Look, we get it: Zion Williamson is good at basketball. Like really fucking good at basketball. We’ve been aware of this since his junior year of high school when he became Instagram’s favorite entity.
I remember seeing a Zion Williamson dunk for the first time like it was yesterday. His volcano-sized body erupted upwards and his left hand cradled a basketball while it touched the bottom of his left butt cheek before it nearly shattered the petrified rim.
(One day I'll become Earth's #1 Zion Fan Fiction writer, but the story above is not fiction.)
But just because Z (that's my favorite nickname for him, just Z, except it has to be underlined and bolded font when written out) was the number one pick in the 2019 NBA draft doesn’t mean he’s going to be the de facto winner of this year’s Rookie of the Year award. Zion was drafted to the New Orleans Pelicans. A team that is going to have some fresh faces this upcoming season following their mega-deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Rookies like Zion, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker aren’t going to be the only NOLA players trying to prove themselves to their new franchise this season. Young “veterans” like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart are just as eager as the even newer newcomers, and although they may not admit it in the public eye: the former Lakers believe that this is their team.
We can anticipate New Orleans to have around five or six guys who average over 10 points per game (Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors, J.J. Reddick, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson). Their leading scorer is going to be the team’s elder statesman, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball will be the one who is handed the keys to the offense since he’s their best distributor.
This equation means that Zion is going to be somewhat of an afterthought in the New Orleans offense although he’ll be at the forefront of all their highlight reels. This delusion of concentration isn’t going to be the same for other rookies in the 2019 Draft Class. There are four other players who have just as good of a chance as Zion, if not better, to win the NBA Rookie of the Year award due to their situations, circumstances, and systems they'll be playing within.
The two other top three players in this draft class, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant, are going to be asked to be one of the best players on their teams during their upcoming rookie seasons. They stick out to me more than later lottery draft picks (Tyler Herro and Coby White) not only because they were higher picks, but because they are going to be looked at to be the saviors of their respected franchises rather than valued bucket getters.
To avoid all allegations of being biased to Duke, let's begin with the second pick in the NBA Draft...
JA MORANT, MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Predicted Stats: 14.8 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 8.1 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 44% FG, 31% 3PT, 79.2% FT
If you've been living under a Zion sized rock for the last 12 months, then let me explain who the second pick in the NBA draft is to you in a simple manner:
Ja Morant is an infusion of a younger John Wall, and last year's Trae Young. The young man is tall for his position, as athletic as they come, and his superb vision allows him to be even more dangerous as a passer than he is as a scorer.
The guy has an almost veteran-seasoned feel for the game. His jump shot is relatively inconsistent, but his athleticism is mind boggling enough to take advantage of the space that defenders will be forced to give him. His first step is electric, and once he blows by the first defender, his vision is dangerous enough to find the wide open guy in the corner or on the wing nearly every time up the floor. Ja is already going to be amongst the top five-to-ten range as a 21 year old point guard as far as distributing goes.
The only issue with Morant’s ability and willingness to pass the ball is that the teammates he’s going to be passing to are simply not that good. He’s going to have to force feed Triple J (Jaren Jackson Jr.) if the Grizzlies want to make any improvements with this young core. If he gets stuck feeding it to whichever guy with the last name Brooks is still on the team, then the Grizzlies are going to be stuck in the NBA’s tumultuous purgatory once again. But hey, maybe they’ll luck their way into another top 3 pick. Who knows?
R.J. BARRET, NEW YORK KNICKS
Predicted Stats: 17.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.5 BPG, 46% FG, 30% 3PT, 70.2% FT
Canada's Finest. The Maple Mamba. The guy who didn't pass to Zion enough. There are a lot of differing opinions on Duke's own, R.J. Barrett, and the variety of opinions is warranted.
R.J. came into the 2018-19 college basketball season as the nation's number one recruit, and he didn't quite perform up to standards. Albeit the standards were that of a blend of James Harden and Jayson Tatum, but nonetheless Barrett failed to bring a national championship to Duke alongside his best friend and teammate, Zion Williamson.
Timeout: Let's not forget that R.J. did have one of the greatest seasons in ACC history last year. As a freshman, nonetheless.
Despite all of the questions concerning R.J.'s ability to be an alpha dog, the stud freshman still went number three overall in the 2019 NBA Draft to the New York Knicks. He's publicly stated that he's a fan of the bright lights, big stages, and flashing cameras, and now he's gotten what he's wished for. He'll be playing on the world's biggest stage for 41 games every year: Madison Square Garden.
From the jump, R.J. will be New York's number one or number two option alongside his fellow left-handed teammate Julius Randle, a young veteran power forward from Kentucky who is essentially 90% of Zion Williamson. Nobody's positive who is going to be the primary playmaker for the Knicks between Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, and R.J., but it's safe to say the rookie will be favored as the playmaker throughout the season considering his obsessive, nearly selfish alpha dog mentality.
There are a lot of parts of R.J.'s game that are already pro-level quality, but there are certain areas that drastically need improvement if R.J. ever wants to meet the expectations that come with the nickname The Maple Mamba. Here's a list of all the areas where Barrett needs improvement:
Spot up shooting
Off the dribble shooting
Free throw shooting
Passing out of drives to the basket
Ball-handling tightness as the primary option
Post game: back to the basket, and face-up moves
Yes, I'm aware that that is a long list of necessary improvements, but they're all teachable things and the positives of R.J.'s game outweigh the negatives.
His explosion and athleticism is eye opening, and his ability to maneuver through the paint on attacks to the basket isn't something that one can simply