Many seasons, it can be a struggle to find ten rookies worth honoring. 2022-2023 is not one of those years.
- 2023 Awards Part 1: COY, ROY, MIP, 6MOY
- 2023 Awards Part 2: DPOY, EOY, MVP, Clutch Player of the Year
- 2023 NBA All-Defensive Teams
In some ways, it’s far easier to choose All-Rookie teams than All-Defensive, since the pool is limited, but there are always one or two agonizing decisions. This year, like last year, there are several strong candidates that didn’t even make the second team. Please feel free to yell at me about how I clearly don’t watch basketball in the comments!
*Stats as of 3/30/2023*
Paolo Banchero, Magic: 19.9 p | 6.8 r | 3.7 a | 0.9 s | 0.5 b | 43/29/74 percent (FG/3P/FT percent)
Jalen Williams, Thunder: 14.1 | 4.5 | 3.3 | 1.4 | 0.5 | 52/36/81 percent
Walker Kessler, Jazz: 9.1 | 8.4 | 0.9 | 0.4 | 2.4 | 72/—/52 percent
Jaden Ivey, Pistons: 15.8 | 3.9 | 5.0 | 0.8 | 0.3 | 41/34/74 percent
Bennedict Mathurin: 16.6 | 4.0 | 1.4 | 0.6 | 0.1 43/32/83 percent
Paolo, Jalen, and Kessler might be unanimous locks. Paolo and Jalen will receive many, many more words in my forthcoming Rookie of the Year pick, so I’ll keep this short.
Paolo, at his peak, looks like Chris Webber. Nobody can stop him from getting to the rim, and he is a keen and enthusiastic passer. His efficiency has fallen off a cliff after his three-point shot abandoned him, but his ability to manufacture points at the free throw line is unprecedented for someone his age.
Jalen Williams looks like a six-year vet: silky, clever, and well-rounded. Since January 1st, he’s averaging 16/5/4 with two steals on 53/39/83 percent shooting splits. That’s an outrageous combination of raw production and efficiency for anyone, much less a rookie, and he’s doing it all for an Oklahoma City team that looks primed to crash the play-in tournament (let’s hope!).
Kessler is a walking “YEET!” who has been one of the best defenders in basketball since he entered the starting lineup in early January. He has a freaky sense of timing on his blocks, never jumping too early (possibly committing a foul) or too late (giving up rebounding position). Despite being a rookie, Kessler intrinsically knows which players are capable of making a last-second pass and which aren’t. When he senses someone with tunnel vision, he can apparate his 7’1”, 250-lb meatbag across space in ways that don’t make sense:
Offensively, Kessler boasts soft hands and firm finishes: he leads the league in FG% by a monstrous amount. He hasn’t had much opportunity to show playmaking or versatility, so that’s something I’ll be tracking closely next year.
After those three, I had to choose two of Jaden Ivey, Bennedict Mathurin, and Keegan Murray, and I don’t feel great about where I landed.
Despite an uneven and weird season for the Detroit Pistons overall, Ivey has constantly improved. His advanced numbers and rim-finishing leave something to be desired, but even with a poor offensive ecosystem around him, Ivey has steadily sharpened his ballhandling and passing. I wrote extensively about Ivey a few weeks ago when I named him my “(Almost) Rookie of the Third Quarter.” One silver lining of Cade Cunningham’s injury early in the year has been the number of on-ball reps that Ivey has received. He’s improving game-by-game, and he makes First Team.
I’ve loved Mathurin since Summer League, but he is essentially only above-average at one thing right now: drawing fouls, at which he is elite — he’s tied with freaking DeMar DeRozan for 12th in the league with 9.6 FTA per 100 possessions! He doesn’t do it by grifting refs, either; he has a Jimmy Butler-esque tendency to go right at a defender’s outside shoulder and initiate contact:
Mathurin’s defense (particularly off-ball) and finishing leave much to be desired, as is typical for first-year players. His passing has disappointed, however. In the play above, he had several easy passes that would have garnered high-value shots for open teammates, but he either didn’t see or ignored them. Hunting shots is a natural instinct for scorers, but Mathurin takes it to an extreme. He has the 56th-highest usage in the league. Of the 55 players with more use, only one has a lower assist rate: Kelly Oubre, Jr. Noted non-passers like Lauri Markkanen and Klay Thompson boast significantly higher assist rates. There has not been much, if any, improvement, throughout the season, either.
That said, Mathurin is still maintaining league-average-ish efficiency (56.4% true shooting) while acting as the #1 option most of the time he’s on the floor. Some of the Indiana second units he’s been asked to anchor give him very little help, and he’s hounded by strong defenders. His relentlessness has ancillary benefits that are hard to quantify.
Unlike Benn, who is asked to be a primary scorer on a team without much help for him, Keegan Murray has excelled in a lesser role.
Murray isn’t much of a passer, either, but he’s also not a ball-dominant guard, so expectations are lower. His defense has been decent for a rookie, but Murray has shined as an off-ball mover around the Domantas Sabonis/De’Aaron Fox offensive hub. Murray set the record for most threes in a rookie season, and we still have several games left to go. But he’s far more than a stand-still shooter. After a bit of coaching, Murray has developed beautiful cutting and give-and-go chemistry with Sabonis:
Murray is part of one of the greatest offenses in league history, and he is both a cause and a beneficiary of all the talent around him. He rarely has an elite defender assigned to him, and he has loads of spacing and plus passers around him.
It’s difficult comparing players doing different things. Given the extra burden put on Mathurin, he gets the slightest of nods, but I’d have no quibbles if voters reward Murray for his role excellency.
Keegan Murray, Kings 11.9 | 4.6 |1.2 | 0.8 | 0.5 | 45/41/76 percent
Jeremy Sochan, Spurs 11.0 | 5.3 | 2.5 | 0.8 | 0.4 | 45/25/70 percent
Jalen Duren, Pistons 8.9 | 8.7 | 1.2 | 0.6 | 0.9 | 64/—/61 percent
Jabari Smith Jr., Rockets 12.6 | 7.2 | 1.3 | 0.6 | 0.9 | 41/31/78 percent
Andrew Nembhard, Pacers 9.1 | 2.6 | 4.3 | 0.9 | 0.2 | 44/35/80 percent
We just talked about Murray, and he’s a lock for (at worst) Second Team.
Sochan has improved more in-season than any rookie I can remember. He’s gone from looking overwhelmed in his few months to making high-level reads and impacting the game on both ends. Sochan’s making plays off the dribble, smothering opponents on defense, and passing teammates open:
Of course, he’s still airballing jumpers with alarming regularity and making the occasional head-scratching decision. But Sochan’s responsibility grows by the day, and it’s a testament to his basketball IQ that he’s been able to adapt so quickly. Shades of Draymond Green color his game. He has a stronger case for First Team than many are giving him credit for, although that’s partly thanks to playing on a Spurs team that’s encouraging him to explore and push past his boundaries, freedom not always granted to other rookies.
Jalen Duren is exactly what the Pistons expected: an athletic pick-and-roll finisher and a voracious rebounder with a way to go on defense. The physical tools are undeniable: the youngest player in the NBA already has one of the best bodies in the league. His offensive game has been predicated on put-backs and rim-runs to this point, but he’s shown flashes of having more in him, particularly slinging the rock. This is a nice big-big pass on an impressively quick decision:
The return of Cade Cunningham could unlock more of Jalen’s offensive game, too. He doesn’t have many teammates today capable of setting him up well.
Duren’s still overthinking the defensive side, and you can see his gears turning in real time as he tries to diagnose the play. However, he has some feel as a shot-blocker and moves his feet decently on the perimeter. Eventually, I think he’ll be a good-to-great defender.
Nembhard’s numbers have never jumped off the page, but like Flex Tape, you can slap him on any hole in the roster, and he’ll plug the leak. He can run the offense (a 2.7 assist:turnover ratio), play off-ball, and guard any position 1-4 with surprising credibility: his most defensive common matchups are Jayson Tatum and Jrue Holiday, two very different animals. Notoriously youth-averse Rick Carlisle has even had Nembhard starting for most of the year. Nembhard doesn’t necessarily have the ceiling of some of the other names on this list, but he’s been a steady contributor for a Pacers team that’s been competitive for most of the year.
Jabari Smith Jr. had as rough a start as he could have feared. But even amidst the chaos and every-man-for-himself-ism that permeates most Rockets games, he slowly found his footing. In 16 March games, Smith has shot 47% from the field and 37% from deep on respectable volume, and while the team’s defense is a black hole anti-mattering all cohesive play, he’s shown glimpses of being the versatile lockdown artist Houston envisioned when they drafted him with the third pick. Many people may pick Smith’s teammate, Tari Eason, here, but Smith, as a starter, has had to work against tougher competition and in a system that has done him no favors.
Eason and Shaedon Sharpe are the two toughest cuts. Eason, my toughest omission, is a bundle of muscle and energy, leaping around the court like a jacked kangaroo. He collects blocks and steals like Pokemon cards. Here he is swatting a hook shot:
Also like the kangaroos I know, however, Eason doesn’t have much handle or passing ability right now. Luckily, ballhandling is one of the easiest things to improve in the offseason. I expect Eason to make regular appearances on my All-Poetry team in the near future.
A funny thing in older Marvel comics: even though he doesn’t possess magic or wings, the Incredible Hulk is often considered capable of flight because he can jump right into outer space. Shaedon Sharpe might be related:
Sharpe has the outlines of a twenty-point scorer, possessing a sweet jumper and the athleticism to get into the paint. He’s rarely asked to do more than dunk or drop artillery strikes from distance, but he hasn’t shown much playmaking ability, either (although, with Damian Lillard shut down, he did post a seven-assist game! So it could be more about opportunity than ability).
Sharpe’s rebounding comes and goes, and he has no idea where to be on defense (which, to be fair, is true of his more veteran teammates, too). There’s a risk Sharpe ends up being an empty-stats player, but having skipped his college year, he’s still acclimating to high-level basketball. There’s plenty of time for him to polish rough edges, and not even Sharpe could jump and touch his ceiling.
Honorable Mentions: Tari Eason, Shaedon Sharpe, AJ Griffin, Malaki Branham, Mark Williams, Jaden Hardy
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