It has thus far not been a stellar NBA season. The injury-driven demise of the league’s previous glory team the Golden State State Warriors, coupled with the loss to injuries of such marquee names as Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, has triggered a sizable drop in TV ratings.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver seems to have dropped, at least for now, proposals for a midseason tournament replacing the All-Star game and changes in playoff seeding, though he says the league may explore these ideas again at the end of the season.
But for now, with the NBA about to head into All-Star weekend, the best news on the league front has been the play of two rookies. One was expected to be an instant sensation, but it can be argued that the other one has been both a bigger surprise and had a greater impact.
Temetrius Jamel Morant, better known as Jah, was a star last year in the Ohio Valley Conference. He was not only consensus Player of the Year, he led the entire NCAA in assists and was a first team All-American.
But still, he was just a sophomore. When the Memphis Grizzlies picked him number two in the 2019 draft, the general feeling was he would gradually improve over the course of the season and really come into his own next year.
So much for that prediction. As this week began he was not only the Grizzlies’ starting point guard, but had led them to a very unexpected 21-24 record, eight wins in their last10 games, and eighth place in the Western Conference. In Friday night’s 125-112 road victory over the Detroit Pistons Morant had 16 points and 12 assists. He is already one of two building blocks for the Grizzlies, joining second year player Jaren Jackson as team cornerstones. Sure Morant makes rookie mistakes, both in terms of shot selection and forcing plays. But the ratio of highlights to mistakes is much higher than anticipated, and will only improve with time. Memphis expected to contend for a playoff berth next season. Morant, Jackson and company have them there ahead of schedule.
The other rookie standout was last year’s most closely watched star Zion Lateef Williamson. The first pick in the draft from Duke, he was widely expected to be a unanimous choice for Rookie of The Year. At six feet, six inches and 284 pounds, the intriguing mix of power and quickness had league observers anxious for his debut.
But a preseason injury kept him out of the first 44 games for the New Orleans Pelicans. Williamson finally made his debut last Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, and in an incredible three minute fourth quarter explosion scored 17 points (22 overall in 18 minutes), including hitting four of four three pointers. He followed that on Friday night with 15 points in 21 minutes, making seven of nine from the floor.
The Pelicans lost both games, but the team and head coach Alvin Gentry insisted Williamson would stay on a minutes restriction for the immediate future. The Pelicans are within range of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but the team’s medical staff and ownership are adamant they aren’t going to rush Williamson into immediate heavy duty.
But regardless of whether the Pelicans make the playoffs, Williamson has verified that his talent and potential are unlimited. Questions linger about durability (especially at his current weight) and consistency, but his presence in the Pelicans lineup provides a major threat teams in the Western Conference must face for years to come.
Both Morant and Williamson are very young. 20 and 19 respectively. Barring injury, they should be stars for years to come, and a prominent part of the NBA’s next wave of dynamic attractions.