Gilson’s Sports Guide: Is the Rookie of the Year race closer than you think?

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Eleven months ago to the day, I was working the opening round of the NCAA tournament as a disc runner for The Associated Press. What that means is I basically got to sit courtside for free to watch some of the most exciting players in college basketball duke it out on the game’s biggest stage. One of those names was Ja Morant. 

I had heard a lot about Morant’s highlight reel abilities leading up to the tourney, but seeing him in person was a whole other experience videos cannot capture. Madness, if you will. He was quicker, more under control, more athletic and, simply put, looked like a man among boys at times during the first two rounds. Because of this he was my immediate choice to win the Rookie of the Year award heading into the 2019-20 season. The only problem was I forgot about the 6-foot-6, nearly 300-pound kid from Kentucky named Zion Williamson. 


New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, playing for the U.S. squad, goes up for a dunk during the second half of the NBA Rising Stars game in Chicago.  Photo courtesy of Nam Y. Huh/AP

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, playing for the U.S. squad, goes up for a dunk during the second half of the NBA Rising Stars game in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Nam Y. Huh/AP

Before, during and after the draft, Zion was everyone’s favorite pick to win ROTY, some even going so far as to say he was a generational talent, the next LeBron James. And sure, I also had high expectations for the teenager, but something about his style of play rubbed me the wrong way. I wasn’t quite sure a big athletic body would be enough for him to fulfill the immense shoes people had already put out for him. Ja on the other hand, was different. He was ready in college, he has proven he was ready in the NBA, and now well past the halfway point of the season, he is still my favorite to be chosen as Rookie of the Year over Zion. Here’s why: 

On the season, Ja Morant is averaging 17.6 points and almost seven assists per game, both of which lead all qualifying rookies by decent margins as well as his team. Beyond just the stats, he has already made several game-clinching plays on both sides of the floor, while also showing flashes of that insane athleticism and efficiency he displayed at Murray State. But that’s the easy stuff. 

The biggest thing Ja has done for this Grizzlies team, is make them relevant again. Memphis currently sits in the No. 8 spot in the tough Western Conference with a record of 28-29. Those 28 wins have already surpassed their total from the 2017-18 season, and they are just five wins away from passing their total from last season with 25 games left to play. You might be questioning if this can actually be accounted to Ja or if they are just a better team this season, but the answer to that is a resounding “Ja.” The Grizzlies are 1-5 without Morant on the court this season, with both their offensive and defensive efficiencies dropping without the rookie.  

Putting his stats aside (which is what many people will gravitate toward when picking the winner), Ja has been carrying the load for the Grizzlies, and has been a true difference-maker all season. Just look at their roster without him. Do you think a starting five of Tyus Jones, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas would put up a real fight against anyone? No. Ja is one of the only reasons this team has been able to win as many games as they have thus far, and should they make the playoffs, he will be the sole reason for that as well. The intangibles paired up with his stats and knack for winning when he has no right should be enough to earn him that Rookie of the Year award. 

Now let me now tell you why Zion should not get it to really drill home my point. 

What Zion’s been able to do thus far is impressive. In the 12 games he has played he is averaging 23 points and seven rebounds en route to a 7-5 record. He’s been able to use his body incredibly well to bully smaller players in the paint while also showing off a very respectable 3-point shot. 

Zion’s downfall for me, however, is that small sample size of 12 games and what it means for the rest of his season. Not only is the 37 games max he can play too small to truly be considered for the award, but it will not allow the whole story to be told. 

There were moments in Ja’s first couple seasons in the league where he looked downright unstoppable. But after those couple months, Morant got a little tired, and more significantly, teams started to figure him out a little bit more. That is what should and most likely will happen to Zion over the rest of the season: teams mixing up their game plan a little bit to focus on shutting down one of the team’s hottest players. It’s only a matter of time before defenses will find a way to manipulate Zion’s tendencies to force him into much tougher offensive situations while they continue to exploit his defensive shortcomings on the other end. The only reason teams haven’t already begun to do that is because the Pelicans have a very complete roster, another reason Zion sits behind Ja in my book. 

Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, J.J. Reddick, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors. That is the Pelicans starting five if you take Zion out of the picture. Not too shabby if you ask me. So, the only real way I can see Zion overtaking Ja is if by some miracle the Grizzlies lose out and drop out of the playoffs while Zion leads the Pelicans to the No. 8 seed past the Blazers and Grizzlies. But in all honesty, even as a Pelicans fan, I don’t necessarily see that happening. 

Are both players having excellent seasons in their own right? Yes. Could there be MVP debates in the future? Hopefully. But are there Rookie of the Year conversations now? Not in my book. Chalk Ja’s name up for me. 


Conner Gilson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at conner.gilson@uconn.edu. He tweets @connergilson03.

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