B/R NBA Staff Roundtable: Does Zion Williamson Have a Real ROY Case?
Twenty years ago this spring, the NBA recognized both Elton Brand and Steve Francis as co-Rookie of the Year winners. The big and the guard were the Nos. 1 and 2 picks, respectively, in the 1999 draft, and they were just the third duo in history to officially share the ROY honor.
Assuming today's league won't party like it's '99-00 and let the records read "Ja Morant, Zion Williamson: Co-ROY Winners," one supremely talented young star will be named runner-up. And while both are seemingly deserving of the award, it's no secret whose the hardware is to lose.
With just a month to play and Morant's lead in the race impossible to ignore, we asked our NBA writers if Zion has a route to Rookie of the Year as an undisputed star with an uphill climb ahead.
Coach David Thorpe, Executive Director of the ProTraining Center, returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss coronavirus ramifications on the league, NBA games sans fans, LA Lakers vs LA Clippers, the Houston Rockets’ trouble, Boston Celtics’ Finals chances, Kenny Atkinson and the Brooklyn Nets, and where Gregg Popovich might be next season.
Games Played the Deciding Factor
There's no denying Zion Williamson's production or his enormous impact on the New Orleans Pelicans this season.
A team that began the season just 6-22 is suddenly 11-9 since Williamson made his debut on Jan. 22, climbing all the way up to ninth in the West. If New Orleans can catch the Memphis Grizzlies (currently 3.5 games back), that should go a long way in making Williamson's case over frontrunner Ja Morant.
As great as Morant has been, Williamson is putting up better overall numbers (23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 58.9 percent shooting in 29.7 minutes per game compared to 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 49.1 percent shooting in 30.0 minutes per game), and the Pelicans improve by 13.9 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor, compared to the Grizzlies' jump of 1.8 points per 100 possessions with Morant in the game.
The final case will naturally come down to total games played. While Williamson just started his season a few weeks ago, Morant has led a surprisingly competitive Grizzlies squad since October. That matters.
Williamson has played just 19 games this season, and he would end up at a maximum of 37 should he suit up in every contest for the rest of the campaign. Morant currently stands at 59 and can max out at 76. That's more than double the number of games with which Williamson could finish.
Despite his incredible rookie production, the only way Williamson would have a chance is if the Grizzlies had to shut Morant down for the season following some sort of injury. Even then, the gap may still be too wide.
Ja Morant Isn't Malcolm Brogdon
In a vacuum, I don't think playing as few games as Williamson has disqualifies him for Rookie of the Year the way it would for other awards. If I'd had a vote in 2016-17, I would have selected Joel Embiid despite the fact that he played just 31 games because those 31 games were so far above the rest of his competition for the award.
But nobody Embiid was up against that year (Malcolm Brogdon ultimately won the award; Embiid's Philadelphia 76ers teammate Dario Saric was the other finalist) had close to the year Ja Morant is having in Memphis.
He already looks like a future superstar and is a big reason the Grizzlies are an unexpected playoff contender. Giving the award to someone who will have played less than half the season, even someone who's been as transcendent as Williamson has been, would be doing a disservice to a worthy Rookie of the Year.
If Williamson was up against the equivalent of Brogdon and Saric, who had good rookie seasons but didn't jump off the screen, I'd have no qualms about giving it to him. But Morant is having a season that deserves the award on its own merits, and he has been playing at that level for the whole year. I can't go there this time.
Zion Depends on Others, Grizzlies Depend on Ja
Zion Williamson may well wind up the best player in his draft class if he can stay healthy, but we're not answering a question about long-term potential.
It's not just the limited sample that disqualifies Williamson, though you could persuasively end the argument by invoking the Patrick Ewing stat. The New York Knicks big man won Rookie of the Year in 1985-86 with just 50 games played. That's the fewest ever for a ROY in an 82-game season.
Even if there's no hard rule saying a player must participate in X percent of games to qualify, there still seems to be a volume requirement for every NBA award. It has to apply here, too.
Oh, also: Ja Morant.
He's been terrific all year while carrying the Memphis Grizzlies to the West's No. 8 seed—a spot Williamson's Pelicans are chasing but probably won't catch.
Morant's role is more taxing. He runs the offense, playing the most strategically complex position on the floor. Williamson's minute-to-minute statistical impact may be greater, but he's operating at a lower degree of difficulty. And it's telling that while New Orleans has been much better with Zion on the floor, its net rating stinks when Williamson plays without Lonzo Ball.
Zion depends on others. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies depend on Morant.
Zion is great, and he might wind up greater than his counterpart in Memphis. But he doesn't have a serious case for ROY.
Pelicans in the Playoffs Could Change Everything
Does Zion Williamson have a case? Yes, though it's not as strong as Zion himself.
It may come down to which rookie's team makes it to the playoffs.
Right now, the math from FiveThirtyEight says the New Orleans Pelicans are more likely to do so (62 percent to 14 percent). Basketball Reference is going with the Grizzlies (50 percent to 31 percent). If Zion leads New Orleans—its net rating is a whopping 12.2 points per 100 possessions better when the big man plays—to the postseason, he should have a shot at the award.
Zion holds sizable advantages over Ja in box plus/minus, true shooting percentage and points per 75 possessions. His lead in BPM is substantial enough that he may catch Ja in wins over replacement player by the end of the season. The latter playing three times as many minutes might actually be a point against him if Zion makes up that gap.
Beyond the numbers, it's difficult to ignore the way Zion has seized control of his team, national attention and, potentially, the playoff race. He's more than a rim-rattling dunker. His feel for the game and ability to know exactly when and where to cut has made New Orleans a nightmare for opponents.
Ja deserves bonus points for being the engineer of his team's attack, and the games played and minutes leads are almost overwhelming. But if the Pelicans finish in eighth place, Morant's case won't be open-and-shut.
Zion Has Only Played a 'College Season'
Zion Williamson has been must-watch television since he came back in late January, but Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year.
Williamson has played only 19 games for the New Orleans Pelicans, and though he's been great, that's not enough. Morant has already played 59 games and has the Memphis Grizzlies holding steady in the eighth seed.
Morant has provided just as many highlights and, most importantly, has been playing great basketball all season. He's averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists while shooting 36.7 percent from three-point range.
If Williamson plays every game from here on out, he'll have suited up in just 37 total contests—still 22 fewer than Morant has logged as of now. He has played a college season while the Memphis point guard is playing an NBA season, and the gap is just too wide.
Zion's Case Historic but Not Enough
Zion Williamson absolutely has a Rookie of the Year case. Whether he should actually win the award is, to me, a separate matter.
Sample size holds him back a little bit. His maximum 37 contests would be by far and away the fewest games played by a Rookie of the Year, even when accounting for lockout-shortened seasons.
To what end Zion's dominance bolsters his truncated sample is debatable. At the very least, though, it makes him worth considering. Joel Embiid and Wilt Chamberlain are the only other rookies to clear 28 points per 36 minutes, and neither of them shot even 50 percent on two-pointers. Zion is converting 59.5 percent of his looks inside the arc.
The manner in which he's scoring is truly impressive. Most of his baskets come off assists, but he can attack the hoop off the dribble from standstill positions. His second jump is as ridiculous as advertised, he's adept at navigating congested spaces off the ball, and there is no stopping him in transition.
He's also flashed plenty of table-setting ability. He throws quick second passes, finds teammates on the break and flings dimes out of double-teams in the post and on drives. The Pelicans are obliterating opponents with him on the floor and might clinch a playoff bid. That all has to matter.
Still, Zion's ascent cannot be conflated with a weaker Rookie of the Year field. There aren't a ton of alternative candidates, but Ja Morant exists. He has slumped neither hard enough nor long enough for his case to be dented by the emergence of someone else across a smaller sample.
Oscar Robertson and Trae Young are the only other rookies who have averaged more than 20 points and eight assists per 36 minutes. Morant's true shooting percentage (56.9) also checks in above the league average (56.3). Maintaining that kind of efficiency while notching one of league's 40 highest usage rates is ridiculous for a rookie.
For this season specifically, his body of work is sturdy enough to navigate the tsunami that is Zion Williamson.
The Debate Was Settled Before It Began
Zion Williamson clearly has a case for Rookie of the Year.
Seeing him in action feels like you've been granted access to a special screening of the NBA's future. The size-athleticism combination is unreal, and the ferocity is face-melting. He's having a moment, and in turn, the game of basketball is experiencing a movement.
But the question is whether Williamson's ROY argument is stronger than Ja Morant's.
Williamson's delayed start to the season settled this debate before it got going, and a half-season of awesomeness isn't deserving of season-long recognition—not when Morant has performed at an award-winning level throughout the marathon.
Prior to Tuesday's performance against the Orlando Magic, the freshman floor general was on pace to be only the seventh rookie to average 17 points and seven assists. He fell slightly behind after recording 21 points and five dimes, but he could easily get back above those numbers before the end of the year.
He has his fingerprints all over Memphis' surprising success; the Grizz have gone 31-28 with him and just 1-5 without. He also routinely flashes an aesthetically pleasing blend of explosive athleticism and expert vision.
Williamson might prove the most important rookie in this class, but Morant is the ROY choice by a comfortable margin.