Chris Schwegler/Getty Images
As the NBA braces for the unveiling of the New Orleans Pelicans’ No. 1 overall pick, we openly wonder: Can Zion Williamson leapfrog Ja Morant in the Rookie of the Year race?
Are we getting overzealous? Probably. Dating back to 1952-53, no rookie has taken the award with fewer than 50 appearances. The Pelicans are expected to introduce Zion on Wednesday against San Antonio, and he’ll have the chance to appear in just 38 games.
Let’s narrow that. New Orleans has four remaining back-to-backs, and Pelicans executive vice president David Griffin has said Williamson would avoid that kind of workload, at least “initially,” per ESPN’s Andrew Lopez.
So we see what kind of disadvantage Zion will deal with in making up for Morant’s sizable head start when he returns from a torn meniscus.
And Morant’s cushion is sizable, indeed.
The Case for Morant
The upstart Memphis Grizzlies have snuck into the Western Conference playoff picture while competing against the NBA’s 15th-most difficult schedule. Morant has emerged as the catalyst (along with Jaren Jackson Jr.), and at 20-22, the Grizz have surged far past our preseason projections (27th).
Since the rookie missed four games in early December because of a back injury, the Grizzlies have won 14 of their past 21 contests with Morant, including seven of their last eight. Without Morant, Memphis has won but one game in six attempts, losing by an average of 12.2 points.
He’s a difference-maker.
After Memphis moved on from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in 2019, the plan to bottom out and win the rights to another high-lottery pick appears to be on hold because of Morant’s success. The Grizzlies’ 2020 pick is only top-six protected, so it is now likely to convey to Boston this summer.
The 20-year-old leads all rookies in scoring and assists in both per-game (17.9 ppg, 7.0 apg) and per-36 averages (21.5 ppg, 8.4 apg). Only three players in the NBA score and share more than Morant per-36 (LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Trae Young).
That puts Morant in rare territory. In the award’s 67-year history, only three ROYs have beaten those numbers per game (Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson).
The only rookie to ever beat both of those numbers, per-36? Trae Young.
Complex Sports@ComplexSportsJa Morant is too cold
(via @dunk_comp) https://t.co/w5oinP0I5N
He’s been surprisingly efficient for a first-year guard with an effective field-goal percentage of 52.4 percent, a true shooting percentage of 57.2 and a 40.5 three-point percentage on 2.3 attempts per game. He is shooting better from deep than all but two Rookie of the Year winners in their first seasons (Mike Miller and Larry Bird).
Morant shines stat-wise, but it’s the eye test that leaves NBA fans dazzled.
His combination of playmaking wizardry and jaw-dropping leaping ability makes him one of the game’s most fun players. While the Doncics, Kyrie Irvings and James Hardens can dazzle with their elite footwork, deceleration and basketball intelligence, Morant steals ankles and drops bodies.
“When you see that athleticism and combine it with that visionwhat he can see late, earlyit’s impressive,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins told NBC Sports. “You tack on the skill of three-point shooting and the competitiveness and the unselfishness, we’ve got an impressive young man there.”
Morant has plenty on his resume to win this battle with the only player drafted ahead of him last summer, and oddsmakers have him the overwhelming favorite to do so.
It would take a historic half-season from Zion to surpass Morant.
NBA RETWEET@RTNBATell that motherf***er about me.- Ja Morant
When Harden gave him space from the 3 point line https://t.co/vRqpU7ExkC
The Case for Williamson
Zion could rise to that challenge. There’s never been anyone quite like him.
At 6’6″, 284 pounds, Williamson possesses a power-finesse combination that we’ve never seen from someone of his size.
Williamson has earned his reputation as one of the game’s most devastating finishers, but the delicacy with which he finishes with either hand may be his most unheralded offensive skill.
His nimble feet help him to break down even the most intimidating rim protectors with strategic precision.
Spacing issues in a starting lineup that features Lonzo Ball and Williamson could be problematic. Still, Zion’s ability to break down defenses makes opponents respect him regardless of his positioning. Besides, the Pelicans have defied their 2018-19 propensity for paint scoring by becoming the NBA’s fourth-best three-point shooting team by volume while being 13th in efficiency.
Granted, it was just the preseason, but Williamson put together one of the most impressive offensive showings in recent memory during that stretch. Since 2002-03 (as far back as Synergy goes), no rookie has averaged over 20 points per game in these public scrimmages. Kevin Durant was closest in 2007-08 with 18.8. Williamson would have scored an unfathomable 30.8 points per 36 minutes. In 27.2 minutes per game, he posted averages of 23.3 points (league-best), 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Even better, he did it on a remarkable 71.4 shooting percentage from the field. If you’re wondering if he was dunking on scrubs, he even embarrassed reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
He’ll get his points.
It’s possible Brandon Ingram and Williamson will cannibalize each other’s numbers, preventing the rookie from catching Morant. Ingram has exploded this year after his return from the scary deep venous thrombosis surgery that could have limited his future. Instead, he’s emerged as an All-Star lock, as B/R’s Howard Beck told The Lowe Post, with 25.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game on a 54.4 effective field-goal percentage.
But Williamson will get plenty of opportunities to fill up the stat sheet, just as he did this summer. With selfless veterans around him such as Derrick Favors, JJ Redick and Jrue Holiday, the Pelicans will give him the green light he needs to succeed early and often.
There’s still a chance that minutes restrictions may prevent the phenom from stat-stuffing, though.
“100 percent,” head coach Alvin Gentry said when asked about a minutes restriction. “We will be overly cautious. … He’s not going to come out and be a 30-minute-per-game guy. It’s going to be a slow process.”
But Zion won’t need as much hand-holding as the Pelicans front office might have you believe. After the initial six- to eight-week prognosis for recovery, Williamson got the benefit of an additional five weeks to hone his body and get into game shape.
Bleacher Report NBA@BR_NBAZion back to dunking in MSG
We’ve often seen the residual effects of that time off in pregame layup lines.
As for the difference in games played? This could be the most deciding and damning factor. In 2016-17, Malcolm Brogdon claimed 64 first-place votes, compared to Joel Embiid’s 23, despite a stark contrast in numbers. Brogdon finished with a paltry 10.2 points, 4.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 75 games, while Embiid put together an All-Star-like (albeit, brief) season20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 31 games.
But Zion could have an ace up his sleeve in the form of exposure on top of the chance to lead the Pelicans on a second-half surge toward the playoffs.
Imbalanced Exposure and Deciding Factor
It’s no secret these awards are rooted in popularity.
Morant could lose that competition by an overwhelming imbalance in media exposure. The Grizzlies’ young star has just one nationally televised game remaining, while Zion has eightincluding two against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers. Prisoners of the moment may point to Morant’s breakout 26-point, eight-assist game against the Beard and his Houston Rockets on NBA TV on Jan. 14, but Williamson still has so many opportunities left to sway voters on the national stage.
Morant had the opportunity to impress his former AAU teammate on TNT in their clash on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but he had an underwhelming 5-of-14 shooting performance against two-time All-Defensive selection Jrue Holiday.
But regardless of any one game, Morant can end any debate by continuing his level of production while also leading Memphis to the playoffs.
If he can do that, Williamson should fall short in voters’ eyes.
Zion needs to win gamesa lot of themall while balling out on the national stage. Dominating the Lakers on both TNT and ESPN wouldn’t hurt those odds. There is plenty of reason to suggest the Pelicans can go on a tear to finish the season since they’ve performed like a playoff team, winning 10 of their past 14 games.
The Pelicans have played the league’s most difficult schedule. That lightens up considerably as they face 14 sub-.500 opponents in their final 15 games and hold the NBA’s second-easiest strength of schedule.
Despite losing 13 consecutive games during a 6-22 start, the Pelicans find themselves only 3.5 games behind these same Grizzlies with one head-to-head win in the bag.
If Zion can replicate his preseason success while leading the Pelicans into the eighth spot over Morant and his Grizz, he’ll steal the rookie hardware and set up what could become a delicious first-round clash with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images