As the season approaches its halfway mark, a handful of first-year talents have begun to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Here’s our ranking of the top five Rookie of the Year candidates.

5. Jabari Smith
Previous ranking: NR

Smith is starting to make his mark with the Houston Rockets. In December, he ranked fourth on the team in scoring with 12.7 points per game, trailing only the backcourt of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter and dynamic center Alperen Sengun. Smith’s biggest improvement was his shooting from the field, hitting 43.4% compared to November’s 37.4%.

The 19-year-old put up a well-rounded effort against the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 23, recording a career-high 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the field, including 3-of-8 from three. Smith also pulled down 10 rebounds and compiled a career-high three assists in the contest. With the forward playing almost 30 minutes per game, he can develop into the wing Houston needs to become competitive again.

4. Keegan Murray
Previous ranking: NR

Rocky Widner / National Basketball Association / Getty
Playing for the best squad on this list, Murray is making winning contributions for a Sacramento Kings team trying to break the league’s longest playoff drought. Sacramento’s prized rookie saw an uptick to 12.7 points per game over the month, ranking sixth on a team in the top 10 in offensive rating.

Murray’s biggest strength is his ability to stretch the floor. The 22-year-old was the Kings’ best marksman over the last four weeks, draining almost three shots from deep per game on 46.4% shooting. He made a career-high six treys in two contests in December. Sacramento needed Murray’s help as Kevin Huerter cooled down from three. However, Huerter still hit a respectable 37.5% from beyond the arc in the month.

3. Jaden Ivey
Previous ranking: 3

The Detroit Pistons are counting on Ivey to make a sizable rookie step by taking on more shot-calling duties for the rebuilding franchise with Cade Cunningham out. Cunningham has been sidelined since Nov. 9, but the Pistons confirmed on Dec. 13 that he wouldn’t play again this season. Ivey’s produced a couple of solid overall performances since the franchise announced Cunningham’s future. He recorded a 30-point night on 10-of-14 shooting in a Dec. 20 loss to the Utah Jazz, complemented by five assists and four rebounds.

One of Ivey’s biggest concerns is a natural issue for first-year ball-handlers: consistency. The athletic rookie can imprint himself all over the game one night but then struggle mightily to find his shot and teammates the next. Fortunately for the former Purdue standout, Detroit presents plenty of leeway to iron that out.

2. Bennedict Mathurin
Previous ranking: 1

Andy Lyons / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Mathurin isn’t only vying for Rookie of the Year. He might just force his way into Sixth Man talks, too. The Arizona product has been excellent in his first season with the Indiana Pacers. He’s supplied the club with a crucial punch off the bench that has maintained it among the best teams in a crowded East playoff picture when a play-in berth might have been considered a success.

On the season, Mathurin is averaging 17.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.5 assists per game, with a 33.7% clip from deep. However, he’s slowed down since being atop our last rookie rankings on Dec. 5, shooting 22.6% on threes while scoring 15.2 points per contest. That amount of regression is probably expected after his scorching first month. If the 20-year-old Montreal native snaps out of his funk soon, the Rookie of the Year race could come down to the wire.

1. Paolo Banchero
Previous ranking: 2

After a stint in second, Banchero has returned to the top of the rankings. Although his scoring average slightly dipped in December, the Magic forward improved from deep. The top selection in June’s draft shot 34% on 4.1 three-point attempts per game in the month, averaging the second most on the team. However, Banchero’s shooting from the field remains an area of improvement, dropping to 40.7% in December – fourth lowest in Orlando.

Even with the modest decline, Banchero’s consistency in putting the ball in the basket is commendable for a rookie. The 20-year-old has recorded at least 20 points in 10 of the Magic’s last 15 contests, including 31 against a stout Celtics defense on Dec. 18.

Honorable Mentions: Jalen Williams (Oklahoma City Thunder), Jalen Duren (Detroit Pistons), Jeremy Sochan (San Antonio Spurs)

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