NBA

For Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, Rookie of the Year race is for playoffs


The race for Rookie of the Year may already be over, but now Zion Williamson and Ja Morant are fighting for a playoff spot instead.

In spite of how phenomenal Zion Williamson has looked in his first 12 games for the New Orleans Pelicans, the race for Rookie of the Year may not be very close this year. With Williamson missing more than half of the season due to injury, it’s hard to imagine voters choosing him over Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, who, despite not looking as dominant as Zion, will end up playing at least twice as many games.

It’s not that Morant would be an undeserving Rookie of the Year either; he already looks like a future star for the Grizzlies, leading the team in both points and assists per game while helping them make an unexpected playoff push.

The Rookie of the Year race this year is analogous to the 2017 one, where a consistent Malcolm Brogdon defeated a stunning Joel Embiid because Embiid only played 31 games. The primary difference now is that Ja Morant’s rookie season has been much more impressive than Brogdon’s, making his victory seem even more likely.

However, Morant and Williamson are now battling for something more consequential than this award, as the Grizzlies and Pelicans are locked in a battle for the final spot in the Western Conference’s playoff bracket. We thought we could get an exciting race for Rookie of the Year, but instead we have an even more exciting playoff race.

The Pelicans had playoff aspirations entering the season, signing J.J. Redick and Derrick Favors in their quest to make the postseason and not just play for the future. However, the Pelicans started the season abysmally. Many of their losing ways were due to the absence of several key players who missed multiple games in the season’s opening months — Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball missed four and eight games in November, respectively, while Derrick Favors was out almost a month due to injury and the death of his mother — denying the team any chance to develop a consistent rotation or rhythm.

Alvin Gentry looked to be coaching for his job every night as the team went on a 13-game losing streak, finding itself 6-22 midway through December. Already, the Pelicans’ chances of making the playoffs appeared to have vanished. However, the team has gone 19-11 since then and is 7-6 in games Williamson has played. Perhaps more telling, the team is 7-4 in games where he has played at least 25 minutes.

While it was expected by many entering the season that the Pelicans would make a push to make the postseason, few believed the Grizzlies had the makings of something similar. Entering the season, FiveThirtyEight gave the Grizzlies only a six percent chance of making the playoffs, expecting them to finish 32-50. That assumption made some sense for an extremely young team without a ton of veteran leadership. Also, transitioning from college to the NBA can often be most difficult for point guards like Morant, since they have to learn how to lead an offense in addition to all the other adjustments necessitated by the professional game.

According to John Schuhmann of NBA.com, the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, while the Pelicans have the easiest. This is likely why FiveThirtyEight lists the Pelicans as having a 68 percent chance to make the playoffs and only gives the Grizzlies only five percent odds, even though Memphis currently has a three-game lead over New Orleans.

The Pelicans have defeated the Grizzlies in both of their head-to-head matchups this season, though Memphis will have the chance to even the series and create some much-needed separation in the standings when the two teams meet on March 21 and 24.

Of course, far more intriguing than the specifics of this year’s playoff race is what the future holds for both teams, and for Ja and Zion specifically. While it’s not rare for rookies to play well, it is rare for them to play this well while also leading their team in a fight for a postseason spot. One of the biggest criticisms of many young players who put up big numbers on teams that fail to win consistently is that they don’t actually make their teams better and that their numbers are empty calories. Already, it looks like those criticisms won’t be able to be applied to Morant and Williamson as their careers progress.

And if these two players are this good already, it’s hard to imagine what heights they may reach in seasons to come. Also, Ja and Zion aren’t merely good; they’re electrifying.  Whenever they’re on the floor, their respective teams transform into one of the most entertaining watches in the NBA, which bodes well both for Grizzlies and Pelicans fans but also for a league that can never have enough stars.

Regardless of whether the Pelicans or Grizzlies even make the playoffs — the Portland Trail Blazers and a handful of other teams are still in contention for it, with varying degrees of likelihood — both teams’ futures appear very bright. Ja Morant is the Grizzlies’ point guard of the future, while Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke look like the best frontcourt of 2024. Those three players alone are reason for Grizzlies fans to be extremely optimistic about the 2020s.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans have not only Zion, but also a number of young players who could blossom into solid supporting pieces for the team like Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker. On top of that, they’ve got All-Star Brandon Ingram and the bevy of draft picks they received in the Anthony Davis trade. It would not be surprising if the battle for Western Conference supremacy comes to go through Memphis and New Orleans in the coming years.

What’s more exciting than this fight for the final playoff spot is the prospect of Zion and Ja eventually meeting each other in the postseason someday, battling to advance, both as legitimate stars instead of just rookies full of promise. Williamson and Morant both appear to have the potential to be perennial All-Stars and legitimate franchise players for their teams, each of which is sure to make the NBA a more fun place for the next decade. And if fans are indeed able to get a glimpse of one of them in the postseason this year, that’s just a bonus.

Next: What Kelly Oubre’s torn meniscus means for the Suns



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