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Golden State of Awards: Rookie of the Year

Is it Ja Morant or Zion Williamson?

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

At this point it’s becoming clear that there will be one of two outcomes in the NBA this season, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Either the current season will be drastically truncated, or it will be cancelled entirely.

Either way, we’ve seen all or almost all of the regular season games, which means we can start crowning the individual award winners. So I’m handing out my awards this week. On Monday, I chose my MVP, on Tuesday the Defensive Player of the Year, and yesterday, Coach of the Year. Today is Rookie of the Year, and Friday will be Most Improved Player.

Spoiler: Not a lot of Golden State Warriors will be making appearances.

Now let’s get into it.

Rookie of the Year has been a fun race all NBA season. Long before the year even began, the race was set in place. Everyone knew Zion Williamson would be drafted first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans, and it certainly seemed like Ja Morant was a near-lock to go second to the Memphis Grizzlies.

As the season neared, a narrative formed that Morant might be more NBA-ready than Williamson, who was perhaps the most hyped draft prospect since LeBron James. Morant became a trendy Rookie of the Year pick as a result.

Then the season began, with Williamson sidelined due to a knee injury. Morant came out of the gates firing, and for a while it seemed he would be the only person in the race. But as Williamson’s return loomed, whispers began to creep into the discussion. How good would Zion have to be to make this competitive? some wondered. Is Ja’s head start enough to keep Zion at bay?

And then, of course, Williamson made his NBA debut, and here we are, having the discussion.

Let’s get some answers.

1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

30.0 minutes, 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.3 blocks per game

51.7% 2FG, 36.7% 3FG, 77.0% FT, 56.8% true-shooting

Morant has come into the NBA and been the one thing that I doubted he could be as a rookie: Valuable.

He’s the focal point of the offense, a point guard, and a player who often relies on tremendous athleticism. Those are supposed to result in rookies who put together outrageously fun highlight packages, while doing nothing to actually help their team win.

Morant has emphatically done the former, and just as emphatically resisted the latter.

Consider: Morant drew pre-draft comparisons to Russell Westbrook, due to his explosiveness. His true-shooting percentage, a measure of efficiency (which should be a glaring weakness for a rookie), is notably higher than the highest mark of Westbrook’s career.

It took Kyle Lowry four full seasons to post a three-point shooting percentage as high as Morant’s. It took Steph Curry four years to have an assist output on par with Morant’s.

And the largest weakness that rookies should have, defense? He’s been all right there, too.

As a result, the Grizzlies have clung to the 8-seed in the West, when they were supposed to be jockeying for pole position in the lottery sweepstakes.

Morant looks every bit the part of a franchise player, and he’s my pick for Rookie of the Year.

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

29.7 minutes, 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.5 blocks per game

59.5% 2FG, 46.2% 3FG, 64.5% FT, 62.4% true-shooting

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear (cover your ears, Grizzlies fans): Zion Williamson has been the best rookie basketball player this NBA season.

He’s been good. So good. So freaking good.

How good? Advanced metrics don’t tell the whole story, but they highlight something with Williamson. As I mentioned above, rookies aren’t supposed to provide much value. They’re still catching up to the speed of the game, and usually struggle horribly on defense.

That’s reflected in the advanced metrics, like PIPM and RPM, where rookies generally struggle mightily. Morant, for instance, ranks 138th in the league by PIPM, which is really good for a rookie! The third overall pick, RJ Barrett, is 505th. The Warriors rookies rank 250th (Alen Smailagic), 496th (Jordan Poole), and 507th (Eric Paschall).

Williamson ranks 43rd, with the exact same number as Ben Simmons (also the same number as Tim Hardaway Jr., but let’s selectively ignore that).

Again, advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, but in this case they certainly provide some context. Zion positively impacts games in a way that rookies - specifically star rookies - just aren’t supposed to.

Many people felt that Williamson had missed too many games to be considered for Rookie of the Year. I understand that viewpoint, but I don’t usually agree with it. Rookie of the Year isn’t a value-added award, it’s just an award to recognize the best player. If a player is clearly the better player, they deserve that recognition. Had the season played out as normal, and Williamson made it to 40 games, he would have been my pick (had everyone’s performance held).

But he only played 19 games, and I have to draw the line somewhere. Availability is the best ability, and has to be counted as a skill, even if it’s rooted in luck. And at 19 games, the league simply hadn’t had time to adjust to Williamson yet, so we can’t give him credit for maintaining those numbers - perhaps they would have cooled off as the league grew used to him. I doubt it, but we can’t give awards based on assumptions.

3. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

21.7 minutes, 12.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game

65.4% 2FG, 40.4% 3FG, 78.5% FT, 67.0% true-shooting

Most Rookie of the Year winners are high-usage offensive focal points, and that’s part of why Clarke is third on my list, rather than first or second. He’s simply not that.

Clarke has the perfect role for a rookie to shine in. He comes off the bench, plays moderate minutes that are slightly matchup-based, is not expected to create his own shot (83.5% of his buckets have been assisted on), and usually shares the Memphis frontcourt with a really good player.

Still, you can’t knock him for performing brilliantly in good conditions. His field goal percentage is fifth in the league, snuggled between veteran lob men Clint Capela and Hassan Whiteside. He makes threes at a rate befitting a starting 2-guard, not a power forward, albeit on just one attempt per game.

He plays defense, crashes the glass hard, and is always in the right place.

Who knows if he can be a star. But he’s already a very good contributor.

Honorable Mention

Terence Davis, Toronto Raptors: How this guy went undrafted, I have no clue.

Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat: How this guy went undrafted I . . . well, I definitely have a clue.

Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors: A little bit of everything, but not quite as good as Clarke.

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat: Very good, but not good enough.

RJ Barrett: Showed a ton of promise, but isn’t good yet.

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