framing for his gaffes. But he’s certainly not up to speed on the complexities of his duties, nor does he position himself well, whether it’s standing upright or being caught in ineffectual purgatory. There are various plays most nights where the opposition creates an advantage and he played a prominent part in it.
Among motor, recognition, and technique, much must be cleaned up for Banchero to not be a liability in space off the ball defensively. The rebounding and rim protection are valuable traits, but they cannot override everything else at the moment. He’s quickly established himself as a borderline star, and defensive progression would help him further climb that hierarchy.
Jabari Smith Jr.
Biggest strength: Perimeter mobility
Prior to the Draft, when Smith was seemingly in the mix to go No. 1, his allure centered on this juiced-up 3-and-D forward whose versatile floor-spacing and comfort on the perimeter defensively would make him a distinct, indispensable cog for high-level winning.
The offense hasn’t burst onto the scene. The Houston Rockets aren’t utilizing him ideally on either end of the floor. They’re playing him in drop coverage against ball-screens a good bit, which seems like a poor allocation of his services. Nonetheless, he’s showcased flashes of rangy perimeter chops. He needs to build core strength to counter brawny wings and his screen navigation is clunky, due to some inflexibility.
But man, he can glide laterally. When he unfurls his 7’2 wingspan and crouches low, he covers some serious ground to fluster opponents. It’s awesome stuff so early in his NBA tenure, and an obvious point of optimism upon which to build.
Biggest area of improvement: Attacking closeouts
Smith is only shooting 30.4 percent beyond the arc on more than five attempts per game, an inauspicious start for someone billed as such a tremendous long-range gunner. Some of that isn’t his fault. The Rockets don’t really incorporate his movement shooting into their offensive sets. Far too commonly, he’s stashed in the corner and/or relied upon as a floor-spacer for Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Alperen Sengun. Occasionally, that’s fine. Houston desperately yearned for spacing last season and Smith can help there. It’s the norm, though. Eventually, he will knock down more of these looks — his elevated release point is already a weapon, and hopefully, he’ll be better accommodated for his talents to shine.
What does look like more than merely an inauspicious start is his 32.8 percent clip inside the arc. That’s concerning for any player, let alone a 6’10 forward. Smith struggles to thrive off the catch when defenses close out aggressively. He doesn’t operate with much haste, force, or wiggle. Physicality rattles him. While he’s not gained traction from deep yet, defenses much prefer the alternative than to let him bomb away.
According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting 52 percent at the rim (2nd percentile among bigs) and 24 percent from midrange (12th percentile). He looks overmatched around the basket and so many of his drives conclude with difficult fadeaways or pull-up jumpers. Those are wins for the defense.
Smith will rediscover his outside stroke. He’s been a very good shooter for a long time. But if he continues to be erratic inside the arc, shrewd defenders and schemes will skirt him off the line and exploit his shortcomings. It’s early, of course, and he doesn’t turn 20 until next May. Navigating options inside the arc can be one of the more complex learning curves for young shooters. That’s certainly the case for Smith at the moment.
Biggest strength: Off-ball versatility
The 8-6 Sacramento Kings are cruising. They’ve won seven of nine and are the league’s second-ranked offense. They’re tied for seventh in the West and a game out of second. Beyond De’Aaron Fox’s ascension, Sacramento’s lethal offense is built upon dynamism. Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk, and Keegan Murray are all malleable off-ball scorers. They’re equipped to flourish around Fox’s driving and Domantas Sabonis’ handoffs, screening, and interior presence. That’s exactly what they’re doing.
Murray’s slid into that role seamlessly. He’s a highly diverse off-ball scorer, leaving his imprint via cuts, relocation triples, movement threes, curling around handoffs, deftly tossing in floaters, and occasionally punishing mismatches. He’s averaging 12 points on 57.2 percent true shooting (.451/.375/.778 split). His early season scoring signature is littered with a plethora of different buckets playing off of Fox and Sabonis.
In trading for Sabonis last winter, Sacramento forged a clear vision for its future. The additions of Huerter, Monk, and Murray helped solidify that vision and amplify its success. Murray is a snug fit in this offense that’s proving to be a symbiotic partnership.
Biggest area of improvement: Defending in space
Just as Murray follows the lead of his teammates offensively with versatile scoring, he is similarly doing the same defensively. The frontcourt trio of him, Sabonis, and Harrison Barnes is quite slow laterally. The offseason worries about the defensive personnel of the roster have come to fruition. The Kings are 26th in defensive rating. They don’t have adequate rim protection, nor do they hoard an army of wing stoppers to mitigate their interior limitations.
Murray is among those unqualified to provide stout on-ball protection. He’s rather sluggish in space and cannot promptly flip his hips in response to changes of direction. Whether it’s on or off the ball, tracking movement from his assignments is a lofty task; dribble handoffs are a nemesis. His steps are choppy and he fails to curtail driving angles as a result.
Some of his interior rotations have been precise and impactful. He’ll read passing lanes well to muck up actions as well. Playing the three alongside Barnes and Sabonis doesn’t provide him any leeway. But becoming less susceptible in space, however he can, should be a priority to help that off-ball offense lead to even more individual and collective profits.
Biggest strength: Finishing craft
Jaden Ivey seems to etch another highlight into his rapidly growing catalog on a nightly basis. He’s absurdly explosive, ingenuitive, and crafty. His downhill escapades will command attention from the audience, regardless of how they end for him. Through 15 games, the former Purdue star is averaging 16.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.3 steals.
The bedrock of his advantage creation is founded on his downhill speed and finishing. Only 35 percent of his buckets at the rim are assisted (67th percentile among combo guards). Forty-four percent of his field goals occur there (92nd percentile), where he’s shooting 62 percent (56th percentile).
Despite the Detroit Pistons’ cramped floor-spacing and dearth of effective ball-handling around him (sans Cade Cunningham), Ivey is an excellent finisher as a rookie. He’s flexible, creative, and will convert with either hand. He adapts on the fly when rim protectors rotate over. He explodes through space. Like an elite pass rusher, he ducks his shoulder, burrows his head, and charges inside. Eliminating the edge against him is exceptionally difficult.
Biggest area of improvement: Midrange game
Try as he might, Ivey cannot live exclusively at the rim. He can, however, call the paint his home. His screen manipulation, East-West handle, pliability, and burst enable him to routinely generate paint touches. When he finds himself probing inside the free-throw line yet outside the restricted area, a wave of discontent seeps into his game.
He’s shooting 29 percent from midrange. Floaters and intermediate pull-ups are a last resort. The floater looks like an uncomfortable push shot; it’s important he’s experimenting right now, even if the outcomes are murky. He’s prone to relinquishing advantages and resetting the possession when stuck in the midrange. Advantages are hard to fashion. Surrendering one can spell doom. The best initiators avoid such pitfalls.
A lot of analysis regarding Ivey seems to land on his long ball. He shot 32.2 percent at Purdue and has drilled 31.9 percent of his triples with the Pistons. More salient for his ceiling as a creator, at least from my perspective, is the midrange development. Much like other trackstar guards before him — ex: John Wall, De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant — defenses will always prioritize stopping the drive ahead of the three. Ivey would have to become such a terrific sniper for that dynamic to shift.
Instead, broadening his pathways to success on these downhill forays, which he can almost always forge, would augment his offensive value. The finishing is stellar, but defenses will take it away at times. Expanding his midrange prowess is a necessary counter.