Coming out of Duke, I was fully on the Zion Williamson hype train. I wasn’t bending over like ESPN to praise him for lacing up his shoes. However, I knew he was special. I mean, the guy is what’d happen if you put Charles Barkley and LeBron James in one. Barkley was already athletic (he retired as one of the few players to put up 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists). Add in LeBron’s explosiveness and shooting touch and you’ve got a damn-near unstoppable player.
Then he got injured again, this time missing about half of the season after knee surgery. His first game out, against a rebuilding Spurs team, he struggled the first three quarters. Even MJ struggled shooting in his first game back (he shot 25% from the field, even with a 19/6/6 stat line). The fourth quarter his and he scored 17 of his 22 points (including 12 from 3) in under seven minutes. While the Pelicans lost by four, Zion has lived up to expectations. In the seven games Williamson’s played, he’s averaged 19.6 PPG and an even 8 RPG.
But does he even deserve to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion? Yes and no. Here’re my thoughts on the issue.
Ja Morant has played an entire season to this point and has kept the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt.
He’s averaged a bit over 17 PPG and racked up about seven assists per game. These aren’t worldbeater numbers, but they’re pretty damn good–especially when you look at the rest of the 2019 Class.
Tyler Herro is playing well, but he can be streaky at times. He’ll follow a 20+ point performance with a goose egg. No bueno. RJ Barrett has also lived up to the hype to a degree. There’s something that holds him back from being in the ROTY consideration more than his skills. We don’t hear much about him because the Knicks aren’t playing that well. Folks like Eric Paschall and Rui Hachimura are in a similar boat, even though both are putting up solid numbers. Out of the 2019-2020 rookies, most eyes are focused on Zion and Ja–rightfully so, considering they went 1-2.
Morant’s Grizzlies are are also eighth in the Western Conference. You could argue that Ja Morant has been more valuable, because he’s played more games. When you break it down, though, both players have, since arriving, helped their teams amass close to a .500 record (in games they’ve played/been active for). Ultimately, Zion deserves a great deal of looks for ROTY…but it’s Morant’s award to lose at this point.
The NBA tends to give the ROTY to players who play more than Zion’s slated to. Look to Joel Embiid for another example of an injured superstar-in-the-making losing out because of the lack of games played. The ROTY award, however, isn’t always the tell-all of who’ll have a better career. It’s who had the better first season out. Giannis Antetokounmpo was seventh in 2013-2014 to Michael Carter-Williams. MCW hasn’t logged more than 70 games in a season after that rookie campaign (injuries, etc.). Meanwhile Giannis is a perennial All-Star and won MVP honors. Jaylen Brown was eighth in the season Embiid lost, but averages 20/6/2 and has played up to his potential.
That is to say both Morant and Williamson have a great future ahead of them, regardless who wins ROTY. I mean, Zion’s ripping rebounds out of Giannis’s hands and Ja Morant is a masterful player–on the court and during troll sessions. As others start to wind down their careers, the league will be in great hands for years to come.