As the NBA plans its return to action on July 30 in Orlando, the league’s top two young stars, Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans and Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies, both intend to finish their rookie seasons strong and help their respective teams make one final push toward the playoffs. In recent interviews, the rookies are saying all the right things and appear primed for battle in the best condition of their young careers following the lengthy layoff. All of that combined should provide for an entertaining end to a memorable 2020 NBA season, including an exciting finish for the Rookie of the Year honor that is still up for grabs.
Ja Morant putting up Rookie of Year numbers
While most talk about rookies dealing with injuries during the 2020 season has focused on Zion Williamson, Ja Morant started his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies recovering from arthroscopic surgery he had on his right knee before the draft.
Despite that injury, Morant displayed right out of the gates why Memphis selected the Murray State player No. 2 in the 2019 draft behind Williamson with his athletic play and penchant for high-flying dunks. In 59 games this season, Morant has been impressive, to say the least, averaging 17.6 points, 6.9 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game.
Morant, more importantly, has proven he’s more than just statistics. The 20-year-old, who turns 21 in August, has helped the Grizzlies stay in the thick of the playoff race for much of the season. When the NBA halted the season on March 10, the Grizzlies sat precariously in the eighth spot 3.5 games ahead of three teams including Williamson and the Pelicans.
Zion Williamson impressive in limited action
Zion Williamson’s start to his NBA career was not what anyone had imagined. Sidelined the first half of the season due to a torn meniscus in his right knee, the rookie recovered from surgery and was relegated to the role of cheerleader. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to cheer about. In mid-December, the Pelicans endured a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak and held a 6-22 record.
Williamson’s return in January was a statistics and morale boost for the club. Since scoring 22 points in his NBA debut on January 22 against the San Antonio Spurs, the 6-foot-6-inch rookie has lived up to the hype as the No. 1 selection. In 19 games, Williamson has averaged an impressive 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game.
Williamson’s addition and the team’s improved results have the Pelicans and their fans believing they actually have a chance to make the playoffs—something that wasn’t even conceivable just a few months ago.
Can Williamson steal Rookie of the Year honors from Morant?
With Zion Williamson out, Ja Morant has been the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year honors throughout the season. During the pandemic hiatus, Morant took the time to work on his game and get stronger in the weight room. In that process, he added 12 pounds of muscle to what was a 6-foot-3-inch and 174-pound frame heading to the break. He said the added muscle will help him with his inside game.
“Able to use my body more, get through different screens,” Morant said in a conference call with reporters. “That’s why I’m just looking to do, go to Orlando to be able to do the things I’ve been doing before but better.”
Williamson viewed the break as an opportunity to do the same thing, and based on a recent photo posted to Twitter, his already chiseled physique looks more defined. He said the new look is the result of work he did with his stepfather.
“Me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition on the court, off the court, wherever we could find it. I do feel like I’m in good shape right now.”
With both Morant and Williamson taking advantage of the three-month break and using it as a mini offseason to work on both their games and strength, it should result in an entertaining end for both the Pelicans and Grizzlies to an otherwise bizarre NBA season. Whichever rookie leads his team to the playoffs will likely get the nod for Rookie of the Year. If neither team makes the postseason, Morant is the winner just because his numbers, albeit statistically lower than Williamson’s, were more of a factor for his team throughout a longer portion of the season.