Could Ja Morant be a better rookie than Zion Williamson?

CHICAGO — Jerry West, the iconic logo of the NBA, found himself in the middle of a quintessentially modern social-media kerfuffle last month. A comedian went on “The Dan Patrick Show” and told a wide audience that West was in love with Ja Morant, the presumptive No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. So much so, that he said West would select Morant No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.

The Logo himself went on “The Dan Patrick Show” to shoot down that notion, saying that not picking Zion Williamson No. 1 would be like “passing on Jordan.” West’s comment aligned him with the NBA-wide consensus, which formed somewhere around late November, that Williamson is the sure-fire No. 1 pick.

There are few good arguments against the New Orleans Pelicans taking Zion No. 1. He’s already made basketball matter in New Orleans, with ticket sales surging and the franchise being rebranded as something other than Anthony Davis’ jilted prom date. From the box office and beyond, there’s zero chance that New Orleans will take anyone other than Zion.

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But there’s a strong argument that Morant, who is projected to go No. 2 to the Memphis Grizzlies, could end up as the NBA’s best rookie next season. His game translates better to the NBA than Williamson’s, which relied much more on power than polish to dominate in college. Morant has Russell Westbrook’s electricity, Ben Simmons’ passing instincts and likely faces a smoother immediate transition to the NBA than Williamson.

Could Morant make a more consistent on-floor impact? It wouldn’t be shocking, as Williamson has glaring flaws that need to be fixed — particularly his near flat-footed jump shot — for him to evolve as more than a brute force. Morant, a 6-foot-3 guard, comes in perhaps more ready-made, as he’s brings vast experience in the pick-and-roll game and is as well-rounded as any prospect in this draft. (Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists and 5.7 rebounds at Murray State.)

Ja Morant is the center of attention at the NBA draft combine Thursday in Chicago. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Ja Morant is the center of attention at the NBA draft combine Thursday in Chicago. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

What can Memphis fans expect upon his arrival? Murray State coach Matt McMahon says Morant’s experience seeing every possible type of pick-and-roll coverage at Murray State will ease his transition. “I think that’s what so great about him,” McMahon said in a phone interview on Thursday. “His entire game is going to translate to the NBA. His ability to get by defenders off the dribble with his explosiveness. His creativity and playmaking skills get other guys shots. He’s got an incredible skill set in the open floor. I just think he makes everyone around him better, regardless of level.”

In Murray State’s upset of Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Morant’s two-handed hammer dunk on Marquette’s Joey Hauser and step-back 3-pointer before halftime made all the highlights. But the most impressive plays of his 17-point, 16-assist and 11-rebound performance may have come from the left-handed whip passes he made to beat double-teams, as Morant dribbles and passes as deft with his off-hand — the left — as he does with the right. Marquette coaches in that game actually focused on forcing him right, his alleged dominant hand.

“We spent a lot of time talking with him about having solutions in your bag,” McMahon said. “When he’s coming off the ball screens, his ability to make those left-handed, cross-court passes or finish with either hand, coming downhill off those ball screens and making multiple reads and plays, is what separates him from a lot of people. That IQ part is important, too. He’s on another level in terms of basketball IQ.”

If Morant played in a major conference, perhaps he’d be getting more buzz for the No. 1 pick. Williamson’s season-long coronation for that spot came because of the familiarity with his dunks, blocks and celebratory muscle flexes. In an interview at the predraft combine in Chicago on Thursday, Morant’s geographic learning curve spoke to the size of the leap he’ll be taking. A native of South Carolina, Morant revealed he’d never been to New York. This week marked his first time in Chicago. He’s never even visited Memphis, where he’s almost certainly going. “I haven’t been to a lot of places,” Morant said.

When a reporter asked Morant if Murray State ever played in an NBA arena, he chuckled and answered no. Morant’s path to the NBA has hopscotched through rural Murray State, a mid-major juggernaut in Kentucky that’s on the cusp of its third NBA draft pick in the past seven years after Isaiah Canaan in 2013 and Cameron Payne in 2015. In Morant’s two seasons playing at the Ohio Valley Conference power, the road to basketball glory wound through sleepy burgs like Clarksville, Tennessee, Charleston, Illinois and Morehead, Kentucky.

Morant was under-recruited out of high school and was found in an auxiliary gym. And he carries an appreciative humility with him, as he sounds sincere when saying he has no preference where he plays in the NBA. “I really would be happy with any team that drafts me,” he said. “It means they see something in me. It’s just an honor to play the game at the highest level and just to be in the position that I’m in right now.”

He said he’d seen reports on the internet that Memphis will likely pick him, but hadn’t heard that yet from the team. He’d be excited to play with veteran point guard Mike Conley, who is expected to be on the trading block with Morant’s impending arrival. He’d arrive as a young building block with Jaren Jackson Jr., the former Michigan State forward who averaged 13.8 points as a rookie.

If Morant starts, it’s easy to see him putting up big numbers and winning Rookie of the Year. Could he be better than Zion in the long term? “Obviously, I’m biased, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all,” McMahon said. “He doesn’t need me to be his hype man. His game speaks for itself. I think he’s a franchise guy, not only on the court. He’s a box-office draw, people will fill the seats to see what he does next. He’s going to sell shoes, he’s a person of impact in the community. I think he’s the total package, and a guy we’ll be watching the next 15 years.”

Entering the NBA, Morant is on another level than all but one prospect. While the Logo isn’t ready to christen Morant the best prospect over the generationally intriguing Williamson, don’t be surprised if Morant races to the head of the rookie class in 2019-20. There are a lot of places Morant has never been, but don’t expect him to flinch in the bright lights of the big cities.

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