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Memphis Grizzlies

Race for Rookie of the Year: Has Zion Williamson done enough to catch Ja Morant?

Among the 88 seeding games on the slate for the restart in Orlando on July 30, perhaps none carries as much weight as the August 3 matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans.

Aside from the obvious ramifications for the race for eighth in the West, it could also have lasting ramifications for the Rookie of the Year race. While Ja Morant remains the favourite, Williamson has forced his way into the conversation with a dominant first 19 games.

Two our NBA.com writers recently discuseed whether Morant has already wrapped it up or whether Williamson has done enough to get back in the race.

Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. The top two picks in the 2019 Draft will forever be linked throughout their promising NBA careers.

So far, they've each proven to be well worth the billing, with Morant quickly becoming the favourite to win Rookie of the Year while Williamson missed the first 44 games of his rookie season as he rehabbed a knee injury.

Upon his return, Zion has looked like the best of his class with averages of 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists through his first 19 games. Statistically, it's one of the best starts to an NBA career, as no player in the last 35 years has scored more than Williamson in their first 19 games.

MORE: The best of Zion Williamson so far

It begs the question: Although it's a relatively small sample size, is what we've seen from Williamson enough to place him above Morant in Rookie of the Year talks?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I don't think so, but it's more of a debate than I thought it would be when Williamson made his debut.

While I don't think games played matters as much for Rookie of the Year as other awards, it's hard to give it to someone who has played in only 19 games to this point of the season. There is literally no precedent for it. The least amount of games someone has ever played and gone on to win Rookie of the Year is 50, done by Patrick Ewing in 1985-86.

I remember Joel Embiid vs. Malcolm Brogdon being a debate a couple of years ago, but Brogdon still ran away with Rookie of the Year. (Embiid actually finished third - THIRD - in Rookie of the Year voting that year behind Brogdon and Dario Saric).

Ultimately, I think the only way Williamson could upset Morant to win Rookie of the Year is for the Pelicans to make the playoffs. The most games he can play is now 27 with the eight seeding games on top of his 19-game sample thus far. So barring a Pelicans playoff push, it feels wrong to give it to anyone but Morant.

McGregor: That we're even giving it consideration given the sample size is pretty remarkable and a testament to just how outstanding Williamson has been so far.

It would be unprecedented for him to win given the amount of time he's done what he's done … but he's also having an unprecedented season.

27 games isn't a lot and in a normal year it wouldn't be a matter of debate. But there's that sticky "u" word I keep coming back to: unprecedented.

Rafferty: It's easy to forget that the Grizzlies were projected to have one of the worst records in the league this season. Their over/under opened at 25.5! Only the Cleveland Cavaliers and Charlotte Hornets were projected to win fewer games. Nobody saw them doing what they've done this season.

It just sort of comes down to what you value. Do you think the best player should win Rookie of the Year or do you think the rookie who has had the best season from start to finish should? Because if it's the former, I think it's far to say Williamson is the answer. If it's the latter, it's Morant.

McGregor: And that's where I'm torn.

No one expected this from the Grizzlies but at least with Morant, they started at 0-0. When Zion made his debut, the Pelicans were 10 (!) games under-.500.

Now I know he wouldn't be the only reason, but a playoff berth for New Orleans would clearly be a product of Williamson's performance and impact since coming. Having a hand in undoing a larger body of work from Morant and the Grizzlies makes Williamson's case that much more interesting to me.

Rafferty: But you know what's funny about that? The Pelicans were starting to win games prior to his debut. After their 13-game losing streak came to an end in the middle of December, they went 11-5 in the games leading up to Zion's debut.

And to be clear, that's not to say Zion hasn't had a huge impact since making his debut, because he has. The on-off numbers with him are superstar-like. According to NBA.com, the Pelicans are outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. With him on the bench, they're being outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions.

That's insane!

For comparison, the Grizzlies are being outscored by 0.4 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court and -2.2 with him on the bench. Sample size has something to do with that, but what Zion is doing isn't normal, both from a production and impact standpoint.

McGregor: Can always count on you to come with the numbers to really put it in perspective.

Rafferty: This is basically where I stand on it: Morant is No. 1 on my Rookie of the Year ballot right now. I don't see that changing unless Zion leads the Pelicans to the No. 8 seed over the Grizzlies. That might not even be enough, but at that point, it would become a debate.

McGregor: Such a small sample size from Williamson really makes me wonder the type of conversation we'd be having about these two had we seen them both for the majority of the season.

Either way, it's safe to say we'll be enjoying their high-level play for years to come. Ja is only 20 and Zion's 19. They've each got so much to learn and plenty of room for improvement.

Speaking of the future, even though Rookie of the Year seems to be a two-man race at this point, are there any other rookies that have caught your eye this season?

Rafferty: I really like what I've seen from Michael Porter Jr. As you know, I wasn't particularly high on him coming into this season, but after watching him play, I'm all in. He's a natural scorer and I love the way he fits in with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. If he reaches his full potential, the Nuggets are going to be scary in the years to come.

MORE: Why #NBATwitter loves Michael Porter Jr.

What about you?

McGregor: MPJ has been really, really impressive and I think he's in a great situation.

With his injury issues, I think it was crucial that he landed in a spot that didn't need him to come in and produce right away. I think the amount of talent in Denver can allow him to slowly but surely reach that potential he showed in his prep years. Scary to think, considering he was oft-viewed as a potential No. 1 pick before the injury issues began.

As for me, when I think of natural scorers, I think of the Chicago Bulls Coby White. I know there were some issues with defence and overall consistency to begin the year, but that's to be expected from a rookie. White won't be in Orlando but he's circled as one of my most intriguing players to keep an eye on next season.

White won Rookie of the Month in February after averaging 20.1 points, 4.1 assists and 4.0 rebounds while shooting 41.1% on over eight 3-point attempts per game. There's so much talent in Chicago and I think his size, speed and shooting ability make him an intriguing point guard prospect as the Bulls look to rise back into becoming a force in the East.

Rafferty: Brandon Clarke is another player I've been really impressed with. Morant gets a lot of the attention for Memphis' rise this season - and rightly so - but Clarke has quietly been one of the better rookies this season. He's just a really smart player who can already do a little bit of everything. His per 36 minute numbers of 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 blocks and 0.9 steals speak to that.

McGregor: Definitely someone that's easy to overlook given Morant's production.

Ja even said himself that he thinks Clarke was the steal of the 2019 Draft! That's pretty high praise.

This rookie class has some sneaky depth. We didn't even get to names like RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and P.J. Washington. All very different players in very different circumstances.

It will be interesting to see how they perform if/when play resumes, especially the likes of Herro and Nunn, who stand to have a role for a team with high postseason hopes in the Miami Heat. Regardless, I can't wait to see how things shape out, both for Rookie of the Year and the All-Rookie team selections this year. There are plenty of worthy candidates for each honour.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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