Until Zion Williamson thrust himself into the conversation, it seemed Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies was the sure bet for NBA Rookie of the Year. Morant has had a transformative impact on the franchise, sparked his team into the midst of the playoff race. But the same can be said about Williamson. It’s been exciting to watch.
To tell you the truth, we can’t decide between the two, who were picked first and second overall in the NBA Draft. They are both appointment television players who have lived up to the hype generated for them when they were in college.
So in instances like this, we tend to listen to LeBron James. The King is essentially the voice of the league. Whenever something is going on globally that impacts the NBA, James’ opinion is usually the first to be sought out.
Over the weekend, the Los Angeles Lakers played both the Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans. And James came away raving about both of them. He can’t decide who the rookie of the year is, either.
On Saturday, Morant scored 27 points with 14 assists and six rebounds in a 105-88 win over the Lakers in Memphis. After the game, there was a gold Lakers No. 23 jersey resting on his chair.
“The kid is super special,” said James, who scored 19 points with 10 assists. “Like I said when we just played him in L.A., Memphis got a great one. They got a great one. So, the sky’s the limit for the kid.”
On Sunday in New Orleans, James watched Williamson score a career-high 35 points in a 122-114 loss to the Lakers. Of course, Williamson also watched James rip off an impressive triple-double – 34 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds.
After the game, James and Williamson embraced at half court, James offering the rookie some words of advice.
“It definitely means something, ’cause he’s been doing this for 17 years and his résumé speaks for itself. So for him to say that, holds something,” Williamson said. “That’s all I can say about that.”
When asked about the appropriateness of such a thing, James let it fly.
“Anybody that says that, ‘LeBron, why would he do that while he’s playing? It’s a sign of weakness. … He’s buddy-buddy with the guys he’s going against.’ Tell them to kiss my ass. All right? With a smile, too. Appreciate it.”
The point is, James isn’t shy about heaping praise and affection on young players. He is acutely aware of his stature and understands the long-term success of the game depends on the continuum of superstar players. When James sees guys that fit the mold, he isn’t shy about saying it.
“I’ve always thought about that,” James said. “Like, what young guys are coming up in the ranks that will be able to continue to carry it on after I’m gone. You look at Ja and you look at Zion. You look at Jayson Tatum. You look at Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and the list goes on and on. Those guys are just not only great on the floor but also, more importantly, off the floor. And that’s a great thing to have. … Our league is in a very, very good place.”
In the game against the Lakers on Saturday, Morant recorded his second consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound game. Doncic and Young are the only others rookies to have done that in the last eight seasons. Morant’s 11th double-double leads all rookies this season.
Morant wasn’t the only player who received a jersey after the game. He repaid James was sending one of his to the Lakers locker room.
“I didn’t even know I was getting his jersey actually,” James said. “I gave him mine, for sure, but I didn’t know he was returning the favor. But it’s pretty cool.”
It’s no secret James seeks to be a big brother to Morant and Williamson, in much the same way Kobe Bryant was to him.
“It’s my obligation and it’s my job to continue to pass on the game to the guys that’s coming in after me,” James said. “That’s just my responsibility. No one told me to do that. I just feel like it’s my responsibility to leave the game in a better place than when I had it.
“And when you see the class of guys that’s in our league right now. … you see all these guys, these young guys. The league is in a very good place, and if I’m able to give my wisdom and game and pass it down, no matter while I’m playing or after I’m playing, I feel like it’s my job. Because the game has just given me so much since I started playing when I was 8 years old. So it’s my responsibility.”
One thing is for certain: Morant and Williamson both deserve to be rookie of the year. And once it’s all said and done, you can bet James will just nod and smile knowing the future of the game is in good hands.