Do we value the best player overall or best season for a player when awarding the NBA’s annual Rookie of the Year distinction? For New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, either way, both first-year players had incredible debut seasons at the professional level.
That being said, maybe the rare but previously conferred honor — co-Rookies of the Year — is deserved by last year’s first and second overall draft picks.
The last time this happened was in 1999-2000, when, again, the Nos. 1 and 2 draft picks jointly took home the Rookie of the Year honor—Elton Brand of the Chicago Bulls and Steve Francis of the Houston Rockets. In similar circumstances as this year’s debate, Brand, like Ja Morant, had a strong overall season, averaged a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds a night in his first NBA season. However, for Francis, like Williamson, the end of the season was where the young Rockets guard shined, scoring 30 or more points four times in the final 30 days of the campaign.
So, for comparison’s sake, we have a similar case where Ja Morant proved he was the best rookie for the majority of the season, like Brand, but Williamson—who missed the first three months after undergoing meniscus surgery in his knee in Oct. 2019—came out of the gate very strongly once he finally stepped onto the hardwood in Jan. 2020.
Should the NBA season even resume, due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing a league-wide suspension with a public health crisis preventing play, Morant has averaged 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game in 59 appearances, shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from deep. The other, probably more important part on the former Murray State guard’s résumé is leading the Grizzlies to the final playoff spot in the current outlook of the Western Conference playoffs.
Not far behind Memphis is New Orleans, helped by Williamson’s debut four months ago. In just 19 games, the Duke product has been a dynamo for the Pelicans, averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a contest, shooting 58.9 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range. Also crucially, like Ja Morant, is Williamson’s contribution to Pelicans wins: 10-9 in games he’s played in (plus another win in a game he sat out). Williamson’s presence has no doubt launched NOLA into the postseason conversation; the Pelicans are 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth spot in the West (and started the season before Zion with a 17-27 record).
Again, this wouldn’t be entirely new to award two rookies the honor. Ja Morant might know that five years before Brand and Francis shared a podium, Jason Kidd of the Dallas Mavericks and Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons won Rookie of the Year together. Portland Trail Blazers guard Geoff Petrie and Boston Celtics center Dave Cowens won it together in 1971, too.
Who’s the best?
The issues with end-of-season awards in much of the professional sports landscape is defining the value behind “best.” This is often scrutinized with the Most Valuable Player award (which, again, will be heavily contested in 2019-20), but to a lesser extent asking “who was the best rookie?”. It’s evident that both Ja Morant and Zion Williamson were the best rookies for the 2019-20 season; both absolutely contributed to winning basketball on their respective rebuilding teams. Do we limit awarding Williamson because of injury when, during his time on the court, he was the best rookie for a stretch along with the best player on his team?
This year is a well-deserved one to give two new, young stars in the NBA co-Rookie of the Year. Sometimes there are two “bests” at the same time.