The NBA recently announced that the upcoming seeding games in Orlando will not be taken into consideration for end-of-season awards.
One of those end-of-season awards? Rookie of the Year.
Ja Morant has been the runaway favourite all season long. As we'll get into, he's having one of the best rookie point guard seasons of recent memory, both in terms of the numbers he is posting on a nightly basis and the impact it has had on a Memphis Grizzlies team that wasn't expected to do much of anything this season.
Zion Williamson, meanwhile, has been sidelined for most of the season after undergoing knee surgery, but it hasn't taken him long to show why he was the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He's basically broken record after record after record since making his debut and he's helped keep the New Orleans Pelicans' postseason dreams alive.
Based on what we know today, who should be this season's Rookie of the Year?
Let's take a closer look at four stats to put the race into perspective.
19: How many games Williamson has played
It would be the least amount of games someone has played and won Rookie of the Year by a mile.
The fewest currently in a non-lockout-shortened season is 50, done by Patrick Ewing in 1985-86. Other than him, the only other players in NBA history who have been named Rookie of the Year while playing in less than 60 games in a non-lockout-shortened season are Terry Dischinger (57) and Brandon Roy (57).
Even if you include Vince Carter and Kyrie Irving, both of whom were named Rookie of the Year in lockout-shortened seasons, they still appeared in far more games than Williamson would have had the season not been suspended and had he not missed another game (37).
So historically, there is no precedent for Williamson winning Rookie of the Year. Even Joel Embiid, who was the last player to miss the majority of the season and still be in the Rookie of the Year race, finished third behind Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric - two players he was clearly better than - in voting in his rookie season.
If that's the case, why is this even a discussion?
10.4: The Pelicans' net rating with Williamson on the court
It's not just that Williamson is putting up numbers we've only ever seen from one rookie before. It's that he's already making a difference on a team that is in the playoff picture.
According to NBA.com, the Pelicans are being outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the bench this season. That means there's a swing of 13.9 points per 100 possessions when he steps foot on the court.
That's, uh, not normal.
Not only does that give Williamson the best net rating on the Pelicans, it's superior to the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.0), LeBron James (11.7), Kawhi Leonard (10.8) and James Harden (5.6), nevermind Morant (1.8). By no means is that to say Williamson is more valuable than they are - the on/off data is far from perfect and there are several factors that contributed to Williamson's net rating being as high as it is, such as Derrick Favors' return to the lineup and the Pelicans' schedule easing up - but it provides some insight into the type of impact he has been able to make.
8 straight for Zion! He's tied his career-high of 31 PTS.@PelicansNBA 108@okcthunder 108- NBA (@NBA) February 14, 2020
📲💻: https://t.co/lZZApswzuX pic.twitter.com/kAzdoHUnvJ
Whether you look at his raw stats or the advanced ones, Williamson has basically been performing at the level of an All-Star since making his debut with the Pelicans. The problem, of course, is that he's done it in only 19 games. This might not be much of a debate had Williamson played as well as he has in those 19 games for the entire season, but, as we've already gone over, history shows that games played matters.
It is the Rookie of the Year award after all. Also, Morant has been pretty damn good himself.
25.5: How many games the Grizzlies were projected to win this season
There's no other place to start with Morant.
Coming into this season, only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets were projected to win fewer games than the Grizzlies. Without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies were expected to be a lottery team again, not one that would be gunning for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference with a 32-33 record at the time of the season being suspended.
Although the on/off numbers don't shine quite as big of a spotlight on him as they do Williamson, Morant has been the driving force in the Grizzlies' success.
On the season, Morant is leading the Grizzlies with 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game. Those numbers put him in some impressive company. According to Basketball-Reference, Morant is one of only 14 guards in NBA history to average at least 17.0 points and 5.0 assists per game as a rookie, some of the others being Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard.
Morant has been surprisingly efficient for a rookie point guard, too. Of the 13 other guards who have posted similar numbers in their rookie seasons, Jordan and Johnson are the only ones who did so with a higher true shooting percentage. He's already one of the league's most feared drivers and he's been a far more effective 3-point shooter than he was projected to be coming into the NBA.
Ja Morant (23 PTS) WINS IT for the @memgrizz! #NBARooks pic.twitter.com/ScUi64sIYS- NBA (@NBA) November 14, 2019
What's most impressive about Morant is that he hasn't let up. He hit the ground running and isn't far removed from his most productive game of the season, exploding for 27 points and 14 assists in a much-needed win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Even if Williamson had the highest peak this season, there's no debate that Morant has been the best rookie from start to finish. And even though our NBA.com Staff thinks Williamson will be the better player in five years time, we had Morant only a couple of spots behind him.
In other words, both have proven to be absolute studs this season and this might not be the only time they're going head-to-head with each other for an end-of-season award.
70: How many first-place votes Morant received in ESPN's Rookie of the Year straw poll
And there were only 70 ballots, so nobody else received a first-place vote, which means this might not actually be much of a race.
It's not hard to see why.
Williamson's best shot at catching Morant was leading the Pelicans to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. There's still a chance he will - no team in the league has an easier schedule than New Orleans in Orlando - but since only games played prior to the league suspension are being taken into account for end-of-season awards, it won't be a factor when it comes to voting.
Interestingly, Williamson wasn't included on everyone's ballot in ESPN's straw poll. He still ran away with the second-most points, but Kendrick Nunn, Brandon Clarke, Eric Paschall and RJ Barrett each received some second-place votes and third-place votes over him, likely because of the games played.
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