No player has ever won the Rookie of the Year award when playing less than half the regular season, but Zion Williamson is giving himself a chance.
After missing his first 44 games in recovery from knee surgery, the No. 1 overall pick has quickly thrust himself into the NBA spotlight. Since his debut, he has impressed with 13 straight games of 20+ points in 17 total appearances, the first streak of such length for a teenager in NBA history.
Weeks ago, Williamson claiming the award seemed unlikely. The Grizzlies’ Ja Morant has largely been in the lead for Rookie of the Year honors ahead of Miami’s Kendrick Nunn and Chicago’s Coby White. After Memphis was projected to win 32 games and given a 6% chance to make the playoffs heading into the season, Morant has propelled the Grizzlies to as high as fifth in the West and settling in at eighth.
Based on his body of work, Morant currently stands as the leader for Rookie of the Year. But if Williamson can continue his high-level play and help lead the Pelicans into the playoffs, he may make the race closer than many anticipated.
When judging the impact of the top two picks of the 2019 draft, it is clear both have elevated their teams. The Pelicans have an 8-9 record in games Williamson has played and stand 5.0 games out of the No. 8 seed. With Morant, the Grizzlies are 31-30 and hold a 3.5-game lead for the last playoff spot in the West.
In terms of Williamson, his influence starts with New Orleans’ recent success. The Pelicans started their season in a rut, highlighted by a 13-game losing streak. Williamson’s athleticism and production helped buoy a roster that has been injury-plagued, averaging a rookie-leading 24.2 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 29.1 minutes. He has also claimed the latest rookie of the month award with his surge.
Meanwhile, Morant has maintained a consistently high level of play throughout the season. He has missed just six games, averaging a team-leading 17.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.0 assists on an impressive 49.3% shooting. His passing is amongst the best in the league, ranking 12th in assists per game, and his finesse helped lead to three straight rookie of the month awards.
It is difficult to compare the two when there is such variation in their game time and style; Morant has played well all season, while Williamson has a 6.6-point scoring edge on Morant in his short time. Both have helped turn around their teams, but a battle amongst six teams for the No. 8 seed in the West may ultimately decide which player has been most impactful.
A similar situation to Morant and Williamson occurred in the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year race. Joel Embiid made his long-awaited debut that season after dealing with a stress fracture in his right foot, but he ended up playing just 31 games after suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Embiid put up strong numbers in his stretch—20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game—but after a small sample size, he was beaten by Malcolm Brogdon for Rookie of the Year honors. Brogdon averaged 10.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 75 games, and while Embiid may have been worthy, Brogdon held a 64-23 split in first-place votes.
Media members may lean in the same fashion in voting for this year’s race, but the ultimate deciding factor will come down to the rookies’ final stretch.
In terms of the teams’ remaining schedule strength, New Orleans finds itself in a better place. According to Tankathon, the Pelicans have the third-easiest schedule in the league through the end of the season, with opponents’ records averaging to .444 Still, the team finds itself in a tough place after losing its last three games.
Meanwhile, Memphis holds the most difficult schedule and will be put to the test in holding its playoff spot with contests left against the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Nuggets and Rockets.
While Morant, 20, is leading the award race, he said that he does not have his eye on the trophy. He is instead focused on leading his team into the postseason.
“I honestly don’t care about Rookie of the Year,” Morant said at shootaround on Monday. “They can give that to who they want.”
Perhaps history will repeat itself in awarding co-Rookie of the Year honors to Morant and Williamson. There have been ties in voting three times in the award’s NBA history: Dave Cowens and Geoff Petrie in 1970-71, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill in 1994-95 and Steve Francis and Elton Brand in 1999-00. Williamson will likely have to play out the season at the same level of productivity to allow for a tie to be a possibility.
If he were to tie or beat Morant, Williamson, 19, would break Patrick Ewing’s record-low 50 games in a Rookie of the Year season. While the Knicks were not a winning team in 1985-86, Ewing’s dominance was unquestionable, and by the end of the 2019-20 season Williamson’s lead over the rookie field will have to be just as clear.
Whether he should be penalized for his missed time will be questioned, but Williamson being considered for Rookie of the Year is an acknowledgement of his performance under pressure. Entering a roster midway through the season is no easy task—and making an impact while the rest of the NBA is in midseason form is tougher.
As LeBron James has said, the league is in great hands with Morant and Williamson leading the way. In determining who deserves Rookie of the Year, Morant has the momentum, but the playoffs will likely prove to be the true decision-factor. Both players would be fun to watch against the top seed in the West, with special eyes on a faceoff against the Lakers.
In terms of end-of-season storylines, a battle between the top two draft picks is about as fun as it gets.