WAS JA MORANT OR ZION WILLIAMSON THE BEST ROOKIE IN THE NBA THIS SEASON? That depends on what question you?re really asking. Which player was more valuable to their NBA team? Which player was better when on the court? Which of them will one day be the better player?
The fun part about awards is that there are no set-in-stone criteria. If there were, columns like these would be pointless. We?d just throw all the names and numbers into the big MVP cruncher computer, press go, and spit out the results. But that?s not real life. These races are subjective, and the more post-All-Star-break basketball we got, the more Zion vs Ja became a real question. It would only have amplified over the game?s final six weeks.
A whopping 115 rookies debuted this season, even without the final 18 games robbed by Coronavirus. Yesterday we looked at 10 high-profile rookies that were somewhat disappointing this season. Today we?ll count down the top 10 with this year?s final Rookie Ladder, choosing First and Second-Team All-Rookie in the process and declaring a Rookie of the Year winner.
10 High-Profile NBA Rookies that Disappointed This Season
RJ Barrett, De?Andre Hunter, Jarrett Culver, & other draft picks disappointed as rookies, but what did we learn about their futures?
G John Konchar, Memphis
If you only went by per-minute numbers and advanced metrics, the Rookie of the Year race would definitely come down to Zion Williamson and two Memphis Grizzlies? neither of which is Ja Morant.
John Konchar was an analytics darling at Indiana Purdue Fort Wayne (go Mastodons!). He went undrafted but got a late-season chance during the Grizzlies playoff push, playing 11 minutes per game over the final 15 games. He didn?t disappoint. Despite playing so little, Konchar somehow ranked top 10 among all rookies in VORP. He made 44% of his threes and an incredible 73% of his twos with a 143 offensive rating and a ridiculous +8.5 on/off per 100 possessions playing off the bench in essentially playoff games.
Somehow playing 11mpg and averaging 3.4ppg, John Konchar ranked third among all rookies in PER, an almost exclusively counting stat. Konchar finished the season with a 5.0 BPM, a number typically reserved for All-NBA players. Don?t believe me? Check out the list of 12 NBA players that finished this season with a 5.0 BPM:
Giannis. Harden. Kawhi. LeBron. Brow. Luka. KAT. Kyrie. Jokic. Dame. Butler. Embiid. And John Konchar.
What a world.
G Jordan McLaughlin, Minnesota
The Timberwolves season got pretty wonky, but Jordan McLaughlin sure did his job. For a team without a point guard, the Summer League standout played 20mpg off the bench and finished second among all rookies with 4.2 assists per game. In fact, his 31% assist rate made him the only rookie not named Ja over 20%. Throw in some quality shooting numbers, and don?t be surprised to see McLaughlin stick around on next year?s roster too.
F Nicolo Melli, New Orleans
In a world where everyone wants a stretch four, the NBA sent Nikola Mirotic to Europe last summer but got back then 28-year-old ?rookie? Nicolo Melli. Melli was a very dependent player but he was indeed quite stretchy, hitting 36% of his threes, which made up almost two-thirds of his shots. That included a memorable twisting corner three over Kristaps Porzingis?s outstretched arms to send a late-season game to overtime. Melli joined the big boys and did just fine for himself.
F Grant Williams, Boston
Williams was not good on offense. Let?s just get that part out of the way. He was terrible. He made only 42% of his field goals, horrid for a big man, and turned the ball over on 18% of his possessions. That included going literally 0-for-his-first-20-games on threes, an ugly 0/25 start to his career, but hit 35% of his treys from December 9 forward.
Still, Williams was supposed to be a defender, and he already looks the part. He?s a brick house on that end and already shows wisdom beyond his years reading the play and playing strong team defense, defending the pick-and-roll, and communicating on that end. He?s quite clearly an NBA defender. Now he just needs to find enough offense to stay on the court.
2019 NBA Draft Final Big Board Rankings
Zion is #1, but it?s all up for grabs after that. What players make up this year?s top 50 NBA draft prospects?
Before we get to our All-Rookie teams, we may as well make a few honorable mentions first. The reality is that some of the guys on my squad will end up as only honorable mentions since I?m sure players like Rui Hachimura, Eric Paschall, and R.J. Barrett will make the real All-Rookie teams, which love counting numbers above all else. They?re not even honorable mentions for me.
Cam Reddish and Jaxson Hayes are. I covered them in my piece yesterday. Hayes has a pretty quality case for All-Rookie, considering he finished second among rookies in win shares. He?s my closest miss. Reddish?s season numbers don?t measure up, but he?s one of the rookies I?m most excited about.
Another Cam is also an honorable mention. Cam Johnson was drafted to be a sweet shooter for Phoenix, and he can certainly shoot. He made almost two threes a game at a hair under 40% and helped space the Suns offense, coming close to a replacement-level player, which is a compliment for a rookie. Good thing too, since he?s already so old he?s gotta be near retirement.
Alright, enough ribble rabble. Let?s get to our top 10?
Brandon Clarke?s defense alone is worth a top-5 NBA Draft pick
Clarke?s athleticism and feel for the game give him superstar upside ? even if he doesn?t fit the usual mold?
Is Ja Morant really worth the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft?
Morant looks like a worthy #2 pick in a weak draft, but will his game translate to a winning NBA style?
FINAL ROOKIE LADDER
10. G Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia
Thybulle ultimately got my last All-Rookie spot over Jaxson Hayes. Both saw their minutes and production plummet late in the season. For Hayes, it was because his teammates got healthy. For Thybulle, it was because his got hurt. Philly fell off a cliff with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid ailing, and Thybulle?s defending did too.
But the rest of the year, he was absolutely magnificent to watch on that end. There are legitimately very few players I?d rather watch defend. Thybulle is a free safety with incredible timing and instincts. He had the best defensive rating of any rookie and averaged over two stocks (steals + blocks) per game even playing under 20mpg. Thybulle is a liability on offense and turns it over far too often, but his 3.1 DBPM is so good he stays on the court anyway. Think of him as an even more extreme Robert Covington.
9. G Coby White, Chicago
If the season had finished out normally, White might have ended up First-Team All-Rookie. In 14 February and March games, White scored 21ppg, hitting 37% of his threes, many of them self-created step-backs, and 91% from the line. He led all rookies in threes and even helped make the Bulls look competent offensively down the stretch, single-handedly carrying the team in some games. He also doubled his assist totals in those games and looks like a keeper, though perhaps not necessarily a lead point guard.
8. G Tyler Herro, Miami
Herro lit up Summer League and settled quickly into an obvious role for Miami, providing microwavable shooting and scoring off the bench. In many ways, he was a slightly worse version of his teammate Kendrick Nunn. Slightly less production on slightly worse efficiency, and his came off the bench against lesser competition. Of course, he?s also almost five years young and clearly a more valuable team piece going forward.
7. G Terence Davis, Toronto
Davis went undrafted, but he?s just Toronto?s latest find. He looked like a lottery pick, contributing 17 valuable role-player minutes per game for one of the league?s best teams. Davis does a little bit of everything and isn?t really bad at anything. He had terrific shooting numbers and finished top-4 among all rookies in both win shares and VORP. He absolutely has to make All-Rookie for contributing so positively to such a good team.
6. F P.J. Washington, Charlotte
Charlotte is the land of quality role players without a star, and that means P.J. Washington fit right in from the get-go. Washington is a versatile, rounded player. He can shoot and handle, is smart, and offers switchable defense. Washington scored 27 in his debut against the Bulls, hitting seven threes. He never quite hit that high again, but it?ll be interesting to see if the Hornets can coax more than just a quality role player of of P.J. going forward.
The Final 2019 NBA Rookie Ladder
Let?s count down the top 25 NBA rookies. Was Trae Young or Luka Doncic the Rookie of the Year, and who else stood out?
5. F Michael Porter Jr., Denver
Porter was the one rookie most likely to make a serious playoff impact, and it?s a bummer we may never get to find out what he adds as a Nuggets wildcard. Porter was a Ben Simmons rookie? after sitting last year out injured, and he sure looks worth the wait.
The overall numbers aren?t so exciting since Porter averaged only 14 minutes a game, but he rarely actually played 14 minutes. Either he made bit appearances here or there, or he got real playing time, and he was really quite good when he played real minutes. In 14 games with 20+ minutes, MPJ put up 15 points and 8 rebounds a game, with a 132 offensive rating and a sparkling 66% true shooting.
Even with such sporadic minutes ? Porter ended up playing only 105 minutes more than Zion ? he still finished top-6 among all rookies in VORP, win shares, and BPM. He led all rookies in defensive rebounding percentage, a bonus surprise really, and hit 42% of his threes. Denver got Porter with the final lottery pick a year ago, a pick Minnesota forfeited by beating the Nuggets and losing it so they could participate in a gentlemen?s sweep by the Rockets. Now Porter might be the wildcard missing piece for Denver?s future.
4. G Kendrick Nunn, Miami
Nunn is another old rookie at age 24 after a long and winding, and not always pretty, path to the NBA. He was worth the wait for the Heat. Nunn was a surprising Opening Day starter ahead of Goran Dragic and went on to start in all 62 of his appearances for a really good 41?24 Miami team.
As a starting point guard and NBA player, and as a player already in his prime and not before it, Nunn was mostly average and relatively forgettable. But as a rookie, he was outstanding. How many other rookie point guards score 15ppg on decent shooting for a playoff team with home-court advantage in the first round? Go ahead, I?ll wait.
Nunn was good enough to win Rookie of the Year in three of the last six seasons (sorry Malcolm Brogdon, Andrew Wiggins, and Michael Carter-Williams). I?m not sure he?s a real franchise changer long-term, but for a franchise to turn a Summer League star into a 30mpg starting point guard on a playoff team is pretty much unprecedented.
3. F Zion Williamson, New Orleans
Let?s be clear about one thing first: this #3 ranking is no slight to Zion. It?s respect for the guy ahead of him, who we?ll get to in a bit.
Zion was awesome. He just didn?t play enough. Williamson played only 565 minutes, about as many as retreads Harry Giles or Skal Labissiere, for reference. Of course, he was quite a revelation in those minutes, from those four threes in his debut (he only made two the rest of the year) to his streak of 13 straight 20-point games. Zion is a beast on the offensive boards and creates so many easy scoring chances for himself, and he already draws a ton of fouls.
The defense? That was pretty bad. A lot of us had high hopes for Zion?s defense just because he would be a playmaker, but he didn?t even do that, with only 25 stocks all season, and he looked pretty lost rotating on team defense most of the time. So it goes for a teenager playing his first 19 professional games ever. What?s remarkable is that even with that awful D, Zion still had a negative plus/minus in only three games despite being thrust into a star role in the thick of a playoff race.
Zion averaged 23.6ppg in under 30 minutes a game as an out-of-shape rookie that joined midseason and pretty clearly had no real idea what he was doing yet. Just let that sink in. He?s here, and if he stays healthy, he will be an immediate All-Star and could even contend for All-NBA right away next season. His lack of minutes ? only 72% of even Joel Embiid?s rookie tally ? stop him from being a real ROY contender, but in the end, who really cares? He?s going to be an NBA fixture for a long, long time.
2. F Brandon Clarke, Memphis
Brandon Clarke ranks ahead of Zion Williamson for two simple reasons. First, he played almost twice as many minutes, and the best ability is availability. And second: he was better.
Defense matters, and defense was always going to be Brandon Clarke?s calling card. Clarke was already good on defense as a rookie and excellent on the boards, and his uber-efficient college scoring translated immediately as a pro. Clarke finished the year with 67% true shooting, including 65% on twos and a surprising 40% on a limited number of threes. His offensive value was actually much stronger than his defense, which is a great sign for his long-term NBA value.
In fact, Clarke led all rookies in VORP and win shares, and he was #1 in win shares per 48 minutes with a pretty healthy lead on Zion. By advanced metrics, Brandon Clarke is the Grizzlies? Rookie of the Year candidate, and those same metrics would suggest Clarke was the best player on a playoff-bound team already as a rookie.
I can?t rank Clarke ahead of his teammate, but I?m very happy to slot him in at #2 ? right where I proudly ranked him on my big board last summer.
1. G Ja Morant, Memphis
The Rookie of the Year race was over two months ago. Zion would?ve had to do what he did 19 more games and single-handedly will the Pelicans into the playoffs, stealing Morant?s spot and beating him head-to-head in a couple TV matchups, and all that just to have a controversial shot.
The truth is that this Rookie of the Year race was never like the Embiid one. The Zion-Embiid limited-minutes comparison is fair enough, but Ja Morant was no Malcolm Brogdon, an undeserving placeholder winner. Morant is a worthy Rookie of the Year in any campaign.
Morant was a star the moment he stepped onto an NBA court. He led a big October comeback against the Nets, making an athletic block on Kyrie Irving in the final seconds to send the game to overtime before setting up the winning shot there. He hit a winning shot of his own, and he threw more than a few alley oops and made highlight passes all season.
Morant finished the season with 17 points and 7 assists a game. If those numbers alone don?t impress you, you should know that only Oscar, Magic, Iverson, Damon Stoudamire, and Trae Young have hit those marks as a rookie. Four of those guys averaged 26 wins that rookie season. Magic played center in a title-clinching win, but ya know, he?s the point guard GOAT.
The advanced metrics will tell you Brandon Clarke was the more valuable Memphis player. The advanced metrics are loony. Pick a game, any game all season, and you?ll see Morant is already the heart and soul of this team and the guy that turned them from losers to playoff contenders overnight. Some are ranking Morant ahead of Zion or Trae as a prospect now, and that?s crazy to me, but Ja was pretty clearly a better rookie than either.
Ja Morant is a star already, and he?s a worthy Rookie of the Year in any campaign. No asterisk necessary. ?
FIRST TEAM ALL-ROOKIE
Ja MorantBrandon ClarkeZion WilliamsonKendrick NunnMichael Porter Jr.
SECOND TEAM ALL-ROOKIE
P.J. WashingtonTerence DavisTyler HerroCoby WhiteMatisse Thybulle
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Ja Morant2. Brandon Clarke3. Zion Williamson
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