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NBA Rookie Rankings: Victor Wembanyama shows off his handle, Pelicans sharpshooter dismantles Mavericks

We’ve seen a handful of rookies have significant impacts on their respective teams as we hit the midway mark of the 2023-24 NBA season. Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren are the obvious first two names that come to mind. But one guy who should also be top of mind is Mavericks rookie Dereck Lively II. I wrote earlier this week about how Lively is quickly becoming one of the Mavericks most important players, so much so that when he’s on the bench Dallas’ defense falls completely flat. 

That might not be saying much given the fact that the Mavs rank toward the bottom of the league in that category, but when Lively’s on the floor Dallas operates like a near top-10 defense. That’s a stark difference, and while he’s still raw in his skillset, primarily limiting fouls and staying in front of faster guys when he’s switched onto them, he’s playing at a level that makes the Mavericks need him on a nightly basis.

You could argue that the Mavericks’s defensive capabilities shouldn’t rest on a 19-year-old rookie, but that’s the case right now. When you watch him on the court he’s always communicating on defense, anchoring down in the middle and hunting rebounds on both ends of the floor. He won’t get as much attention as others in his class because his counting stats are limited most nights, but his impact transcends how many points he’s scoring every night. 

Now let’s move on to this week’s 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 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:

The current stretch Victor Wembanyama is going through is kind of absurd. If you haven’t been watching, you should really tune in to a game. Not because the Spurs are winning, because those are very few and far between, but because of Wembanyama’s complete control of a game. In the last 10 games he’s averaging 24.1 points on 54.1% shooting from the floor. That efficiency is a stark improvement from how he started the season, which was to be expected but doesn’t make it any less impressive.

It’s been really cool to watch Wemby slowly come to the realization that he’s basically unguardable, and you see that as he gets more creative with the ball. He’s catching a lot of lobs, sure, but his confidence is growing in his ability to put the ball on the deck and show his handle off a bit. Like he did here against the Hawks:

It’s mesmerizing to watch someone of his size have such control of the ball, because we’ve truly never seen anyone with his frame do this stuff. And even in a traditional post-up, he covers so much space that when someone does do a good job of fronting him, he takes one ginormous step and he’s already laying the ball into the rim.

It’s been a rough couple weeks for the Grizzlies. Ja Morant needs shoulder surgery and was ruled out for the remainder of the season, Marcus Smart is expected to be sidelined for six weeks with a finger injury and Desmond Bane is also now out for six weeks with an ankle sprain. It’s only January and Memphis may consider waving the while flag on the season. With all those injuries that means it opens up opportunity for younger players to get a shot to show what they’ve got. 

That’s where GG Jackson comes in. Jackson’s the youngest player in the NBA at 19 years and 31 days old, and through Dec. 17 he was averaging a total of 4.6 minutes over four games. Until Jan. 11 he was spending more time in the G League, where he was averaging 19.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and two assists. Then he got his first major minutes on Jan. 12 against the Knicks, where Jackson showed out with 20 points, six rebounds, two blocks and an assist. The very next day he outdid himself with 23 points, six boards, two assists and two blocks to help the incredibly shorthanded Grizzlies beat a free-falling Warriors team.

Jackson did most of his damage 3-point territory, where he went 5 of 8 from deep, and given his dominant performances this week — and Memphis lengthy injury list — we should all get used to seeing Jackson more often this season.

Jaime Jaquez missed two games recently, but despite that he still managed to put together a solid week worthy of making this list. You could also tell in the Heat’s loss to the Raptors on Wednesday that they missed Jaquez’s creation and scoring. Jaquez has really stepped up in Jimmy Butler’s absence, and the reason he’s been such a valuable asset for the Heat is that he can fit into whatever mold you need him to. He’s not just a spot-up shooter, or a guy who moves well without the ball and thrives off well-timed cuts to the basket. He can also create for himself. 

He showed that against the Magic, especially in the second quarter where he scored 12 of his 19 points. With Chuma Okeke guarding him, Jaquez backed him down, spun and got an easy layup. 

On the very next possession Jaquez — on the exact same play — did the same thing to Cole Anthony, who did his best to keep him from scoring. But Jaquez bumped and spun and eventually found himself with another two points. 

The Heat have to hope he won’t miss a ton of time, because he’s proven to be an incredibly valuable piece in this rotation.

Jordan Hawkins single-handily beat the Mavericks this week. OK maybe not by himself, the six other Pelicans players who scored in double digits certainly helped, but the rookie did rack up 34 points, a season high for him on a ridiculous 6 of 12 from 3-point range. Dallas didn’t have an answer for Hawkins all night, and Mavs head coach Jason Kidd said as much after Hawkins stunning performance.

“He was good — he’s been good,” Kidd said. “He shoots the ball. He got going there in the third [quarter]. We lost him a couple times. When you’re comfortable, you’re going to make shots and he was comfortable tonight.”

That’s understating what Hawkins did honestly, because he was cooking the Mavericks even when they did get a hand in his face. 

Duop Reath has become the starting center in Deandre Ayton’s absence, and his floor spacing has been great for the Blazers, especially for Scoot Henderson who will benefit greatly from Reath’s ability to stretch the floor out to the 3-point line. It’s completely different from what Ayton offers, and Reath has really thrived with the bigger opportunity. He can fill it up from outside, but he can also get down in the post and go to work, both of which he did against the Suns, a game where he had 17 points on 7-of-15 shooting from the floor. He followed that up with another 17-point performance this week against the Nets, where he knocked down 3s, fought for putback layups and dunks and moved incredibly well without the ball to make himself open for scoring opportunities.

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