Will the NBA Ever Get a Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson Rivalry?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesFeatured Columnist IVNovember 16, 2022

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 15: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on November 15, 2022 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

From the moment they were drafted a pick apart in 2019, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson seemed destined to spend a decade co-headlining the NBA's next great rivalry.

Two South Carolina products from the same AAU squad, each blessed with celestial athleticism and swag. Small-market saviors and surefire leaders of teams on the rise.

Tuesday's tilt between Morant's Memphis Grizzlies and Williamson's New Orleans Pelicans was exactly the kind of back-and-forth, emotionally charged meeting we all thought we'd get several times a year and, with any luck, in a handful of playoff series...with one small problem.

Williamson was on the sidelines nursing a foot injury in New Orleans' 113-102 victory.

He missed a hell of a game, one defined by Morant's ceaseless effort to pile highlight upon highlight and the Pelicans' CJ McCollum-led three-point awakening.

Morant ticked all the top-play boxes as only he could.

We got a half-court heave at the end of the first quarter.

Hoop Central @TheHoopCentral

JA MORANT AT THE BUZZER <br><br> <a href="https://t.co/vBBF0jBzsR">pic.twitter.com/vBBF0jBzsR</a>

A preposterous rear-view vision steal that led to what can only be described as a levitating finish.

Russ' TD ⚡ @RussFcb

This Ja Morant clip is one the best steals/IQ plays I've ever seen <a href="https://t.co/UcVdzHPR0z">pic.twitter.com/UcVdzHPR0z</a>

And the coup de grâce, a dunk I flat-out can't remember anyone of Morant's size ever completing.

Hoop Central @TheHoopCentral

JA MORANT IS ABSURD. <br><br> <a href="https://t.co/ICRULYhGkG">pic.twitter.com/ICRULYhGkG</a>

That's a switch-hands-in-midair, wrong-footed jam with the off hand. The mind reels in search of a comparably rare sight. This isn't the unicorn of open-floor highlights. It's more like a unicorn that also tap dances and spins plates while reciting the first 1,000 digits of pi backward.

It was the kind of play that begged for a one-to-one response. Williamson, who once did this, would have been the right guy to offer one.

Eliot Clough @EliotClough

A reminder for the TL about that Zion dunk against the Kings <br><br>Also ⁦<a href="https://twitter.com/adaniels33?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@adaniels33</a>⁩ had the best reaction possible 😂 <a href="https://t.co/1Z0rZUoqxl">pic.twitter.com/1Z0rZUoqxl</a>

The Pelicans fought back collectively instead. New Orleans canned a season-high 18 triples, and McCollum busted out of a slump to score 30 points.

Meanwhile, Larry Nance Jr. cemented his status as the team's closing center, and Jose Alvarado made his customary "unwrapped roll of Mentos dropped into a Diet Coke" impact on the proceedings.

As November NBA games go, this was a 10 on the intensity scale. Everyone was amped, including the normally poised McCollum, who nearly truck-sticked an official after a dubious foul call, and Trey Murphy III, who started in Zion's place and peppered in poster dunks to complement the 30-footers he seems to hit once or twice every night.

Morant, who led all scorers with 36 points, traded "too small" jabs with Alvarado as Jaren Jackson Jr. loomed large in his season debut, finishing with five blocks in 25 minutes.

Steve Jones Jr. @stevejones20

JOSE ALVARADO VS JA MORANT IS FUN EVERYONE GETS A TOO SMALL. <a href="https://t.co/Ke8Xh8o41X">pic.twitter.com/Ke8Xh8o41X</a>

Imagine what Williamson would have added to a game that already had so much going for it.

But that's been the issue with Williamson to this point in his career, and it's the defining contrast between him and Morant. We've had to speculate on Williamson's ceiling, wonder about his fit on a winner and question whether he's actually a franchise pillar.

Sure, there've been moments when Williamson looked the part of a worthy Morant foil, like when he averaged 27.0 points across the 61 games he logged in 2020-21.

But injuries have interrupted Williamson's progress and chiseled away at his athletic supremacy, while defensive shortcomings and a broader uncertainty about his role on offense make him something less than a no-questions-asked cornerstone.

For Morant, no such questions exist. They've been replaced by exclamations.

𝙏𝙖𝙡𝙠𝙞𝙣’ 𝙉𝘽𝘼 @_Talkin_NBA

"He's not the best player in the world now. I'm not saying that disrespectfully, but in 2-to-3 years, he will be the best player in the world."<br><br>Shaq on Ja Morant<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NBATwitter?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NBATwitter</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/BigMemphis?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#BigMemphis</a> <a href="https://t.co/LqRp9ZguXQ">pic.twitter.com/LqRp9ZguXQ</a>

O'Neal is a little out over his skis on this one, but at the very least, we can agree Morant's resumé marks him as a foundational talent separate from and above whatever class Williamson occupies.

He topped Zion for the Rookie of the Year award in 2019-20 and led the Grizz to 56 wins last season while finishing seventh in MVP voting, earning Most Improved Player honors and an All-NBA second-team nod. This season, he's leveled up again by adding a three-point shot.

Though Zion is 4-0 in head-to-head meetings with Morant, it's a pretty small sample size, with the last contest coming all the way back on Feb. 16, 2021. That speaks to Morant's development in the intervening time, just as it underscores how Williamson's progress has been derailed by long layoffs.

The Grizzlies superstar is brash enough to create new nemeses on a nightly basis. Everybody wants a piece of a player—and, by extension, a Memphis team as a whole—that thrives on confrontation and whose playing style basically demands it.

Alvarado was a predictable foe on Tuesday, but as effective as the Pels' reserve is in his role, he's not Morant's rival.

We've searched for one. Perhaps Anthony Edwards will fit the bill one day. Maybe even Stephen Curry. But no natural counterpart has emerged yet.

There's a Zion-sized void to be filled here. He and Morant came up on similar paths and seemed to have similar futures—until they diverged.

There are a million reasons to hope Williamson regains the force and bounce he showed earlier in his career. A return to equal footing with Morant is one of the biggest.

If these two could realign after a couple of years apart, we'd get the rivalry we (and they) deserve.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Tuesday, Nov. 15. Salary info via Spotrac.