Ja Morant Is This Season’s Rookie of the Year, and It’s Not Close
Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Photo from SLAM Magazine
The 2019-20 NBA season has given us a lot of competition. Even with the Milwaukee Bucks clobbering everyone, there's still a lot of tight races for seeding.
One of those jousts for positioning is the eighth seed in the West, where the Memphis Grizzlies can be found. Led by rookie point guard Ja Morant, they are 28-30 with a three-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.
Morant, a 20 year-old basketball genius, is averaging 17.5 points and 6.8 assists a game on a .491/.342/.777 slash line. His advanced numbers aren't as flashy: -0.3 box plus-minus and .08 win shares per-48 minutes, acceptable figures for a starter but not great.
But rookie point guards rarely have good metrics. The fact that he's leading a playoff team should be enough to lock up the Rookie of the Year award. For those who think Zion Williamson still has a shot, I'll spoil the rest of the article: he doesn't.
To his credit, Williamson has been electric in his first 13 games for New Orleans, averaging 23.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in just 28.5 minutes a game. Convert those numbers to per-75 possessions and he's up to 28.4 points and 8.6 boards.
The No. 1 overall pick is a monster finisher who plays much bigger than his height suggests, and he's also an uber-athlete who gets better on defense each game. His draft position is already justified.
Though it's a small sample, he also draws fouls at an eye-popping rate of .568 (would rank seventh among qualifiers), has a BPM of 2.4 (good for a starter) and contributes .157 WS/48 (would rank 39th among qualifiers).
But the small sample is why Williamson is several pegs below Morant in the ROTY race. Even if he continues on this trajectory, it won't be a big enough body of work by season's end.
In fact, we just recently saw the small sample size theater lose a ROTY campaign. Joel Embiid suited up for 31 games in the 2016-17 season, dropping 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds a night with a BPM of 4.5 (All-Star level) and WS/48 of .117 (above average),
Malcolm Brogdon ended up winning the award that season with a meager 10.2 points and 4.2 assists a night. The voters valued an entire season of legitimate production over bursts of stardom.
Williamson is slightly more productive than Embiid was that season, but Morant is also much more worthy than Brogdon was. Even if Zion doesn't miss a game down the stretch, he'll still be at just 37 games played—not even half the season.
The race for the eighth seed could have a huge impact on voters. If NOLA makes a huge push, its prized rookie will be a major part of that. But Memphis' fledgling has led a competitive team all season, and the Pelicans were in contention before Williamson's debut on January 20th (17-27 3.5 games back of 8th in the West).
That both teams are contending while featuring rookies is a testament to each organization. Both Memphis and New Orleans thread the needle of being competitive while laying out an environment for their high-profile youngsters. That makes this race much better than years' past, where newcomers would put up gaudy stats for tankers.
Though Zion is a monster and on pace for greatness, Ja has been doing this all year. Running the one in the NBA is incredibly difficult; that the Murray State product is so good at it this early is more impressive than the numbers say.
Even in the world of "what have you done for me lately," this is still Morant's award.
All stats gathered from Basketball-Reference.