NBA 2020 Rookie of the Year Rankings: Could Zion Surpass Ja if Season Resumes?

Jordan Cohn
March 31, 2020 - 1:30 pm
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On February 19, 2020, sports betting site Odds Shark posted that Grizzlies guard Ja Morant's odds to win Rookie of the Year were at -250. The Pelicans' Zion Williamson was hot on his tail, despite a major discrepancy in games played, at +190.

From February 20 to March 11, the two players' stat lines were as follows:
Zion: 25.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, 60.1% FG, 5-4 record
Ja: 17.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 6.7 apg, 47.4% FG, 4-6 record

So, if anything, Zion should have probably taken the lead or at least gained considerable headway since the February 19 odds... right?

Evidently not, as another one of the many casualties of coronavirus's unprecedented impact on sports was this year's Rookie of the Year race. This race was shaping up to be a good one, too, as the difference in games played between the two contenders was not typical.

Of course, Zion Williamson is not your typical rookie.

It's not that last year's rookies were typical, either. Last year’s Rookie of the Year race was certainly intriguing, in that there were two players who became bonafide superstars in this league as soon as they stepped on the court, in Luka Dončić and Trae Young. Looking ahead, it looks as though the votes were given to the right guy. Dončić won by a significant margin and has since blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate in just his second year, while Young is scoring at will and from wherever he chooses to pull up.

But what Zion Williamson had been doing is on a completely different level. Just 15 games into his rookie season, you often heard his name in conversation that involves names like Michael Jordan and LeBron James. He helped to bring the Pelicans out of an unfavorable situation and gave them a legitimate chance to make a playoff run. He had proven to be unstoppable in the low post, stayed out of negative media drama, played imposing defense, hit threes... and the list goes on. After the virus put the season on standstill, the rookie continued to make news by pledging to cover the salaries of Smoothie King Center employees for a month after the season was indefinitely suspended.

The craziest part? He still might not be the Rookie of the Year. Similarly to last year's race, it's largely between two candidates. The rest of the rookies shouldn’t be ignored: though they realistically aren’t in the running for the award, they have impressed from the start and promise a ton of potential. But this race comes down to two names: Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Whether or not the season resumes and how the league decides to let it unfold will play a major role in determining if Zion Williamson has a real chance at taking home the gold.

Here are the current rankings of the ROTY candidates.

1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant brings the ball up for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Photo credit Getty Images

Stats: 17.6 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.9 apg, 18.0 PER (Player efficiency rating)

It's hard to call such an electrifying talent the "tortoise" in this equation, but using Aesop's fable as a metaphor of the competition between Morant and Williamson, the Grizzlies point guard has been the steady force over the entirety of the 2019-20 season, and his lead looks fairly safe. Thus, the tortoise seems to be an appropriate comparison.

The Grizzlies were supposed to be one of the weakest teams in the league, though everyone was excited to see what the No. 2 overall pick would bring to the city that had been stuck with a disappointing, if even a little boring, brand of basketball for years.

It’s not that the seven consecutive playoff appearances between 2010 and 2017 were difficult for fans to enjoy. But they never had the flare or the star power from guys like Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph that other teams were able to enjoy.

Ja Morant has changed things in a big way. A perfect example of the new-brand Grizzlies, led by Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., is how they reacted to former “teammate” Andre Iguodala’s constant complaints about playing in Memphis.

It’s not all about flare, though, and Morant has showcased incredible displays of basketball talent, leading to a very real chance that the Grizzlies make a playoff appearance (as of the league's suspension, the Grizzlies are holding on to the eighth seed in the West by 3.5 games over the three-way tie of the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings). He’s leading all rookies in assists per game (6.9) and is second in scoring (17.6).

The only rookie with 20 games of 20+ points (he has 25), the fact that he’s played the whole season will likely give him the edge over the next candidate. He should be considered the odds-on favorite at the present time.

2. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson looks up after a play against the Celtics.
Photo credit Getty Images

Stats: 23.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 apg, 24.2 PER

Here is the aforementioned "hare" in this race, and though the metaphor is obvious, it's not a perfect analogy. The hare lost the race because he got out to such a huge lead and took a nap. Zion will likely lose the race because Morant had such a huge head start. In either case, it's impossible to label the history-making and explosive beast that is Zion Williamson a "hare."

Missing as many games as he did doesn’t seem to bode well for his chances at the award. But Zion’s a special player, and this is a year where one rookie hasn’t completely blown the top off of the competition, as impressive as Ja Morant has been.

The most games he would have been able to play this season was 37, and it’s well within reason to assume that he might have missed a few more games along the way. The ROTY winners with the least games played are Patrick Ewing (50 games), Vince Carter (50) and Kyrie Irving (51). Ewing was much more impactful on the floor than runner-up Xavier McDaniel, Vince Carter’s debut occurred during the 50-game 1999 lockout season and Irving won the award during another lockout without another realistic contender.

Along with Ewing, the most comparable situation may be that of Joel Embiid, who garnered 23 first-place votes and finished in third after playing only 31 games in 2017. That occurred during a relatively weak year, where Ja Morant surely would have taken home the prize over the season’s actual winner, Malcolm Brogdon.

Williamson is a different level of "good", though. He's not good. He's incredible. He’s must-see TV every single time he’s on the floor and is living up to the hype with a flurry of athletic finishes and impressive highlights in the small sample size. The stats accurately portray his dominance: he’s seventh in the NBA in scoring per 36 minutes (min. 20 minutes per game) and seems to stack up with not only the best rookies, but the best players in the entire league. In 16 of his 19 games this season he has scored 20 or more points, never dropping into single digits.

Should he have continued at this rate over the course of a whole season, it would not have come as a major surprise if Williamson surpassed Morant in the race despite the huge chunk of playing time he missed early in the season. However, the bottom line seems to be that in the event of a reduced regular season or an immediate start to the playoffs, it will have been too much missed time to overcome for Zion.

3. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

Kendrick Nunn searches for an open Heat teammate.
Photo credit Getty Images

Stats: 15.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.4 apg, 13.5 PER

Kendrick Nunn was not supposed to factor into the Rookie of the Year race.

The lowest draft pick to ever win the ROTY award was Malcolm Brogdon, taken at No. 36 in the 2016 draft. Kendrick Nunn wasn’t taken lower than Brogdon, but that’s because Nunn wasn’t drafted at all.

He’s not playing like someone who didn’t warrant a draft pick, though. Immediately making an impact with a 24-point debut, Nunn has scored 20 points in 17 games this season and has led the Heat to an 13-4 record in those displays. When Nunn is on, the Heat are on, and that’s the case more often than not. He ranks third among all rookies in scoring with 15.8 points per game.

He has nearly twice as many assists as he has turnovers, displaying good ball security and discipline for a first-year player. His efficiency is another solid attribute, though there is room for improvement. He has bounced back very nicely from a pre-All-Star break slump, averaging 20.0 ppg so far in the second half of the season and finding his long-range touch with a 45.9% clip.

4. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

RJ Barrett looks to dribble past a defender.
Photo credit Getty Images

Stats: 14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 10.7 PER

The third overall draft pick has not been able to grant the Knicks much team success, but that’s hardly his fault given his supporting cast. Immediately thrust into a huge role, Barrett has been streaky when healthy -- like when he scored 27 points on 10-for-13 shooting and followed up that dazzling display with a two-point, 1-for-10 performance -- and he dealt with an ankle injury that kept him out for a couple weeks.

Still, the Knicks should be excited that they have a talent like Barrett in their ranks. With Marcus Morris out of town, he could become the franchise’s go-to scorer for the foreseeable future and will have plenty of time to develop while the Knicks work on spending their enormous cap space to build a competent roster.

His playing time, for the most part, had increased so far in the second half. Four of the five outings out of the break saw Barrett convert more than 40% of his double-digit looks, and he's beginning to assimilate into the go-to role. An impressive 8-for-10 shooting performance in a win over the Bulls was an encouraging sight for the Duke alum, and he had a good month of March, averaging 18.7 points and leading the Knicks to an improbable win over the Rockets.

5. Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Coby White
Coby White shoots a jumper. Photo credit USA Today

Stats: 13.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, 11.9 PER

Using the words from the popular Lord of the Rings meme, one does not simply score at least 33 points off the bench in three consecutive games, regardless if you're a rookie or if you're an experienced veteran.

Only one rookie (Trae Young) has ever had three consecutive games of such impressive scoring, but that was as a starter. Only two bench players have ever scored that many points in two consecutive games (Lou Williams and J.R. Smith), but only White has done it in three straight. In 10 games after the All-Star break, White averaged 24.7 points on 46.8% shooting and a 40.7% clip from beyond the arc.

Talk about a tale of two halves. White had some scoring outbursts in the first part of the season, but he also had 24 games of single-digit scoring. Of his 10 second half games, only once did he score below 19 points, and you'd have to think that he can do this much damage on a consistent basis with a regular role going forward.

6. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Tyler Herro brings the ball up for the Heat.
Photo credit Getty Images

Stats: 12.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 11.4 PER

Though Herro has been overshadowed by teammate Kendrick Nunn in the rookie race, he had a larger spotlight on him to start the year and has definitely played up to expectation. Herro was drafted with the hope that he could carry his elite shooting prowess -- not to mention his impeccable free throw shooting -- to the NBA.

His free throw percentage has gone down 10 whole points from his only year of college hoops and is still at a very respectable 83.5%. More importantly, though, his three-point accuracy has increased from 35% to 39%, placing him in very impressive standing among NBA rookies in recent history.

Should he have kept up his shooting performance, Herro would have become one of five rookies since 2000 to shoot above 39% from beyond the arc while attempting more than five threes per game. In terms of scoring, his average of 12.9 points per game puts him at the top of that list.

An ankle injury hampered his months of February and March, but the Heat rely on his shooting all throughout the game and he’s never afraid to take a big shot. They'll need him come playoff time, whether or not that takes place this season, and it's rare that a rookie has such a large impact.

Next In Line

Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

Stats: 13.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 13.9 PER

The Gonzaga alum has been able to use his powerful frame for some big games, including a 27-point outburst against a prominent 76ers interior defense.

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Stats: 12.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 21.8 PER

Morant hasn't been the only promising rookie in the Grizzlies' organization this season. Clarke, a star for Gonzaga, has delivered off the bench for Memphis and has been a really bright option in the low post. He missed the end of February and all of March with an injury.

De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks

Stats: 12.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 8.6 PER

Hunter had a solid second half, averaging 13.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and knocking down threes at a 40.4% clip.

Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Stats: 12.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.9 apg, 8.5 PER

Garland shook off a cold start to his career and began to find his footing in mid-December before going on a run of 15 games where he scored in double figures. He missed all of March.

Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

Stats: 14.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, 14.5 PER

He was definitely the beneficiary of being on a bad team, but you have to give Paschall credit for taking the opportunity to play and turning it into a productive statistical season. He averaged 17.5 ppg in the second half and played over 30 minutes per contest after finding an increased role.

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