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Zion Williamson or Ja Morant? An NBA question of preference nobody saw coming

Ben Rohrbach
·7-min read

We are two years removed from Zion Williamson entering the NBA draft as the surest bet for superstardom since LeBron James, and yet the performance of the No. 2 pick leaves open a debate over who was the real prize in 2019.

I am not ready to declare second-year Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant better than Williamson, largely because the 20-year-old New Orleans Pelicans forward still carries so much untapped potential, but the fact that Morant has even made that a real conversation is a reflection of both his rising star and Williamson's falling stock.

Tuesday's meeting between the two is a chance to check in on this discussion that could shape the league's future.

There is no question Morant has enjoyed greater success to this point. The Grizzlies outperformed their expected win total last season by 7 1/2 games in a shortened campaign, and they are on pace to exceed expectations by 10 1/2 games this season. The bubble burst their command of the West's final playoff seed, but they are in line for another play-in spot — no small feat for a small-market team without established stars in a loaded conference.

Morant has unquestionably been the on-court leader of an egalitarian Memphis squad, averaging team highs of 17.8 points and 7.3 assists last season and surpassing both numbers this season in just 29.9 minutes per game. He was considered a 2020 All-Star snub and earned 99 of 100 possible first-place votes in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

Superstar hype followed Morant into this season, and he delivered in his 2020-21 debut, amassing 44 points and nine assists opposite the San Antonio Spurs, but a badly sprained left ankle 12 minutes into his third game of the year has stalled his ascent. The injury cost Morant eight games, and he has yet to find that same elevated level of play since. Still, the 21-year-old is averaging 22.1 points and 9.6 assists per 36 minutes for an overachieving team.

Meanwhile, Williamson's career began with an injury to his right knee that might still be limiting his effectiveness. He did not debut until after the midway point of his rookie season, and then turned in a 19-game sneak preview of his superstar potential that vaulted him into the Rookie of the Year conversation and his Pelicans into the playoff chase. His bubble experience began with a family emergency and ended prematurely with soreness in the same right knee.

Williamson has not missed a game to injury this season and continues to score efficiently, averaging 24.4 points on 64.7% true shooting in 32.7 minutes per game, but he is still falling short of his ceiling. That is both the burden of high expectations and a testament to how much room Williamson still has to grow. Billed as the ultimate modern weapon — an above-the-rim big who can handle the ball, create for others and defend across multiple positions — he has failed to show so many dimensions in the NBA, attempting 95% of his shots within 10 feet of the basket.

Williamson was also considered a culture-setter in college, a beaming ray of light whose enthusiasm for the game positively impacted the collective. That has been absent as we approach the halfway point of his second season. The Pelicans finished 8 1/2 games below expectations in a shortened 2019-20 campaign, largely for circumstances beyond Williamson's control, but they are on pace to fall six games shy of this short season's expected win total.

Ja Morant is just as close to superstardom as Zion Williamson. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Ja Morant is just as close to superstardom as Zion Williamson. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Advanced statistics all favor Williamson over Morant, especially when it comes to their on/off net rating. Memphis has actually been 4.2 points per 100 possessions worse with Morant on the floor this season, including a -14.1 dip on defense, which puts him in the league's lowest percentile. This after finishing 2019-20 in the black. New Orleans has been six points per 100 possessions better with Williamson on the court, almost the same as last season.

But at some point you have to look at their records. The Grizzlies are 40-41 in Morant's 81 games played. Morant's premier running partner — promising third-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr. — has not played a game this season. Eight of Memphis' top 10 rotational players are 25 years old or younger, and their two veterans — Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — were fourth options at best on previous stops. Nobody handles the ball more than Morant on the Grizzlies, and as a result his team's better-than-expected record speaks to how well the pieces fit around him.

Fit might be the biggest difference between the two rising stars. New Orleans is faced with question marks about how to build around Williamson. They rarely play him at center, seemingly the best spot for him in the current era. His defensive shortcomings both in isolation and on the pick and roll make him a target there. The Pelicans prioritized rim protection from Steven Adams, but his inability to space the floor clogs the offense, especially for a four like Williamson and his 13 total 3-point attempts. That keeps forward Brandon Ingram from his All-Star position.

On paper, the young Pelicans should be better than their counterparts on the Grizzlies. Williamson and Ingram are the two higher-billed rising stars. They have a trio of veterans — Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams and J.J. Redick — who have all been staples of playoff teams in recent years. Lonzo Ball is a pass-first playmaker who is shooting better than anyone anticipated, and there are a number of similarly willing role players working to improve around them.

But it just has not clicked. That has everything to do with how difficult it has proven to build around Williamson. It is easier with Morant, a floor general of the highest order, but would any team actually prefer to build around Morant?

Most would probably favor the sheer size of Williamson — 6-foot-7 and 284 pounds — but they are not so different as their positions might suggest. They rely equally on athleticism, so much so that it makes each of them injury prone — Morant as a 6-foot-3 twig among the trees and Williamson placing so much torque on his knees. The preference speaks to basketball history, but Morant is a prime example of how priorities could be shifting in this era.

Offensively, Williamson attempts more shots in the restricted area than anyone in the league — almost three more shots at the rim per game than Giannis Antetokounmpo — but Morant gets to the basket more than any other point guard in the NBA and is the superior playmaker when he gets there. Morant has also shown an ability to shoot from distance, even if his 33.5% 3-point accuracy has dipped seven points on a much smaller sample size this season.

Defensively, they both have miles to go. They get lost on picks and in defensive rotations, as most young players do. Morant has the lateral quickness and a 6-foot-7 wingspan to keep opposing guards in front of him. His issues come mostly off the ball, which should be fixable for a willing defender. Williamson is a bigger question mark. He should carry far more defensive responsibility, but his athleticism is more vertical than horizontal, and he struggles in space.

Williamson's knee may be contributing to those deficiencies, but that is no less concerning from the longterm perspective. He is probably still the safer bet to join an MVP discussion on a championship contender in the coming years, but do not be so quick to leave Morant out of that conversation. This is not the slam dunk we once thought, which is all the more depressing for the New York Knicks, who entered the 2019 draft with far better odds at a top-two pick than either the Pelicans or Grizzlies and walked away with No. 3 and R.J. Barrett on the tier below them.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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