During the first 19 games of his career, Zion Williamson has put up numbers that have him in the company of legends Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan. His strong performance — averaging 23.6 points per game on 58.9% shooting — has led many to wonder if Williamson, even in an abbreviated season, could unseat Ja Morant to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award.
In a straw poll conducted over the past few days by ESPN of 70 eligible voters, a clear consensus has emerged: no.
Despite Williamson’s undeniable brilliance, all 70 voters polled gave Morant, who has had his own stellar season for the Memphis Grizzlies, their first-place votes in ESPN’s poll.
Morant was also the only player named on every ballot.
ESPN polled a mixture of local beat writers from across the league as well as national and international reporters. And to simulate the voting process, we used the same point system as the NBA at the conclusion of the regular season — every first-place vote is worth five points, with second-place votes worth three points and third-place votes worth one point. Behind Morant and his perfect 350 points came Williamson, with 51 of the 70 second-place votes along with 11 third-place selections for a total of 164 points.
Morant, who is averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game — second and first among all rookies — after being taken second overall by the Grizzlies in last June’s NBA draft, has helped Memphis become one of the biggest surprises of this NBA season. After trading Mike Conley last summer, the Grizzlies were projected to finish last in the Western Conference. Instead, led by Morant, Memphis found itself with a 3 ½-game lead for the final playoff spot over the Portland Trail Blazers and Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans when the season was suspended. If the NBA were to play an abbreviated regular-season schedule upon resuming the season, Morant’s Grizzlies would be more likely to hold onto that spot, solidifying his Rookie of the Year case even more.
If Morant were to win the award unanimously as he did in this straw poll, he’d join Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and Blake Griffin as the only players to do so over the past 30 seasons.
The NBA announced that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the 2019-20 season would be suspended effective March 12.
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On a per-game basis, it would be hard to argue against Williamson’s credentials, but Williamson has played only 19 of the Pelicans’ 64 games. No player has won Rookie of the Year playing fewer than 50 games (Patrick Ewing played exactly 50 in winning the award in 1985-86). Three years ago, Joel Embiid earned 23 first-place votes despite playing just 31 games, but he finished third in the voting, well behind Malcolm Brogdon and Philly teammate Dario Saric.
Finishing third in this poll was Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn, arguably the biggest surprise of this year’s rookie class. He received 14 second-place votes and 35 third-place votes for a total of 77 points. Having been signed to a contract at the end of last season after spending the year in the G League, Nunn has emerged as a combo guard, starting all 62 games he’s played while averaging 15.6 points per game.
No one else came close to challenging for one of the top three spots. Morant’s teammate, forward Brandon Clarke, finished fourth with three second-place votes and nine third-place votes while Golden State Warriors forward Eric Paschall picked up a second-place vote to go with five third-place selections.
New York Knicks forward RJ Barrett received the one remaining second-place vote; he finished tied for sixth with Chicago Bulls guard Coby White, who received five third-place votes. The three remaining votes — all third-place selections — went to Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura, Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro and Charlotte Hornets forward PJ Washington.