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If the NBA Season Is Over, Who Deserves Rookie of the Year?

Zion Williamson somehow lived up to the hype. Ja Morant blew away even the loftiest of expectations. Which first-year star should take home the hardware?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We don’t know yet whether the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is it, I thought it might be nice to take a minute to acknowledge the best of what we watched. I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards. If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out. We’ll run through all of the awards this week, one post at a time, because we all must do our part right now, and the least I can do is give all of you the opportunity to roast me for my choices.

So, without further ado, let’s hand out some hypothetical hardware. On Monday, we examined this year’s MVP race. Next up: the freshmen.

Outside of its top two picks, the 2019 NBA draft class was considered by many talent evaluators to be a relatively weak crop. To some degree, that projection bore out, with nine of the draft’s 14 lottery picks turning in sub-replacement-level production. There were bright spots, though—prospects showing signs of blossoming, and even some keepers emerging.

Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn gave the Heat a pair of dynamic scorers in the backcourt, helping provide the firepower Erik Spoelstra’s club needed to rise up the Eastern Conference standings. Matisse Thybulle was an instant impact defender in Philadelphia, with an almost unbelievable ability to disrupt opposing offenses; he stole the ball on more than 3 percent of opponents’ possessions, and also registered a blocked shot on more than 3 percent of them, which makes him just the sixth player ever to do both in the same season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. (Three of the other five are Hall of Famers.)

Grant Williams carved out a rotation role as a defense-first frontcourt piece in Boston; Darius Bazley and Luguentz Dort did the same with their energy and length in Oklahoma City; ditto for P.J. Washington and Cody Martin in Charlotte. Cameron Johnson was a plug-and-play fit in Phoenix, drilling 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers and holding his own on the other end. Eric Paschall was a rare bright spot in a brutal season for Golden State; high-draft scorers like RJ Barrett, Darius Garland, and Coby White all struggled, but also had their moments, offering hope of bigger things in the years to come.

In the here and now, though, here are the rookies who topped my make-believe ballot:

Rookie of the Year

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies
2. Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies
3. Terence Davis, Raptors

OK, let’s get it out of the way: No, Zion Williamson’s not here. You are within your rights to think I am an idiot for that, because, like, we all saw this:

It seemed impossible Williamson would deliver on the hype that came with the no. 1 pick in the 2019 draft, and that he’d live up to the hefty expectations placed on him after his unbelievable season at Duke, especially after suffering a tear to the meniscus in his right knee that cost him the first 44 games of the season. In his first action as a pro, though, Zion looked every bit the transformative figure we hoped he’d be, generating jaw-dropping highlights just about every time he took the court, and even managing to turn the more mundane aspects of big-man play—stuff like bumping a defender off his spot or establishing position in the post—into something to talk about.

Zion provided plenty of steak to go with all that sizzle, too. He became the first rookie to average 23 points per game since Allen Iverson 23 years ago. He’s the third rookie ever to put up 28 points and eight boards per 36 minutes, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Joel Embiid. And he’s just the second to average 20 per game on 55 percent shooting; the other, as my Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted, was Shaquille O’Neal. A Pelicans team that had been outscored by 1.7 points per 100 possessions before Williamson’s debut blitzed opponents by 10.2 points per 100 with him on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s hard to make a louder or more emphatic statement in your first 19 games and 565 minutes than Williamson did.

The thing is, due to the early-season injury and the late-season pandemic, those 19 games and 565 minutes are all Williamson has on his résumé, and the award’s not called “Rookie of the Last Month and a Half We Saw.” You have to consider the larger body of work, and as impressive as this was, I couldn’t slot him in above players who made legitimate contributions to good teams while playing more than twice as many minutes in more than twice as many games.

Like, for example, this guy:

Morant broke out in his third professional game when he went toe-to-toe with Kyrie Irving and got the better of the veteran All-Star. Ja’s performance that night—17 fourth-quarter points, a game-tying layup with seven seconds remaining, rejecting Irving’s would-be answer to send the game into overtime, and dishing off to Jae Crowder for the game-winning 3 in OT—augured big things to come.

The no. 2 overall pick led the freshman class in total points and assists, and ranked 11th among all players in “clutch” scoring, shooting 28-for-52 (53.8 percent) from the floor in the final five minutes of games when the score was within five points. The 20-year-old’s ability to manipulate the defense, get to his preferred spots, and either explode for a high-percentage look, thread the needle, or pull up for a midrange jumper went a long way toward pushing the Grizzlies to a better-than-.500 record in close games, which in turn went a long way toward pushing Memphis out of the West’s cellar and in position to take the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.

Morant’s speed, quickness, vision, and touch give him the guts to make passes others wouldn’t attempt. As a rookie, he ranked 13th in the league in points created by assist, and you can expect that number to rise as the Grizzlies front office does a better job of surrounding him with shooting (Memphis ranked 23rd in 3-point makes per game) and as his teammates get more used to the idea that they should expect the pass whether they think they should or not, because he can get it there:

And, with all due respect to Mr. Williamson, it was Ja who spent most of this season as the most electric and heart-stopping performer in the league, giving fans a reason to flip over to Grizz games on League Pass night in and night out:

Zion was amazing, but the midseason attempt to make this into a two-horse race always struck me more as wishful thinking than a reasonable take based on the merits of the case. Morant was relentlessly entertaining, very productive, incredibly crafty, and the unquestioned leader for a team ahead of its time in the playoff hunt. He’s one of the next great point guards in this league, an object of unbridled affection for the Memphis faithful, and the no-doubt-about-it pick for Rookie of the Year.

Which is funny, because—by some statistical measures, at least—you could argue Morant wasn’t even the most impactful rookie on his own team.

Despite profiling as a tweener big man with questionable upside—not big enough to play as a traditional 5, not skilled enough to be a modern 4, already nearly 23 years old on draft day—Clarke was an analytics darling coming out of Gonzaga, and he continued to top the statistical charts during his first season in Memphis. Clarke led all rookies in value over replacement player, box plus-minus, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, and player impact estimate, and finished second behind Williamson in player efficiency rating and player impact plus-minus. The Grizzlies consistently performed better in his minutes, posting a positive net rating when he was on the court and getting outscored by 2.3 points per 100 when he sat, according to Cleaning the Glass; his on/off differential was actually about twice as good as Morant’s. (Though, in fairness to Ja, that doesn’t account for the significant difference in their roles and responsibilities in Memphis’s system.)

Clarke quickly cemented a role in Taylor Jenkins’s rotation with his high-energy, high-IQ play on both ends of the floor; he’s the rare rookie who seems to consistently be in the right place at the right time. He reads the game to make the proper rotation that erases a layup or makes the well-timed cut that opens one up for his teammate. His good hands and athleticism make him an elite pick-and-roll target—he shot a scorching 78-for-105 (74.3 percent) on attempts taken after rolling to the rim and produced 1.48 points per possession finished as the dive man in the screen game, placing him in the 94th percentile in the league, according to Synergy Sports.

Clarke is such an effective plug-and-play offensive prospect in part because he has a go-to shot when defenses take away his capacity to get above the rim: a damn-near-automatic floater.

Clarke shot 56.8 percent this season on attempts taken in the paint but outside the restricted area; among players with at least 100 such attempts, only Nikola Jokic converted at a higher clip. With his combination of size, hops, length, and touch, he can get that shot off against just about anybody, making him an incredibly tough cover inside—and a valuable source of complementary half-court offense for the Grizzlies, who can struggle to score when the pace slows down. Combine that with the ability to defend multiple positions, protect the rim, and run the floor, and the potential to eventually space it, too—Clarke took only 52 3-pointers this season, but he made 21 of them, good for 40.4 percent—and you’ve got a perfect counterpart to Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and a valuable piece of an awfully exciting young core in Memphis.

While Morant and Clarke both came off the board in the first round of the 2019 draft, the Raptors’ Terence Davis didn’t hear his name called at all. You’ve probably heard his story by now: A number of teams wanted to take the Ole Miss standout in the second round, but insisted that he sign a two-way contract that would shuttle him back and forth between the NBA and the G League, rather than a guaranteed NBA contract. He didn’t like that idea, so he turned those offers down, went undrafted, and reported to Las Vegas summer league to try to land a full-time gig. One really good game for the Nuggets’ squad later, the Raptors locked Davis up—and man, has that investment paid off.

Early-season injuries to Kyle Lowry and Patrick McCaw opened up immediate minutes for Davis at the point; subsequent injuries to Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell kept the opportunities coming, and Davis just kept earning them. He was the only Raptor to appear in all 64 games before the shutdown, averaging 7.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 17 minutes per night while shooting 46.3 percent from the field, 39.6 percent from 3-point range on 3.5 attempts a night, and 86.5 percent from the free throw line.

At 6-foot-4 and 201 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Davis has the size and athleticism to guard either backcourt position, and the burst and physicality to take defenders off the dribble and finish through contact inside. He shot 66.1 percent inside the restricted area, which puts him in the 89th percentile for combo guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. Whether Nick Nurse needed him to run the offense, score off the dribble, spot up off the ball, or make life decidedly less pleasant for an opposing ball handler, Davis answered the bell this season, continuing the Raptors’ run of finding bona fide contributors not only outside the lottery, but—as they did with VanVleet—sometimes outside the draft altogether.