Another week of NBA Rookie Rankings, and of course there's another facet about this class that keeps surprising me. I've sang the praises of many of these first-year players on multiple occasions, but what I didn't expect to see happen was just how impactful and important some of these guys would be on playoff-contending teams. Chet Holmgren's impact certainly tops this list, but guys like Jaime Jaquez Jr., Dereck Lively II and Jordan Hawkins aren't all just getting tons of playing time, they've become key pieces to their teams.
The Mavericks defense suffers when Lively is on the bench, allowing 6.8 points more when he sits compared to when he's on the court. Hawkins' 13.5 points per game this season ranks ninth in the league amongst bench players. Jaquez's efficiency on non-corner 3s ranks in the 87th percentile, giving the Heat a necessary 3-point threat in the second unit.
It's just impressive to see many of these guys step in and contribute on winning teams immediately. It shows that the league is changing as rookies are entering the league more prepared to make an impact on contending teams right away.
Now, let's move on the rookies who stood out the most this week. 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 what the player has done over the past week. With that straightened out, here is a look at the top five performers from the NBA's freshman class:
Wembanyama got high praise from two future Hall of Famers this week. First Nikola Jokic had this to say about the No. 1 overall pick:
"I think he's 19 years old, he's not getting tired or getting scared," Jokic told reporters. "He's playing hard and he wants to be good. Like I said, I think he's playing hard, and he doesn't take it for granted. He's making mistakes, which is normal. I think the media around him doesn't help, but he's going to get used to it because the guy is 19 years old. He's going to change the game, 100%. He's already on that path, so for all of the guys just enjoy and watch the show and let the guy change the game."
Wembanyama had 22 points and 11 rebounds against Jokic and the Nuggets, while also racking up six steals and four blocks. Two of those steals came off of deterring passes made by Jokic, like this easy read in transition:
And this heads up play to stop a potentially easy bucket by Peyton Watson:
There was also this great defensive possession where Wembanyama used his ridiculous length to deny an entry pass to Jokic under the basket, which resulted in an assist from the rookie on the other end:
Jokic talked about Wembanyama changing the game in future tense, but it's already happening and he showed it in that game. His length alters opponents from making simple passes out to the perimeter or into the post. You have to be really focused and smart about how you move the basketball with him on the floor, something that Stephen Curry eluded to when talking about Wembanyama's game after they faced off this week. "You just can't do the same thing you normally do," Curry said. "...It still catches you by surprise, the things that he does just because of his stature out there...You just have to be very mindful of where he is because if you just try to go through him or over top of him it's going to lead to nothing."
Holmgren had tough assignments in both games this week, having to matchup against Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert, providing a great test for the rookie. Against Embiid and the Sixers, it was like watching two great centers dueling on offense as Holmgren and Embiid both got the best of each other at times. Holmgren finished that game with 33 points on 61.9% from the field and 45.5% from deep, with six rebounds, two assists and three blocks. His efficiency and versatility were on full display as he spread the floor out to 3-point line, forcing Embiid to work a bit more defensively.
But it was on the other end of the floor that showed where Holmgren still has room for improvement. Embiid certainly asserted his dominance and obvious strength advantage against Holmgren, getting to his spots with ease and having no issue getting to the free throw line. In the second half Holmgren was moved off of guarding Embiid, and Jaylin Williams became the primary defender on the reigning MVP. That says more about Embiid's otherworldly talent than it is a knock on Holmgren's defensive capabilities, because no one is expecting Holmgren to lockdown an All-NBA talent in his first season. He had solid defensive possessions against Embiid, and other times you could see that he simply wasn't strong enough to keep Embiid from knocking him off balance. But those are things that as he continues to develop and gets stronger that he'll improve over time.
Against the Timberwolves, Holmgren looked more uncomfortable on offense, as Rudy Gobert did an excellent job of getting into Holmgren's space and forcing him to take tough shots. It resulted in an inefficient night for the rookie where he shot just 6 of 20 from the floor for 16 points. Even when he managed to create some space, because he was out of rhythm most of the night his shots weren't falling. Again, another learning experience for Holmgren, who is still having one of the best seasons in his class.
There's something about Miller's game that feels so effortless. He has a penchant for taking -- and making -- tough shots, and he's more than comfortable with it, too. It doesn't ever feel like he's rushing through anything, and even when he's met with multiple defenders or a tough contested shot he just nails it. Just look at this layup in transition where, despite the hard foul from Joe Ingles, the rookie manages to finish through contact:
He had another tough finish in the fourth quarter over two of Orlando's best defenders. But that didn't matter, Miller just drove into the paint, used his size advantage and finished with ease:
So much of how Miller plays on offense is reminiscent of Paul George, just smooth, unbothered and efficient. He can play with or without the ball in his hands, is a threat from 3-point range and doesn't need a ton of space to get his shot up. With LaMelo Ball expected to miss an extended amount of time due to a sprained ankle, that creates more opportunity for Miller, who put up 18 points, three rebounds, two assists and a steal in Ball's absence against the Knicks. We've primarily seen him play off-ball with the Hornets, which he's thrived in alongside Ball in catch-and-shoot situations, but with the All-Star guard out it should create ample opportunity for Miller to show his skills with the ball in his hands.
Jaquez has been amongst the most efficient rookies this season, shooting 52.2% from the field. That ranks him behind only Holmgren in that category (min. 400 minutes played) and Jaquez is doing that while coming off the bench in most of his games. That efficiency was on display this week against the Bucks and Nets, and he also showed off his court vision in the process, recording a season-high six assists in a loss to Milwaukee. While Miami lost that game as they were without Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro, Jaquez did his best to make an impact with the second unit and helped make it a close game at the end. We've seen him mold into any role the Heat need this season, whether that's a sharpshooter off the bench, filling in the starting lineup and setting other guys up or just making the right plays in crunch time and knowing where he needs to be.
Hawkins can just flat out shoot the ball. His 53 3-pointers so far this season rank 11th in the league, making him one of the best long-range shooters to start the season. His form is so smooth and it doesn't take him long to let it fly. In a loss to the Jazz this week, in which he racked up 25 points, he knocked down 5 of 12 shots from deep, and it wasn't like Utah was leaving him wide open. Some of these were with a hand in his face, or a defender closing late to try and alter his shot, but it didn't matter. And Hawkins moves so well without the ball in his hands that it makes it difficult to stay attached to him. The Pelicans do a good job of freeing him up with off-ball screens to give him enough time to get off a 3-pointer, like this one against the Jazz:
Here's another example where Hawkins does a great job of making his defender think he was out of the play, then cutting back to come around a screen and knock down a triple:
He's one of the best pure 3-point shooting rookies in recent memory, and he's given New Orleans a necessary weapon off the bench or in the starting lineup when needed.