Prior to New Orleans Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson making his NBA debut in late January, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies was widely considered to be the runaway winner for this season’s Rookie of the Year award. Williamson then made such a tremendous impact over the next month or so that people began to believe Zion could actually give Morant a run for his money.
Based on what we’ve seen thus far — especially from Morant — our belief is that this is simply nonsensical. Morant should still win Rookie of the Year, and below are a number of compelling reasons why.
Obviously the biggest argument here is that Zion Williamson just hasn’t played enough games to deserve to be in the running. Prior to the season hiatus, Zion played in a grand total of just 19 out of the Pelicans’ 64 games. Based on this fact alone, it would simply be a travesty if Williamson won the award over Ja Morant, who himself has played in 59 out of the Grizzlies’ 65 games.
There is still some hope that the season resumes, but there have been talks of the league going straight to the playoffs, so if this initiative comes to fruition, then our above argument holds true. Even if the regular season happens to resume, it’s unlikely the full schedule would be played out, which wouldn’t give Zion much time to close the gap.
In 19 games played, here are Zion Williamson’s numbers: 23.6 points (on 58.9 percent shooting), 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. On the other hand, Ja Morant has put up 17.6 points (on 49.1 percent shooting), 3.5 rebounds, and 6.9 assists per game.
Looking at the raw figures, it appears that Williamson holds the edge. His scoring and efficiency are much better than Morant, but you will also need to take into consideration Zion’s small sample size. Who knows, maybe the NBA would have figured him out after a couple of months, causing a decline in his numbers. Then again, maybe not.
Nevertheless, Morant’s playmaking stands out. His 6.9 dimes per contest ranks 13th overall in the NBA. Morant’s shooting clip of 49.1 percent is also very impressive considering he’s a rookie point guard. Scoring efficiently has not been an issue for the 20-year-old thus far, as his 56.8 percent true shooting mark would attest.
Another huge factor that needs to be considered is how their teams have fared in the season thus far. Ja Morant surprisingly led the Grizzlies to a 32-33 record prior to the season suspension, which is good for the eighth and final spot in a ruthless Western Conference. Memphis has done even better than other familiar playoff teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers (ninth) and San Antonio Spurs (12th).
As for the Pelicans, their 28-36 record puts them in the 10th spot out West. They are just three and a half games behind the Grizzlies and were set to make a run for the final playoff spot thanks to a soft closing schedule, but that opportunity likely will be taken away from them.
The Pelicans went 10-9 in Zion Williamson’s 19 games before the season suspension. While that’s above .500, it’s not as if his arrival has equated to an outstanding winning streak for New Orleans.
The last thing we’re going to look at is precedent, which helps Ja Morant.
During the 2016-17 season, Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid finally made his much-awaited NBA debut after sitting out the first two seasons of his career. Much like Williamson, Embiid had a strong start to his season, but injuries ultimately caused him to miss a big chunk of his rookie year.
The former Kansas standout ended up playing in just 31 games that season, averaging 20.2 points (on 46.6 percent shooting), 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks while also connecting on 1.2 triples per game on a 36.7 percent clip. Despite a highly impressive debut campaign, Embiid still lost out on Rookie of the Year because he just didn’t play in enough games.
That year’s winner was 36th overall pick Malcolm Brogdon of the Milwaukee Bucks. The 6-foot-5 combo guard, who now plies his trade with the Indiana Pacers, put up just 10.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. His numbers were by no means eye-popping, but still, Brogdon was voted as the overwhelming winner of that year’s race.
For the record, the Bucks finished with a 42-40 record that season for sixth in the East, while Philly ended a miserable season with a 28-54 record.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Embiid actually finished third in that season’s Rookie of the Year voting. Brogdon ran away with 414 voting points, and following him was Embiid’s teammate, Dario Saric, who was a distant second with just 266 voting points. Embiid racked up just 177 points.
Based on history, this season’s Rookie of the Year award should go in the favor of Ja Morant — without question.