I have to applaud the rookies of the 2022 NBA Draft because, by this time on the NBA's calendar, we typically see first-year players fall off as the regular season comes to a close. We're also typically not seeing rookies still steal the show on nights when some of the league's biggest stars are playing. But in a single night this week, we got Jalen Williams knocking down a game-winner to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder on pace to make the play-in round in the West. We also got Keegan Murray breaking the all-time rookie 3-point record, in the same game that earned the Sacramento Kings a playoff berth for the first time in 16 years.
Elsewhere, we're seeing rookies earning their first 30-point performance and ruining opposing teams' chances of making the playoffs, looking at you Mark Williams and the Charlotte Hornets. Part of it is due to the play-in round creating more meaningful basketball towards the end of the season, but it's also due to the 2022 draft class being stacked with talent. As a result, we're seeing standout rookie performances that actually matter in these late-season games, which is a huge win for the NBA.
Now it's time to break down this week's Rookie Rankings. Keep in mind that these rankings will reflect a rookie's performance on a week-to-week basis only, not the collective season. These aren't Rookie of the Year standings, but rather a reflection on the player's performance over the past week.
Williams finished off his week by hitting this game-winning shot to save what could've been a disastrous loss for the Thunder Wednesday night against the Pistons:
JALEN WILLIAMS WINS IT FOR THE THUNDER. ROTY HIM.@okcthunder | #ThunderUp pic.twitter.com/dvNEEVTYtE— Bally Sports Oklahoma (@BallySportsOK) March 30, 2023
The second-chance tip-in is a prime example of why Williams has -- rightfully so -- garnered so much attention since the flip of the new year. He does so many little things right, like crashing the boards to give OKC another shot at winning the game after a missed midrange jumper from Josh Giddey. Oh, and Williams finished that game with 27 points, eight rebounds and six assists on a night where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was sidelined. He's soared past the threshold of quality starter into a player who has star qualities, and Wednesday night's game-winner was just the latest example of that.
Williams' ascension over the last few months has been one of the main reasons why the Thunder find themselves currently in the thick of securing one of the Western Conference play-in spots. Though they currently hold the 10th spot in the West, just a couple of weeks ago the Thunder were as high as No. 7 with a real chance at nabbing the No. 6 spot. That may be out of reach now, but OKC will be a difficult team to beat in the play-in round, and Williams is partly why.
In a variety of ways, the Sacramento Kings are proving all the naysayers wrong. For starters, the team broke the longest playoff drought across the four major sporting leagues in North America with a win against the Portland Trail Blazers Wednesday night. That happened, in part, because of the trade the Kings pulled off at last season's deadline that dealt Tyrese Haliburton to the Indiana Pacers for Domantas Sabonis. At the time, Sacramento was widely criticized for making the deal, as Haliburton was a rising young star who had shown great promise in Sacramento. However, the deal seems to be working out well for both sides, as Haliburton was named an All-Star for the first time this season, while Sabonis earned his third All-Star honor while co-leading the Kings to a playoff berth.
The third part of this "Kings proving everyone wrong" crusade deals with Murray, who in the midst of the Kings earning a playoff spot Wednesday night, broke the rookie 3-point record. Murray connected on his 188th 3-pointer, officially passing the previous mark of 187 set by Donovan Mitchell in 2018.
Keegan Murray breaks the rookie record for threes (188) 🙌 pic.twitter.com/I8JVTLRkqQ— NBA TV (@NBATV) March 30, 2023
Though the Kings weren't exactly killed for taking Murray fourth overall in the 2022 NBA Draft, the selection did receive mixed reviews as Jaden Ivey and Shaedon Sharpe were viewed as the players with the most upside. But once again, the Kings served everyone up a slice of humble pie as Murray has proved to be every bit worth that No. 4 draft selection. He's been as close to a sure thing from 3-point range as they come, and his size gives the Kings excellent length on the defensive end as well.
Murray doesn't receive nearly the same amount of touches as his rookie counterparts around the league, but he's managed to rack up points efficiently when given the opportunity. He's a fourth -- and sometimes fifth -- option on a highly-potent Kings offense, and still managed to break Mitchell's record, who shot the ball nearly twice as much as Murray in his rookie season. It's rare that rookies find themselves on a winning team like Murray is with the Kings, and he's not only lived up to expectations, but I'd say he's surpassed them easily.
It's not surprising that a day after it was announced that Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard will be held out the remainder of the season that Sharpe had his first 30-point game of the season. With Lillard out, Sharpe's received a much bigger role offensively, and as a result, we've been able to see how versatile of a threat he can be on that end of the floor. He's started in each of Portland's last five games, and during that span he's crossed the 20-point threshold in four out of the five contests. He was also just one point off of having another 30-point game in a loss to the Thunder earlier this week.
While the Trail Blazers likely didn't envision playing Sharpe this much down the stretch of the season, as the team had playoff aspirations, it has given Portland an opportunity to see what it has in their young rookie. With all the talk surrounding what the Blazers should do with Lillard moving forward, Sharpe has shown Portland that in the event that Lillard does get traded, at least the team won't be starting from scratch in its rebuild. A backcourt of Sharpe and Anfernee Simons would be a solid starting point for the Blazers, plus whatever they get back in return for Lillard. Portland may not be ready to have that conversation, but in the event that it happens, the Blazers can take solace in knowing they have two quality young players ready to take over.
Kessler is having a career month in March, averaging 13.3 points, a season-high, while also shooting 75.5% from the field to go along with 10 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game. He has the most blocks in the league since the All-Star break (53), and is fourth in the league in total blocks (170), ahead of Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Jarrett Allen. He unsurprisingly also leads all rookies in blocks this season, with the next closest, Jabari Smith Jr., totaling just 66 blocks.
But it's not just the blocks that have people impressed with Kessler's game. Earlier this week, Walker had his first 30-point performance, which for comparison's sake, took Gobert four seasons to accomplish. While some of the comparisons to Gobert are somewhat unfair given the Frenchman is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, you can't help but applaud the Jazz for basically finding a Gobert replacement for much cheaper and with tons of upside.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
In a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies this week, Banchero showed the full range of his offensive capabilities. He proved too strong for smaller defenders like Desmond Bane, and when he got Jaren Jackson Jr. guarding him on the perimeter, Banchero did this:
I've said it before, and I'll keep harping on it, but it's just absurd that at Banchero's height and size, he's able to handle the ball as well as he does. The fact that he can put a Defensive Player of the Year contender like Jackson on skates as he did is something you're used to seeing from quicker guards, and yet the 6-10, 250-pound rookie makes it look effortless.