The NBA Rookie of the Year Debate
Before the NBA season was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, fans were starting to see a glimpse of how special Zion Williamson could be. The high-flying 19 year old was already starting to put the league on notice. In his very first game, Williamson scored 22 points on 8–11 shooting, while shooting 4–4 from three. This included a three minute surge in the fourth quarter which saw Zion score 17 points. Then and there, even more hype was added to this young star.
So far this season, Zion has averaged 23.6 points on 58.9% shooting, to go along with 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He has blossomed into a young superstar, perhaps faster than even the biggest Zion supporters had previously thought was possible. Williamson’s numbers are leading some to suggest that he should be named the NBA rookie of the year. One rookie has other thoughts though.
Ja Morant is Zion’s biggest competition for rookie of the year. This season, Morant is averaging 17.6 points on 49.1% shooting, to go along with 6.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. Morant also has Memphis in the eighth seed, and positioned for a playoff berth (compared to Zion’s Pelicans who are currently the tenth seed).
Despite averaging six less points per game, and three less rebounds per game, Morant is still considered the favorite for rookie of the year over Zion. This is due to one factor: games played. Zion has only played in 19 games this season, due to a knee injury which caused him to miss a substantial amount of time at the beginning of the season. This opposed to Morant, who has appeared in 59 games so far this season.
The NBA season isn’t over however. When play resumes, the Pelicans still have 18 games remaining on their schedule. If Zion plays in all of those, and performs like he has been this season, would 37 games be enough for the voters?
In my opinion no. Ja Morant would have played in 76 games; and despite his numbers not being as impressive as Zion’s, I think it would still be too much for Williamson to overcome.
We’ve seen this before. In 2017, Malcolm Brogdon was named NBA rookie of the year over Joel Embiid. That season Brogdon averaged 10.2 points on 45.7% shooting, along with 4.2 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game. Embiid averaged 20.2 points on 46.6% shooting, to go with 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks per game. The same issue arose however. Embiid played in 31 games that season, Brogdon played in 75.
The standard has been set; and perhaps in Zion’s case, it’s been set much too high. Embiid’s numbers were far greater than Brogdon’s during the 2017 season. Embiid averaged ten more points per game, five more rebounds per game, and two more blocks per game. Despite all of that, Brogdon still won. Zion’s numbers, while they are better than Morant’s, are not that much better than Morant’s. It’s clear that voters do not view playing less than half the season as substantial enough to win rookie of the year. Maybe for Zion though, his superstardom will be enough to prevail in the end. We’ll just have to wait and see.