In an NBA season in which the MVP award is a runaway — even a season-ending injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo might not stop him at this point — the most fascinating year-end vote will come in the Rookie of the Year category.
The winner will be either Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant or New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson.
And the decision voters make won’t be about who is the better, more impactful player. It will be about whether the better, more impactful player suited up for enough games to swipe the award from a damned good rookie who played a full season.
Since missing the first three months of the campaign as he recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, Williamson has played in 15 games. The most he can possibly play in this regular season is 37. That’s 45% of the Pelicans’ season. Is it enough?
The sportsbooks say … maybe. Zion was the prohibitive preseason favorite, worth far less than an even-money return before the injury. A few games into the season, when he was expected to miss six to eight weeks, he was still the favorite, listed at FanDuel Sportsbook at +180 while Morant’s impressive start had him trailing at +275. When Williamson was finally ready to make his debut in January, he was up to 5/1 or more everywhere you looked.
But that number has done nothing but shrink over the last five weeks. The bookmakers are clearly concerned about offering too high a payout on a market that is as much about predicting human behavior as it is on-court performance.
Morant still the betting favorite
Here are the latest odds at a sampling of seven legal U.S. online sports betting operators:
|Sportsbook||Ja Morant||Zion Williamson|
* FOX Bet is currently offering an odds boost to +300 on Williamson; the book’s unboosted price is +225.
Whether there’s value on either side at the market-best prices of -350 on Morant or +300 on Williamson requires paying attention to what some of the 100 NBA media members who vote on the award have been saying — and what they’ve done in the past.
These aren’t the same 100 who voted in 2017, but the great majority of them are holdovers. That year, Malcolm Brogdon became the first player drafted outside the first round to win ROY in the common draft era. Selected 36th by the Milwaukee Bucks, he became the lowest pick to win the award since the immortal Woody Sauldsberry in 1958.
Brogdon put up decidedly mediocre stats by Rookie of the Year standards: 10.2 points per game, 4.2 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.1 steals. No winner has ever averaged fewer points.
If the only other information you have is that another rookie scored 20 points per game, along with 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, you’d think it’s absurd that Brogdon won the award.
But that other rookie was Joel Embiid, who, due to injury, played in only 31 games that season.
Of the 100 voters, 64 made Brogdon their top choice for Rookie of the Year, compared to 23 for Embiid. Not only did the 76ers center not win the award, he finished just third overall and second among Sixers rookies, behind teammate Dario Saric, because 33 voters chose not to put small-sample-size Embiid in the top three on their ballots.
There is no official cutoff for winning NBA awards. It’s not like winning the MLB batting title, which requires 502 plate appearances. The evidence of three years ago seems to suggest 31 games isn’t enough. But is 37?
Numbers never lie
Further complicating the case for Williamson is that he’s up against someone putting up serious stats. Nobody felt great about voting for Brogdon, mostly a bench player who was more steady than spectacular. Morant, on the other hand, is having a season no voter should feel reluctant to reward.
The Grizz guard, having played 55 of a possible 61 games so far, is averaging 17.6 points, 7 assists, and 3.4 rebounds while shooting a respectable 49.3% from the field, 35.2% from beyond the arc, and 76.9% from the free throw line. He has been a key factor in helping Memphis far exceed preseason expectations (they’ve already topped their over/under for wins) and, as of now, stake claim to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Zion, meanwhile, has been dazzling. In 15 games, he’s averaged 24.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, while topping Morant’s efficiency from the field (59.3%) and from deep (41.7%), though not at the stripe (64.8%).
When it comes to the eye test, there’s not much to debate. One player looks like a future all-star. The other looks like a potential future MVP and maybe the next face of the league.
Then again, Embiid crushed Brogdon on the eye test as a rookie, and a third of the voters wouldn’t consider his candidacy.
Playoffs or bust?
There’s a very good chance that the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year award will come down to that 8 seed in the West. Consideration of team performance is typically reserved for MVP debates, but in this instance, it might be a way to separate the two ROY contenders.
After crushing Atlanta on Monday, Memphis is 30-31, 3½ games up for the last playoff spot. Heading into a home game and likely win against Minnesota on Tuesday night, New Orleans is 26-34, in a three-way tie with Portland and Sacramento for ninth place in the conference.
But the Grizzlies have a tough remaining schedule. And the Pelicans have momentum. Despite trailing by 3½ games with 22 to play, New Orleans is even money, +100, to make the playoffs at FOX Bet. The Grizzlies, despite their lead, are +250.
It’s a fascinating situation.
Morant might play twice as many games as Williamson. Williamson might lead his teammates to the playoffs after they were essentially left for dead without him.
Morant has outstanding rookie numbers. Williamson has a shot at scoring more points per game than any rookie since Michael Jordan.
Those 100 media members who vote on the award are headed toward a complicated decision if both players stay healthy.
Bettors already face a complicated decision that requires being able to read the minds of 100 media members.
Photo by Derick E. Hingle / USA Today Sports