By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant was the NBA’s best rookie from the opening day of the season, and that was officially recognized last Wednesday when Morant was voted Rookie of the Year. He came within one vote of being a unanimous selection, getting 99 of 100 first place votes. He’s the Grizzlies first winner of that award since Pau Gasol in 2001-02. Three different months he was the Western Conference Rookie of the Month on the way to averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 assists. The Grizzlies, picked to be in the NBA lottery, instead reached the play-in game before losing to the Portland Trailblazers.
‘’It’s a blessing, definitely an honor,’’ Morant said in the televised announcement of the award on TNT, with the trophy already at his side. ‘’I put a lot of work in day in and day out. This journey has been rough, but in the end it’s all paying off.’’
Miami’s Kendrick Nunn was second and New Orleans’ Zion Williamson was third. Nunn, who was undrafted, averaged 15.3 points in 67 regular-season games while being an immediate starter for the Heat. Williamson had big numbers when able to play, averaging 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds. But he missed much of his rookie year due to injuries.
Williamson did get the other first-place vote. Morant’s teammate Brandon Clarke finished fourth in the voting. Morant’s stats included being second among all rookies in scoring, first in assists, and starting 67 games, playing 2,074 minutes. He tied with Nunn in those other two categories.
The balloting took place in July, before the season restarted at Walt Disney World. Games that occurred through March 11, the day the league shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, were the ones taken into account by the voting panel of sports writers and broadcasters.
‘’I always feel like there’s room for improvement,’’ Morant said. ‘’I’m looking to improve in every category.’’ Morant averaged 12.7 points as a freshman at Murray State. But he entered the NBA draft after a spectacular sophomore season. He averaged 24.5 points led the nation with 10.0 assists per game. Morant earned first-team All-American status. He’s now part of the nucleus for the Grizzlies that also includes Clarke and Jaren Jackson, another young player emerging as a star.
‘We’re right there,’’ Morant said when the season ended with that loss to Portland. ‘’Just some games away. We’ll just go back to work and get ready for next season.’ It’s hoped that with more experience they’ll be able to avoid the last season slump that saw them lose a three-and-a-half game lead to the Trailblazers for the eighth spot in the Western Conference, going 2-6 in their final eight games.