In a season full of uncertainty, there is one thing we can find solace in -- there is no doubt about this season’s Kia Rookie of the Year.
Sure, one could make a case for Zion Williamson, who burst onto the scene -- on Jan. 22 after missing the Pelicans’ first 44 games -- with 19 games of exceptional basketball.
Williamson was dazzling and he’ll finish first in scoring (23.6 ppg) and rebounding (6.8), but near the bottom in one key statistic: games played.
Nineteen games. It’s just too little, too late for Williamson, and even if the games in Orlando counted toward voting, it wouldn’t have been enough to strengthen his case.
While Zion was nursing a knee injury, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant was grabbing the nation’s attention. The No. 2 pick out of Murray State was electrifying yet composed. He was clutch, becoming one of the league’s best fourth-quarter scorers. And he was dazzling, pulling off monster dunks and igniting rallies with his energetic, confident style of play.
He did it all while willing the Grizzlies into playoff contention. No other rookie has the resume or statistics to even come close to touching Morant.
There were a lot of unknowns this strange season, but one thing’s for sure: Ja Morant is your Kia Rookie of the Year.
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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies will enter the restart as the No. 8 seed in the West, but they’ll have plenty of company fighting for the final playoff spot. Fortunately, Morant has welcomed all challenges in his rookie season and proven he won’t back down. Before the season, many thought the Grizzlies were doomed for the lottery, but Morant changed that narrative. In 59 games, the point guard finishes 2nd among rookies in scoring (17.6 ppg) and first in assists (6.8 apg) while shooting 49.1% overall and 36.7% on 3-pointers. More than the numbers, though, Morant has changed the Grizzlies. His confidence and fearlessness -- especially in big fourth-quarter moments -- have brought life to the city and energized the fanbase and turned him into a star. If the Grizzlies can hang on to the 8th spot in the West, a potential showdown with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers would be the perfect way to cap off his Rookie of the Year season.
2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
I’m sure many voters will slide Zion Williamson into this 2nd slot, but Nunn is more deserving, due to his overall body of work. In 62 games (all starts), Nunn averaged 15.6 points on 44.8% shooting (36.2% on 3-pointers) and was one of the biggest surprises of this rookie class. After going undrafted in 2018 and spending a season in the NBA G League, Nunn emerged with a strong NBA Summer League and didn’t slow down once handed the reins ahead of the 33-year-old Goran Dragic. The undrafted rookie gave the Heat a scoring option and helped lead them to a 41-24 record, something he mentions in his ROY case. "I think people will say that [Morant] is Rookie of the Year, but I don't believe it,” Nunn said in April. “The most value should be in the wins. And we're both starting guards on teams, and our team has been holding it down. We're a playoff team, so go ahead and give that Rookie of the Year to Kendrick Nunn." I won’t go that far, especially since Morant has Memphis on the verge of a playoff spot, but he definitely deserves the 2nd rung with his eye-opening rookie season.
3. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Since we’re now able to take a look back at the season as a whole, it’s clear to see that Williamson's limited action is too big of a hurdle to overcome. Nineteen games just isn’t enough to put him past a 62-game starter like Nunn. Still, what Zion did in those 19 games is enough to land him in the Top 3. Williamson was dominant from the start, and only seemed to be getting better as the season suspension arrived. Williamson finishes the season averaging 23.6 ppg and 6.8 rpg while shooting 58.9%. He changed the Pelicans and had them in position to challenge for the final playoff spot in the West. Zion’s prospects are bright, and there may be hardware in his future, but it won’t be this season.
4. Coby White, Chicago Bulls
White had an up-and-down season, but finished strong, becoming one of the most promising breakout guards of this class. Down the stretch, White scored 20-plus in eight of his last nine games, and, outside Zion Williamson (25.2 ppg), was the best scoring rookie after the All-Star break (24.7 ppg) while shooting 46.8% from the field (40.7% on 3-pointers). His shooting numbers on the season are concerning (39.4% FG, 36.5% on 3-pointers), but he was a game changer when he had it going. One player impressed by White was Zach LaVine, who sees big things to come from his backcourt mate. “Man, Coby’s my guy” LaVine told BallDontStop in an Instagram Live chat. “He had one of the best training camps I’ve seen from a rookie; I’ve told a lot of people that. He came with it from Day 1. Obviously, he had the ups and downs and sometimes you’re put in a position where you’re not allowed to show your entire game as part of the NBA, I feel like a lot of guys are going through that. But them last 15 games, and even before that, he had so many showings where it’s like ‘man, this kid is off the charts.’ He’s a human flamethrower, man. He’s got stepbacks, hesitations, he has finishing, he can shoot the hell out of the ball, he’s fast, his potential is limitless, man. I’m excited to play with him and be in the backcourt where I think we can be a problem.”
5. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Last edition: No. 5
It was a tough call to give Barrett the nod over Rui Hachimura (who missed 23 games with injuries) for the final spot in the Top 5, but Barrett showed signs of improvement over the last month, which gives him the bump. On the season, Barrett finishes as the fourth best scorer (14.3 ppg), while grabbing 5.0 rebounds (5th among rookies) and managed to get his shooting percentage over 40% with a March in which he shot 44.8% from the field (averaging 18.7 ppg this month). It was a tough season for Barrett and the Knicks, but the potential is there, and his improvement should give fans hope.
Just missed the cut:
Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards
Season stats: 41 games, 13.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.7 apg, 47.8% FG, 27.4% 3FG
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Season stats: 47 games, 12.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 41.4% FG, 39.1% 3FG
Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors
Season stats: 60 games, 14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.6 apg, 49.7% FG, 28.7% 3FG
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
Season stats: 50 games, 12.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 62.3% FG, 40.4% 3FG
DeAndre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks
Season stats: 63 games, 12.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.8 apg, 41.0% FG, 35.5% 3FG
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(All stats through Wednesday, March 11)
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