The NBA Rookie of the Year race has been more of a procession this season, with number 1 draft pick Paolo Banchero seemingly locking up his position as top first-year player before the season even started.
Two months before the season tipped-off, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced Chet Holmgren, who they’d taken with the second pick, would sit out the entire season, and from then Banchero has been a short-price to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaq, LeBron and Luka.
Putting up 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists on his NBA debut - the first time a rookie had recorded a 25-5-5 game in his first appearance since LeBron 20 years ago, and the most points on debut since Allen Iverson’s 30 in 1996 - only cemented Banchero’s position as best in class, and there he’s stood all season.
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Benedict Mathurin had his moments coming off the bench for Indiana, but when all you’re putting up is points, and you’re not even beating Banchero in that category, it’s going to be hard to convince voters to pick you, even before a downturn in form for Mathurin since the NBA All-Star break.
The Magic forward has been a lock all season, with odds of 1.01 and shorter with some books, so there’s nothing to see here, move along, right?
Well, maybe not.
Since the turn of the year, Banchero has faltered. He’s never going to be a great three-point threat, but having dipped under 29%, including a horrible run of one-for-33, is getting to the point of teams standing off him and telling him to take it from deep. That has contributed to shooting 42.5% overall, bad even for a rookie.
As Banchero’s star has waned slightly, Jaylen Williams has emerged as one of OKC’s shining lights to potentially make a mockery of those 1.01 odds.
Since the All-Star break, Williams has averaged 19 points, six rebounds and five assists, and proved a real spark for a Thunder team right in the thick of the fight for Western Conference playoff positions, despite losing Holmgren.
The number 12 pick out of Santa Clara is what every NBA team is desperate for, a rangy wing who can do everything. A point guard when he was younger, Williams grew eight inches from his sophomore to senior year in high school, giving him the skills and size to succeed - shooting 50%, a great passer and slasher who can handle the ball while also impacting the defensive end too. Banchero may be averaging more points, but Williams’ percentages of 52/35/80 all dwarf those of his rival.
If Williams has overtaken Mathurin as at least the second-best rookie this year, Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler may well have pushed the Pacer out of the top three.
The 7-footer is putting up the kind of numbers that Jazz fans have become accustomed to over the years watching Rudy Gobert, with the bonus being he’s nine years younger, earns 10% of the Frenchman’s salary and brought with him four more first-round draft players in that head-scratching trade the Minnesota Timberwolves agreed with Utah.
Kessler is 4th in total blocks this season among all players, and in a three-way fight for second behind Jaren Jackson Jnr on average, sending back 2.4 shots per game. Not quite enough for those of us holding 26.0 tickets on the former Auburn standout leading the league in blocks, but an amazing contribution to one of this season’s fairytale stories, a winning Utah Jazz team.
Having blocked at least five shots 11 times already this season, and with a developing offensive game - shooting a league-best 72% - and season highs of 31 points and 21 rebounds, Kessler is another who has had a hugely impressive first NBA season.
Without seeing Holmgren in the pros yet, you wouldn’t back against Banchero having the best NBA career of this year’s new boys, but this season, he might have hit a bump in the road at just the wrong time.
Having seen various players go odds-on before drifting in MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, 6th Man of the Year and Most Improved Player, could the same happen in rookie of the Year betting?
If Banchero started the season in a class of his own, he certainly needs to end it in a decent fashion or he might not be the banker everyone assumed he was.
Latest NBA Rookie of the Year odds
Odds correct at the time of publishing
RECOMMENDATION: 1pt Jalen Williams to win NBA Rookie of the Year at 26.00