Photo Credit: Derick E. Hingle (USA Today)
At the time of writing, it seems that the NBA season is all but doomed to be shut down, and it seems that the post season is looking more and more unlikely. This possibly being the first season ever since the league’s creation that did not end with the crowning of a new champion. For as many great story lines and memories that had happened during the season, the year will most likely be the year remembered as the year that COVID-19 took away. It’s a shame though, in a season with no clear favorite, the NBA was as entertaining and wide open as it has been for a while. With all that being said, I think it is important to remember some of the key moments and poignant story lines that helped shape the 2019-2020 season. First kicking it off with the two player race for Rookie of the Year.
Coming into the Season
During his lone year at Duke, Zion Williamson became must see television and his stints in the summer league and preseason did not disappoint. During the four game stint in the preseason, Zion averaged 23.3 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting a ridiculously efficient 71.4%. But after picking up a knee injury it seemed like it’d be a while before we could see what Zion could do in the league.
In comes in the overshadowed 2nd pick of the draft, Ja Morant. Coming out of small school Murray State, Ja silenced concerns over his lack of competition through his impressive play during the NCAA tournament and his athleticism, vision, and upside led him to become the second name announced in the 2019 draft. As talented as the point guard was, no one expected Morant to not only perform as well as he did during his first year, but also lead his team to a potential playoff spot.
Coming into the season, people knew about the jaw-dropping athleticism that led to comparisons between Morant and Russell Westbrook. Yet I don’t think anyone was expecting the poise that Morant was ready to exude and the amount of responsibility he was about to shoulder as a rookie. So far throughout the year Ja Morant has posted a usage rate of 26.0 (32nd in the league) which is a statistic used to measure the percent of possessions a player is responsible for the outcomes. Despite the high usage Morant has been able to keep a respectable assist to turnover ratio (2.14). Morant’s understanding on how to control the pace, coupled with his great vision led to many show stopping dunks and awe worthy assists. With a season of clutch plays and highlight dunks, Morant has established himself as a future all-star and cornerstone to Memphis. Everything about his performance this season screams clear Rookie of the Year, yet with just 19 games, Zion has performed well enough to cause debate.
It would be different if Zion came back and put above-average numbers, but Zion came back and displayed the once in a decade blend of athleticism and basketball IQ that made him the clear cut number one pick. His first game back is highlighted by a fourth quarter featuring 17 points, 12 of which came from threes. Although he seemed to have some conditioning problems and lack of consistent defensive intensity, Zion was unstoppable on the boards and in the paint. Within the 19 games played Zion failed to score 20 points only three times while shooting an efficient 58.9% from the field. Even if he did miss, Zion’s twitchy second jump allowed him to grab the offensive rebound. It wasn’t just the athleticism that made Zion special, but his ability to make reads and his touch around the rim made him a danger even if he didn’t get all the way to the rim. If not for the injury, who knows the numbers Zion could’ve put up for his inaugural season.
All that being said, looking forward to both careers, they seem as though they’ll be able to be future all-stars and possibly all-NBA type players. Although already respectable, if Morant is able to turn his jumper into more of a weapon and cut down his turnovers, Morant can easily become one of the premier point guards in the league. On the other hand, the sky is the limit with Zion. Once Zion can get a more reliable shot the floor will open up for him. With a tighter handle, Zion will be able to destroy teams more on the fast-break going coast to coast yet that’ll be just icing on top of what he already brings. As much as the two have a lot to improve on, their rookie seasons are still beyond impressive and are definitely just the start of incredible careers.
All stats taken from Basketball Reference.