New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson enters the 2019-20 NBA season as the overwhelming favorite (-135) to win Rookie of the Year, which should come as no surprise.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft averaged 22.6 points on 68.0 percent shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks in only 30.0 minutes per game during his lone season at Duke. He enters the NBA as perhaps the most-hyped draft prospect since Anthony Davis.
Although Williamson’s talent, collegiate production and draft pedigree make him the deserving front-runner for Rookie of the Year, he isn’t necessarily a lock to win the award, either. Just ask fellow No. 1 overall picks Anthony Bennett (2013), Markelle Fultz (2017) and Deandre Ayton (2018), none of whom won the award in their respective rookie seasons.
Or, heck, just ask the Pelicans’ last No. 1 overall pick—Davis—who came in a distant second to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard in Rookie of the Year voting during 2012-13.
While mitigating circumstances upended Bennett and Fultz’s ROY chances, Davis and Ayton provide textbook examples of how Williamson could come up short in the award race.
Too much competition in New Orleans?
As a rookie, Davis finished fourth in both points and minutes per game in New Orleans, trailing Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Greivis Vasquez (!). Although he averaged an impressive 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in only 28.8 minutes, he was no match for Lillard’s 19.0 points, 6.5 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 2.3 triples through an eye-popping 38.6 minutes per game.
Williamson is joining a Pelicans team with far more talent than the one Davis played on in 2012-13.
Jrue Holiday is a former All-Star who’s received back-to-back All-Defensive nods. JJ Redick is one of the premier sharpshooters in league history. Derrick Favors could be a nightly 20-10 threat with starter’s minutes. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were supposed to form the foundation of the next great Los Angeles Lakers team…until the Lakers traded all of them for Davis, that is.
Throw in fellow rookies Jaxson Hayes (No. 8) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (No. 17), 2015 No. 3 overall pick Jahlil Okafor, veteran wing E’Twaun Moore and international import Nicolo Melli, and the Pelicans have a ton of mouths to feed beyond Williamson.
When the Pelicans won the draft lottery in May—thus ensuring they’d have a chance to select Williamson—it set the course of their entire offseason. Executive vice president David Griffin could begin to negotiate trade packages for Davis designed specifically to maximize Williamson’s window, which explains why he prioritized young talent (Ball, Ingram, Hart) and draft considerations.
By then bringing in Redick, Favors and Melli in free agency, the Pelicans ensured that Williamson wouldn’t have to shoulder too much responsibility from day one.
“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin told reporters on the night of the draft. “Zion is going to be learning how to win at a really high level. At some point, if there is a time that the baton gets passed in terms of who is expected to carry us to win games, it will. That is not now.
“Let Zion be that kid. Don’t write this like he is here to save this franchise. He is not. He is here to join this family.”
Williamson’s efficiency may remain otherworldly as a rookie, but he’ll be competing for touches with a lot of competent options. His per-game averages may be similar to what Davis posted as a rookie, which could open the door for a fellow first-year player (grappling with bigger minutes and responsibilities) to swipe the Rookie of the Year award.
The other Rookie of the Year contenders
If Williamson’s per-game averages don’t cement him as the runaway Rookie of the Year, who might supplant him atop the leaderboard?
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant (-300) has the next-best odds, and deservedly so.
After winning the No. 2 overall pick, the Grizzlies traded longtime point guard Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz ahead of the 2019 draft, clearing the runway for Morant to start immediately. With third-string point guard De’Anthony Melton sidelined by a stress reaction in his back for the next 4-8 weeks, Tyus Jones looks like Morant’s only competition for point guard minutes at the beginning of the season.
Morant is the first collegiate player ever to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game, and the Murray State product wasn’t just stat-padding against mid-major competition, either. During the first round of the NCAA tournament, he hung 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds on Marquette in an upset win, making him only the ninth player in history to drop a triple-double during March Madness.
Morant will undoubtedly go through growing pains as a rookie, just as all first-year point guards do, but having Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke as frontcourt counterparts should help ease his burden. By the end of the season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the 20-year-old goes on a tear akin to what Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young did after last year’s All-Star break (24.7 points, 9.2 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game).
While Morant has a clear opportunity to put up huge numbers in Memphis, few other rookies across the league do. That may be Williamson’s saving grace in the Rookie of the Year race even if he doesn’t hit the ground running.
The New York Knicks spent the No. 3 overall pick on Duke forward RJ Barrett, but he’ll be jostling for minutes with a boatload of free-agent signings and fellow young prospects, especially up front. Until the Knicks conduct their inevitable fire sale at the trade deadline, Barrett may not have the chance to put up huge numbers during the first few months of his rookie campaign.
Atlanta Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter (+2500) and Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jarrett Culver (+2500) will likely make a bigger impact on defense than offense as rookies, which could take them out of the running for Rookie of the Year. Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Darius Garland (+1600) will have to adjust to playing with fellow floor general Collin Sexton, although the two could fit nicely together in new head coach John Beilein’s system.
Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. (+1800), who missed his entire first season as he recovered from a back injury, is a dark-horse candidate. However, it’s difficult to imagine him getting enough minutes or touches to vault himself ahead of Williamson or Morant, as he’ll be behind Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris (among others) in the Nuggets’ pecking order.
In other words, this year’s Rookie of the Year race figures to boil down to Williamson and Morant. And while the Pelicans should finish with a better record than the Grizzlies, Morant may just have more of an opportunity to put up big numbers.
That could prove problematic for Williamson, just as it did for Ayton last season.
The latter averaged an impressive 16.3 points on 58.5 percent shooting and 10.3 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game for the Phoenix Suns last season. However, he finished as a distant third in the Rookie of the Year voting to Young and runaway winner Luka Doncic, who averaged an outrageous 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists with the Dallas Mavericks.
If Morant goes off like Doncic or Young did last season, Williamson will need to produce more than Davis did as a rookie in New Orleans to keep up in the Rookie of the Year race.
But even if Williamson does fall short of Rookie of the Year, he’s still likely to have the best NBA career among his draft classmates.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.