With the NBA regular season seemingly over with, due to the COVID-19 pandemic (you may have heard of it), it seems remiss of me to wait any longer before casting my votes on my imaginary NBA ballot. GIVE ME MY BALLOT, NBA! COWARDS!
As well as nominating my winner, and acknowledging those in the conversation, we’ll also go back through my preseason and mid-season predictions, so we can see just how off the mark I was (which might go someway to explaining why I don’t have a ballot. Sorry for venting, NBA).
Today, let’s have a look at the leagues freshmen and crown our NBA Rookie of the Year.
Rookie of the Year
Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Pre-season prediction: Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Mid-season prediction: Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
In the mix: Zion Williamson, and.....ahhh.....yeah, that's about it, really.
This is really the complete opposite to last week's Coach of the Year award, in that there can be only one worthy winner: Ja Morant.
The 20 year old out of Murray State averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists in his rookie campaign – both were team leading. For such a slight player, it's very encouraging that he's led the Grizz in both free throws attempted (4.5 per game) and made (3.5). That has lead to some heart in mouth moments for Grizzlies fans, though:
Whilst the counting numbers are excellent, Ja's appeal comes in the moments; the flashes that indicate that the Grizz have a true star on their hands.
Morant has given us us many of those, be it a highlight reel pass:
Or a taking it to a superstar at both ends of the floor (quietly, his fearlessness is his best trait):
The single thing that should strike the most fear into the NBA, is the fact that Morant has shown some truly homicidal tendencies. Just ask the descendants of the late Aron Baynes:
Even the survivors wonder aloud if they would have been better off if Ja had finished the job.
Ja almost ended my professional career with this dunk...that kid is something special 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻 https://t.co/5SxCItAMba— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) December 21, 2019
Outside of the highlights, Morant demonstrated a poise and control of his surroundings that belied his inexperience. His ability to combine Westbrook-lite athleticism and mini-Stockton ability to manipulate the chess board make Morant a nightmare to deal with right now, let alone once he matures.
The only other rookie that was in the mix here was of course Zion Williamson. If you'll recall my pre-season predictions, I expected Morant to win the award, but with a very prominent asterix: if Zion played 50+ games, the award would be his to lose.
Well, it took the combination of a fairly serious knee injury and a global pandemic to stop the phenomenon that is Zion. The NBA's 4th youngest player (only Detroit forward Sekou Doubouya is younger amongst rotation players) only played 19 games, though those games were astounding. He put up a nightly 23.6 points (2nd on the team overall, but team leading from the time he made his debut) and 6.8 rebounds. Again, whilst the numbers are great, it's the moments that set Zion apart. I could have clipped so may singular highlights from the video below, but I've chosen to leave the whole thing in for your viewing pleasure. However, let me guide you towards a few particulars that will give you an idea as to how rounded Zion's game already is:
The pass to Melli at the 2:45 mark.
The lightning 1st step a the 3:20 point.
Bullying a slab of imported Rotorua granite at the 4:57 mark.
At the 7:15 point, the recovery block on Westbrook.
Outstanding footwork on display at 8:20.
He's not just gravity defying dunks, folks.
Ja and Zion were streets ahead of the rest of their rookie class; let's face it: the rest of the rookies collectively underwhelmed. There were some first year players that at least had moments.
Undrafted Kendrick Nunn played like he'd been in the league for years in winning the starting position out of the gate in Miami, averaging 15.6 points and dropping a pair of three pointers per game. Bulls sniper Coby White lit it up post All Star break, dropping 24.7 points and 4.3 assists a night whilst shooting over 40% from deep. Likewise Cam Reddish, who seemed to finally pick up the pace of the game in early February. He posted 16.4 points and saw his true shooting % skyrocket after the All Star game: 46.7% to 62.2%. It's safe to say that there are some good rotation players in this draft: Rui Hachimura, RJ Barrett, Jaxson Hayes, Matisse Thybulle, Tyler Herro, PJ Washington. It just lacks that out and out star power, outside of the top two picks.
So this award certainly doesn't contain the intrigue of some of the other NBA award races this season, but this season's rookie class has given us two certain superstars of the game in Zion Williamson and our NBA Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant.