2019-20 NBA Awards: Ja, Zion, and Other Outstanding Rookies

Ben Ladner

With Most Valuable Player, All-NBA, and All-Defensive awards out of the way, let’s turn our attention to the up-and-coming crop of players in the NBA and recognize the season’s most outstanding rookies.

Rookie of the Year

1. Ja Morant

2. Zion Williamson

3. Kendrick Nunn

Morant and Williamson were clearly this season’s two best rookies, with a chasm separating them from the rest of the field. Had the season stretched through March and the Pelicans usurped the Grizzlies for eighth place in the West, Williamson might have been able to make a push for first on the ballot, but instead his mere 565 minutes over 19 games left him short of catching Morant.

Williamson's meteoric ascent late in the year shouldn't obscure Morant's singular rookie year. He became the only rookie in NBA history to eclipse a 25 percent usage rate, 30 percent assist rate, and 55 percent true shooting, per Basketball-Reference, and entered the NBA has one of the dozen best pick-and-roll passers in the league. His ability to collapse defenses, put pressure on the rim, and find shooters makes him a devastating lead ball-handler, and may even give him a higher offensive ceiling than the prolific Williamson. 

Morant's 38 percent shooting from 3-point range might be closer to a high-water mark than the rest of his offensive numbers, but he provided ample evidence this year that he could become a reliable off-the-bounce shooter despite slightly wonky form, which would only serve to augment his ingenious playmaking. 

It’s a testament to Williamson’s greatness that he even appears here given that he missed most of the season with a knee injury. He was a legitimately dominant offensive player and a major propellant for what might have been a playoff push for the Pelicans. Some voters may view that abbreviated dominance as a strong enough case to win Rookie of the Year outright; others may view the lack of availability as a disqualifier. There’s no objective way to weigh those two factors against one another. Second place felt like a fair compromise for a truly unique rookie.

First Team All-Rookie: Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Kendrick Nunn, Brandon Clarke, Eric Paschall

Second Team All-Rookie: Matisse Thybulle, Tyler Herro, Terence Davis, P.J. Washington, Michael Porter Jr.

Nunn and Clarke each had strong cases for third on the Rookie of the Year ballot, and Nunn earned a slight edge for starting and playing over 1800 minutes for a solid playoff team. Clarke was better on a per-play basis and grades out better by every advanced metric, but a wide gap in minutes and team quality gave his season less impact than Nunn’s. Both were easy first-team selections.

Nunn’s teammate, Herro, shot 39 percent from beyond the arc and provided passable shot creation when those duties didn’t fall to Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo. He posted a 21 percent usage rate and 11 percent assist rate -- both high marks for a rookie. The Heat were awful with Herro on the floor, but it’s hard to pin that entirely on a rookie, and Herro actually fit in nicely in a supporting role around Butler and Adebayo.

Paschall made the most of a poor circumstance, providing smart, relatively efficient two-way play for a horrible Warriors team. He creates for himself and others, defends multiple positions well, and can fill several important connective functions on offense. It doesn’t require many possessions of watching Paschall to tell he feels the game and understands how to play smart basketball. He’ll fit well with a healthy veteran core next season.

Davis has a similar case on the second team, albeit in far fewer minutes played than Paschall played. Few rookies contribute positively to winning teams right away, but Davis is already a solid all-around basketball player with very few weaknesses. He played pesky defense at multiple positions, shot 40 percent from 3, and helped stabilize the Raptors amid a rash of injuries. Davis is another massive win for Toronto’s scouting and player development departments, and could be in line for an even larger role at backup point guard should Fred VanVleet walk this offseason.

Thybulle is already one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA and held down a rotation spot for a playoff team in Year 1. The 23-year-old shot passably from beyond the arc in an extremely limited offensive role, though he struggled almost everywhere else on offense. Like Mitchell Robinson a year ago, Thybulle is one of those rookies you can’t take your eye off of when he’s on the floor. He’s an incredibly disruptive and instinctive ball-hawk; a player is never safe with Thybulle in the area. He missed out on All-Defensive consideration only for a lack of minutes, and projects as an important piece of Philadelphia’s future as he learns to balance his activity with more restraint.

Charlotte had few bright spots this season, but Washington, a precocious and versatile forward, was one of them. The 21-year-old provided passable floor spacing for a mostly punchless offense and showed advanced passing vision for his age, though his scoring came somewhat inefficiently. He and Miles Bridges have the makings of an intriguing forward tandem, even if neither projects as a star. Both can connect the offense with smart, quick-hitting plays and have the tools to guard across the positional spectrum. Those traits won’t shine brightly until the Hornets have better top-end talent, but Washington found a way to stand out this season nonetheless.

The final spot on the second team was less firm than the other four. Both of Atlanta’s young wings -- De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish -- had just gotten into the discussion when the season stopped; Jaxson Hayes served the backup center role nicely in New Orleans; whatever value R.J. Barrett offers was masked by the Knicks’ dreadful offensive ecosystem; both Cameron Johnson and Nicolo Melli stepped in filled floor-spacing roles for their respective teams.

Porter Jr. played fewer minutes than all of them, but was just better in his time on the floor. He creates his own offense efficiently, both as a cutter and with the ball in his hands, and gave Denver another dangerous floor spacer alongside Nikola Jokić. It would be one if including Porter here required bumping another deserving rookie from the second team, but in a field of equally uninspiring players, it’s often best to reward the best player. 

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