By the start of 2020, Grizzlies guard Ja Morant had already put all of the active NBA Rookie of the Year contenders behind him.
Morant entered New Year's Day averaging 17.4 points, 6.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game while generating buzz with his midair acrobatics. No one else came close to that production.
But the long-awaited debut of Pelicans forward Zion Williamson in January could make Rookie of the Year discussions interesting depending on how the final two months of the campaign unfold.
Is it possible for someone who missed about three months to an injury to claim a season-long award? Barely, and the circumstances would need to be extraordinary and include an unlikely playoff berth for New Orleans. There remains the slimmest of chances, though, given Williamson's game-changing impact on the floor and the flair with which the Pelicans have played in recent weeks.
Before this week, Williamson had endured very few road bumps to start his career. He showered 3-pointers in his debut, and then showed his dominance inside by recording double-doubles against the playoff-bound Celtics and Rockets.
But earlier this week in a 120-108 loss to Milwaukee, Williamson finally came back to earth with a 5-for-19 shooting effort in which he was completely dominated by Giannis Antetokounmpo. Williamson started ice-cold in the nationally televised tilt, not scoring until almost six minutes into the action, when he tipped in a Jrue Holiday miss. He struggled to move Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez with his large frame and was left grasping at air on a couple of offensive moves by Antetokounmpo. His 20-7-5 line felt empty given his inefficiency.
Giannis is in killer mode tonight.
He's teaching Zion a few lessons pic.twitter.com/bN3QoFYL2p
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) February 5, 2020
Williamson went 32 minutes Tuesday and 25 minutes Thursday, and he has now exceeded 28 minutes in four of his last five contests. Injury-related playing time limitations have been lifted. He is averaging 19.8 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, and he could improve upon that stat line as he settles into the league. By comparison, Morant is averaging 17.4 points, 7.0 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
There are 30 games left to play for the Pelicans and 31 games remaining for the Grizzlies. That would give Williamson a maximum of 38 total games played this season and Morant a maximum of 71, though neither should be expected to compete in every single contest. Following a win over the Bulls on Thursday night, New Orleans (21-31) is 5.5 games out of a playoff spot. Memphis (26-25) occupies the No. 8 seed and holds a multigame cushion over the rest of the Western Conference pack.
Should the Grizzlies make the playoffs, Morant will win Rookie of the Year. Should the Pelicans miss the playoffs, Morant will win Rookie of the Year. Should Williamson average fewer than 20 points and 10 rebounds the rest of the way, Morant will win Rookie of the Year.
If none of those conditions materialize, however, Williamson will have a fascinating case for the award.
Here is how the NBA Rookie of the Year race currently stands:
NBA Rookie of the Year rankings
1. Ja Morant
2. Zion Williamson
3. Brandon Clarke
4. Kendrick Nunn