NBA midseason awards: Paolo Banchero Rookie of the Year

We’ve reached the midpoint of a wild, unpredictable NBA season with many more questions — How good are the Bucks? The Nets? Can Golden State flip the switch? — than answers. The midpoint also means we know which players have put themselves in position for NBA postseason awards. All week long, we will make our picks for some of the NBA’s top awards at this point in the season. Today:

NBA Rookie of the Year: Paolo Banchero

2. Bennedict Mathurin
3. Walker Kessler

This is Paolo Banchero’s award to lose. Not that he is running away and hiding with it — Mathurin has been too good to let that happen — but from the moment he stepped on a Summer League court in Las Vegas, it has been clear Banchero is not only the best player in this draft class but also the one most ready to step in and contribute Day 1.

Orlando gave Banchero the keys to the offense, and he has responded with 21.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. He’s still working to up his efficiency, knocking down more 3s (31.3% from deep) would help, but you can see his feel for the game and what he needs to grow every night. He’s got three 30+ point games to show for it.

Mathurin is playing meaningful minutes off the bench for the Pacers, averaging 17.1 points a night. He’s helped spark a couple of wins for Indiana and has worked his way into the fringes of a wide-open Sixth Man of the Year race (more on that later this week).

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After the top two, there is a healthy gap to a group of six players who can make the case they should be third: Walker Kessler, Jaden Ivey, Keegan Murray, Jabari Smith, Jalen Duren and Jalen Williams. Any of them could end up in the top three at the end of the season (which will make All-Rookie Team voting interesting).

I went with Kessler because he is impacting winning in Utah, particularly on the defensive end — he has more blocked shots this season than Rudy Gobert. He has been a surprising force on that end. That said, he’s not much of a contributor on the offensive end — averaging 6.9 points and 6.7 rebounds a game — especially compared to Ivey (15 PPG) or Murray (11.7).

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