Ja or Zion? Breaking down the NBA Rookie of the Year race

Yahoo Sports

Every week, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill will reveal his ballot for an NBA superlative award for the 2019-20 season. The ballots were due before the restart of the season at Walt Disney World. 

The NBA Rookie of the Year race played to expectations and fears all wrapped into one spectacular package. By the time Zion Williamson was getting ready to make his late-January debut, the anticipation was matched only by the certainty of Ja Morant doing more than enough to secure the award.

Availability is the only reason this didn’t play out differently, with Williamson playing just 19 games. The window for Williamson possibly stealing the award closed when the NBA announced ballots would be based on games played before the shutdown, because a surging New Orleans Pelicans team making a late run for a playoff berth would be a compelling factor in Williamson’s favor.

But Morant — a -5000 favorite to win the award at BetMGM — is no consolation prize, no default selection. Playing the deepest position for a Memphis Grizzlies team trying to transition out of one identity into another is no small feat. Before being drafted he proclaimed to Yahoo Sports that he’s a “Point God,” a title reserved for the rare few who belong to history — and he delivered, averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists.

NBA Rookie of the Year candidates <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/6163/" data-ylk="slk:Zion Williamson">Zion Williamson</a>, left, and Ja Morant greet each after a game in January. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
NBA Rookie of the Year candidates Zion Williamson, left, and Ja Morant greet each after a game in January. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Although slender, he gets to the lane with ease, has the bounce to finish over the top of flat-footed bigs, and the bravado to take off well before physics claims he should. His jumper is reliable enough (36.7 percent from three) that defenders can’t slide under screens, and it’ll only get more consistent through time and experience.

What’s more, he played winning basketball, a consistent factor with all three players on the ROY ballot: Morant, Williamson and the Miami Heat’s Kendrick Nunn. The Grizzlies’ first win in the Disney bubble will match their total from last season, a direct result of the man who controls the most possessions and leads a young team that currently holds the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

My runner-up is someone who wasn’t even in the 2019 draft class, went undrafted in 2018, and was signed and waived before ever playing a game with the Golden State Warriors in 2018: Nunn.

His 112 points in his first five games are a record for an undrafted player and caught the league by surprise.

The Heat signed him at the end of last season and he made his debut in this year’s opener, scoring 24 against Morant in a 19-point Heat win. Undersized for a shooting guard at 6-foot-2 but possessing an off-guard mentality, the Heat found a place for him and his 15.6 points per game in a unique setup.

He’s aggressive and strong for his size, and given his “advanced” age of 24, the transition to the pro game wasn’t as difficult, although it’s hard to project his long-term ceiling. But the Heat aren’t a traditional outfit, led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Behind Butler, they score by committee and Nunn has fit as a starter, enabling coach Erik Spoelstra to bring Goran Dragic off the bench to stabilize the second unit. Nunn hunts through the lane and is a strong, crafty finisher.

How the league catches up to him and how he adjusts will be interesting, but he seems to have found his place with a ragtag Miami team that will be a tough out in the bubble playoff setup.

And with apologies to Charlotte’s P.J. Washington, Memphis’ Brandon Clarke and Nunn’s teammate, Tyler Herro, Williamson makes my ballot.

He’s too tantalizing to ignore. 

The electricity he produces is so tangible, as witnessed in his debut against the San Antonio Spurs when he went 4-for-4 from three and had Gregg Popovich gushing.

The historical precedent for Williamson’s case was reinforced somewhat recently, when Joel Embiid made his long-awaited debut after two years on the shelf and played just 31 games in 2016-17. Embiid’s impact was undeniable, nearly turning into a 20-10 machine in barely 25 minutes a night, putting together the most statistically impressive season of any “rookie.” But he finished third behind teammate Dario Saric and winner Malcolm Brogdon, but garnering more second-place votes than Saric.

Now, history has proven Embiid to be a star but that shouldn’t play as much of a part in the voting because it isn’t about projection but production. However, Williamson’s production in limited time shouldn’t be ignored: 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game.

Had he qualified, his Player Efficiency Rating would’ve been 12th, in front of Trae Young and just behind Nikola Jokic. Much like Morant, he gives the Pelicans hope for the present and future. Williamson’s work around the rim makes him a future candidate to play small-ball center, and his play didn’t hinder Brandon Ingram’s Most Improved Player campaign, as Ingram still averaged over 21 a night in their 16 games together. 

The rhythm he’s developed with Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball makes his game even more attractive, because he’s not intent on dominating the ball but fitting in.

Just his mere presence draws so much attention on the floor, even though he’s not a shooter, that it opens opportunities for everyone else.

There’s only but so much space for a player who operates in the margins, but there’s an unlimited amount in the air. And that’s where he makes his money — and draws fear.

His athleticism makes him both a nightmare to guard and to ignore. It makes teams account for him no matter where he is, even though it’s clear he’s still figuring things out at this level.

He didn’t play enough to win Rookie of the Year, but played too damn well when he was available to ignore.

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