When Williamson made his debut in mid-January, the Rookie of the Year trophy was practically already on Ja Morant's mantle. As one of the best rookie point guards in recent memory, Morant managed to lift the Memphis Grizzlies -- pegged by many before the season as a likely candidate for the Western Conference's worst record -- into position to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016. His candidacy, in a normal year, would be beyond reproach.
But this is hardly a normal year. Williamson has spent the past couple months forcing us to question what is possible from both a rookie and an NBA player at large. He is a one-of-a-kind player that seems destined for a caliber of stardom that, as skilled as Morant appears to be, is reserved for only the most special talent on the planet. Williamson has played only 19 games to Morant's 58, but the overwhelming consensus is that Zion is the superior player.
But does that make him the superior Rookie of the Year candidate? Let's dig into every facet of the race to find out.
How much better is Williamson than Morant as a player, if at all?
As a starting point, let's put their numbers side-by-side and try to at least grasp where they stand against one another independent of minutes.
|Ja Morant||Zion Williamson|
Williamson has the obvious advantage as a scorer, and we'll dive into the specifics momentarily. The question then becomes what else he offers over Morant. Morant spaces the floor better from behind the arc, as Williamson has made only two 3-pointers since going 4 for 4 from downtown in his debut. While Williamson's passing comes with a fair bit of upside, he has yet to truly take advantage of it in a half-court setting. Morant is quickly becoming one of the NBA's best passers. He rebounds fairly well for his position. Williamson is quite good on the offensive glass and bad as a defensive rebounder.
Defensively, neither is anything special, but Williamson plays a more important defensive position, so his issues are more problematic. That balances out a bit offensively because point guards are simply easier to find than unstoppable rim scorers. From a roster-building standpoint, though, Morant is far and away the simpler fit. In an ideal world, Williamson needs to be paired with an elite isolation scorer, a center who can both protect the rim and shoot and a point guard who does a bit of everything. How many teams have all of that? Morant, meanwhile, needs little specifically. Ideally he'd have a rim-runner, some shooters and a secondary ball-handler, but an all-around point guard like him can work in a variety of different alignments.
In short, we can say fairly comfortably that Williamson is the better player right now. The gap just isn't that big when you line their skill sets up against one another. If all things were equal, Williamson would win the award. They aren't, though, so we need to dig deeper.
How historic a rookie is Zion really?
It depends on what metrics you value. Williamson is almost indisputably the most efficient rookie scorer of all time. At 23.6 points per game, he is 18th in NBA history in raw rookie scoring, but that number jumps all the way to No. 2 on a per-minute basis. At 28.5 points per 36 minutes, he trails only Wilt Chamberlain. He also has the highest field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage of any player who has scored as much as he has. Shaquille O'Neal ranks just behind him in two of those categories. In terms of true shooting percentage, Shaq is fourth ... with David Robinson and Michael Jordan between him and Zion.
When you measure Williamson's game in the aggregate, though, the advanced metrics aren't quite as favorable as you'd think. His 24.3 PER would rank him seventh among Rookie of the Year winners -- just below Jordan and Bob Pettit -- but his .150 win shares per 48 minutes would only have him 27th. That's below Karl-Anthony Towns. He slides in just behind Blake Griffin for No. 17 in Box-Plus-Minus as well, and while there are plenty of other metrics worth considering in a normal race, there just aren't that many options available that correct for Williamson's three-month absence and date back far enough to be compared to all previous winners. What we have suggests that Williamson is an excellent rookie, just not the greatest of all time as some have suggested. There are very real flaws to poke in his game.
Defense is Williamson's biggest weakness. While it should be noted that ESPN has him listed as a small forward, he is currently ranked 68th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at his position. He also has a negative Defensive Box-Plus-Minus, and while the Pelicans have played excellent defense with him on the floor (allowing only 103.1 points per 100 possessions), he spends most of his minutes in a starting lineup that includes two excellent defenders in Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors and two inconsistent but very high ceiling ones in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram.
Williamson will eventually improve on defense, and it should hardly be held against him that he's bad there now. Most rookies are. But winning this award after missing half of the season was always going to be an uphill climb, and his defense just makes it steeper.
While ranking rookies across eras is nearly impossible, it should be noted that most of the players ahead of him in these metrics played a long time ago. Chamberlain leads almost every major rookie category, and the six players with higher PERs than him all started their careers in the 1980s or earlier. Williamson may not be the greatest rookie of all time, but he's at least the best in quite some time, and is statistically in the same ballpark with legends like Chamberlain, Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
What about Morant? How would we rate his rookie year if Zion didn't exist?
Our perception of Morant's rookie season has unquestionably been warped by Zion's brilliance. After all, Morant was in the All-Star conversation in the first half of the season. Now, his name comes up primarily as it relates to his ROY race with the surging Williamson. If Zion didn't exist, though, we'd be spending far more time on the almost certain superstardom Morant's rookie year portends.
At 17.6 points per game, he falls neatly into a group of some of the best recent Rookie of the Year-winning point guards, including Damian Lillard (17.4), Derrick Rose (16.8) and Chris Paul (16.1) in a cluster toward the middle of the overall guard pack. However, he is far more efficient than any of them were. In fact, only two Rookie of the Year guards have ever topped Morant's 52.4 effective field goal percentage, and neither of them (Ben Simmons and Walter Davis) even attempted a 3-pointer. Zion is the most efficient rookie ever. Morant is one of the most efficient rookie guards ever.
His 7.0 assists have him in similar company, with a logjam of Simmons (8.2), Paul (7.8) and Jason Kidd (7.7) ahead of him. It should be noted, however, that Morant plays by far the fewest minutes of any of these players. At 29.9 minutes per game, he would have played the third-fewest on average among all Rookie of the Year winners, ahead of just Mike Miller and Malcolm Brogdon (who we'll get to in a bit). On a per-minute basis, Morant vaults up all of these lists.
If nothing else, we can say this: Morant's numbers fall in the same general range of players at his position that tend to win the award and go on to stardom afterward. In a normal year, we wouldn't think twice about handing him the trophy.
Is there any precedent for Zion winning with so few games played?
Well ... sort of ... but you have to squint. Patrick Ewing and Vince Carter each won it playing 50 games. Kyrie Irving did so with 51. They all just happened to play in fairly weak classes. Ewing's runner-up was Xavier McDaniel, Carter's was Jason Williams and Irving's was Ricky Rubio. All three had fellow stars receiving votes, with Karl Malone, Paul Pierce and Kawhi Leonard coming up short in those respective years, but remember, all three were picked No. 10 or later. Nobody knew what they were going to be yet, and they hadn't proven themselves stars to that point. It took all three of them time to hit their peaks. As rookies? They underwhelmed.
Even if Williamson's class was similarly weak, he can't reach 50 games. The most games he can play this season is 37, and the closest thing we have to a precedent there would be Joel Embiid in 2017. He came in third, finishing behind Brogdon and his own teammate, Dario Saric, after playing 31 games at perhaps the highest two-way level any rookie ever has. Morant is better than both of them by a comfortable margin.
If you treat Rookie of the Year as an apprisal of the most valuable rookie, an easy way to consider how big the gap currently is between Morant and Williamson would be to look at their total numbers. Morant currently has 1,020 total points. Even if he didn't play a single game the rest of the season, Williamson would have to average 32 points per game the rest of the way in order to catch him from the 448 total points he currently has. That isn't going to happen.
Fortunately for loophole seekers, Rookie of the Year is not technically the Most Valuable Rookie award. If it were, that would be its name. The vague title gives voters some leeway to create their own definition of "of the year." Williamson will receive votes based on the idea that he is the most outstanding rookie, even if he hasn't provided the most value to his team. It likely won't be many, but that is Williamson's path to the award.
How does each impact their team, and how much does team success factor into this?
Williamson has one enormous advantage in this race: The Pelicans have done a complete 180 since his return. With him in the lineup, they outscore opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions. Without him, they have been outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions. The Grizzlies have seen only a minimal 1.8 points per 100 possession dip when Morant goes to the bench.
Granted, there are a number of very good reasons for all of this. Williamson's return somewhat coincided with Favors' return, not to mention Ball's improvement as a shooter. New Orleans' schedule got easier. Morant has had to deal with injuries and trades. His team also has an excellent backup point guard in Tyus Jones. Williamson's impact on the Pelicans matters, but context is key.
The next month will prove a valuable gauge of just how big that impact is. This year's race is rather unique in that it features two teams directly competing for a playoff spot. Memphis leads New Orleans by 3.5 games right now, but it has two head-to-head matchups remaining. Williamson probably needs to earn that No. 8 seed if he is going to win Rookie of the Year. Doing so would prove to be a particularly notable feather in his cap. Most top rookies play on bad teams because they themselves were high draft picks. Only five Rookie of the Year winners this century have reached the postseason. Miller and Brogdon were role players. Rose's Bulls had only been out for a single year and needed an extraordinary lottery jump. Williamson leading his team to a playoff spot in the brutally competitive Western Conference, especially considering how far out they were when he returned, would be such a singularly impressive achievement that it would probably sway a chunk of the voting body.
So who's going to win?
In all likelihood, Morant. If Embiid couldn't beat Brogdon, an inferior candidate to Morant, than a voting constituency comprised largely of the same media members probably isn't going to give Zion the trophy. There's no shame in that. Williamson probably has a better chance at an MVP down the line.
If we were to build a scenario in which Zion did win, it would have to come from some combination of the factors listed above. Morant would probably have to miss some games, and Williamson can't miss any. Zion would likely have to make the playoffs. Voters would have to willfully interpret the award as Most Outstanding Rookie rather than Most Valuable Rookie. Zion might even need to put up bigger stats or player bigger minutes just to make it a conversation.
All of that is possible. It just isn't likely. Even with Zion's surge, this is still Morant's trophy to lose.