Rookie Ja Morant (left) has boosted the surprising Grizzlies into contention for a playoff spot. Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

'Super special': Morant's ROY favorite, but Zion, three others merit props

This season's NBA rookie class is something of a mixed bag. But two of the more heralded picks --- hmm, wonder who they are? -- have met out-sized expectations; others have surprised. Here are contenders in the Rookie of the Year race and their NBA comp.

THE FAVORITE: Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Credentials: The new star of the Grizzlies (29-31) is raising the bar for rookie point guards. Morant averages 17.7 points and shoots a stout 49.2 percent from the field. That latter number is typically a field goal percentage of an established star, not a 20-year-old rookie making the transition to the game’s highest level from Murray State.

Morant is the rare player who combines substance and style. He dishes out highlight-reel assists at a top-15 pace, as his 35.2 assist percentage slots him just behind Houston's Russell Westbrook and Portland's Damian Lillard. The Grizzlies are nearly four points better when their rookie sensation is on the court --  a key reason why Memphis occupies the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"The kid is super special," LeBron James said after Morant scored 27 points in Memphis' 105-88 win over the Lakers on Saturday.

The Comp: Russell Westbrook with a jumper

Truth be told, there is no real comparison for Morant. But if you had to pick someone, Westbrook is probably the player.

While Morant’s slashing style and ability to rack up assists are reminiscent of the electric Westbrook, there’s a big difference: Russ' jump shot has been dodgy his entire career. Morant’s is proving to be much more reliable.  If Morant can combine the aggressive scoring and playmaking ways of Westbrook with an accurate jumper, the NBA will have a whole new kind of star on its hands.

If he continues his impressive pace, Morant will become the only rookie ever who has: 

  • Averaged at least 15 points per game.
  • Shot over 48 percent from the field and 35 percent from three.
  • An assist rate above 34 percent.
  • Played at least 25 minutes per game.

Zion Williamson, guarding The King in a loss to the Lakers on Sunday night, has the Pelicans in contention for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

THE CONTENDER: Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Credentials: It’s hard to overstate the 19-year-old's impressive debut for the Pelicans (26-34). After missing the first few months with a knee injury, he almost immediately became one of the league’s premier scorers. The explosive forward averages 24.1 points and shoots 59.3 percent from the field.

That surface look is impressive, but let's dig a little deeper: Williamson has 362 points in just 433 minutes. Of all rookies who played at least 400 minutes in a season, Williamson’s 38.7 points per 100 possessions puts him third all time in scoring rate for a first-year player -- behind Joel Embiid’s rookie season in 2016-17 and Michael Jordan’s inaugural campaign in 1984-85. Williamson’s free throw rate of .554 is better than the figures for MVP candidates Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden.

The Comp: Amar’e Stoudamire

It’s natural to look at how Williamson stuffs otherworldly athleticism in a stocky frame and imagine Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. The problem with that comparison is the Round Mound of Rebound vacuumed up missed shots at league-leading rates. Williamson doesn’t.

Williamson’s rebound rate -- an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while on floor --  is a pedestrian 12.5. Barkley’s rate never fell below 15.3, and he had three seasons in which he finished in the low 20s. So despite some similarities, this is where the Barkley-Williamson comparisons must stop.

A comparison with Stoudamire works much better. For most of his career, Stoudamire was an indifferent defender and middling jump shooter who managed to have an extremely productive NBA career. Like Stoudamire's, Williamson's transition forays are both frightening and exhilarating. Then in the half-court, Williamson, like Stoudamire did in his heyday, makes up for a lack of skill and feel with a combination of first-step explosiveness and powerful finishing.

Although Stoudamire is often remembered for his shortcomings and injuries, he spent a handful of seasons captivating the league with his above-the-rim scoring ways. The Pelicans can only hope Williamson can do the same.

Guard Kendrick Nunn averages 15.8 points for the Heat, who are in the thick of the playoff hunt in the Eastern Conference. David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

THE LONG SHOT: Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Credentials: Nunn is technically a rookie, but the 24-year-old is a graybeard compared to Morant and Williamson. That age difference, however, doesn't hold him back from occupying a spot on this list. If you’re looking for reasons beyond Jimmy Butler why the Heat (38-22) has returned to the top half of the East, stop at Nunn.

The guard has been a godsend to a franchise that has struggled to find players with accurate jumpers. Nunn averages 15.8 points and shoots 45.1 percent from the field and 35.5 percent from beyond the arc.

But don't paint the emerging youngster as a spot-up shooter feasting on kickouts. Nunn is involved heavily in the main action, whether flying off a screen without the ball or dribbling off a pick with it. Per Synergy Sports data, Nunn actually has more shots from pick-and-rolls (299) than he does from spot-up opportunities on the perimeter (166). 

The Comp: Michael Redd

As the scoring leader of a lot of middling Bucks teams, Redd certainly won’t go down as one of the game’s all-time greats. But this comparison doesn't do Nunn a disservice at all. Redd, a lefty shooter with ho-hum athleticism like Nunn's, had six seasons in which he scored at least 20 points per game. Like Nunn, Redd found scoring opportunities in many ways. If Nunn can match Redd’s career three-point percentage (38), he'll have a nice NBA career.

The Hawks play better with rookie forward De'Andre Hunter on the floor. Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports


De’Andre Hunter, Hawks

The Credentials: The Hawks (19-43) are bad, but at least Hunter does his part in making them better. The forward, who averages 12.6 points and 4.3 rebounds, is versatile on both ends of the floor -- perhaps a reason Atlanta is 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse when Hunter isn’t in the game.

The Comp: Marcus Morris

Like Morris, Hunter is something of a combo forward. In past years, that label would be looked at as something of a slight. In today’s NBA, a forward who can toggle between front-court spots with a decent outside shooting touch and some off-the-dribble verve is valuable. Like Morris, Hunter may never appear in All-Star games or be a standout player on a good team, but he seems set for a long, productive NBA career.

Terence Davis, Raptors

Credentials: An undrafted rookie, Davis averages 8.1 points and 3.5 rebounds for the Raptors (42-18), who are second in the East. Those pedestrian box score numbers hardly feel like the sort that lands a player on a Rookie of the Year list, but there’s a lot more to the young guard’s story. Davis has nailed a permanent rotation spot for one of the league’s deepest teams for good reason -- Toronto is 10 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor.

The Comp: Eric Gordon

Gordon has been one of the NBA’s most explosive scorers for more than a decade. During his rookie year, his per-game numbers dwarf Davis’. But there’s a caveat: Davis plays just 17.5 minutes per game for the Raptors while Gordon played 34.3 minutes in his inaugural campaign. If you even things out by looking at the per 36-minute numbers of their rookie seasons, Davis is right there with Gordon on points (16.6 to 16.8) and assists (3.5 to 2.9) and edges the Rockets' guard/small forward in accuracy from beyond the arc (40.8 percent to 38.9). So despite lacking a first-round label, Davis certainly is showing the ability to produce like the former lottery pick.

Brett Koremenos is a writer, trainer and strength coach who has worked and written about athletes from high school to the professional level for over a decade.


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