With the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft, the New Orleans Pelicans made the obvious choice. Back then 19-year-old Zion Williamson, a Duke University freshman, was inarguably the most mesmerizing player in all of basketball, pro or amateur – a 6ft 7in, 285lb flying sledgehammer who dunked with disturbing power, rejected shot attempts with stunning alacrity and otherwise defied the accepted physics of the game in ways too inconceivable not to retweet about in wonder. His rivalry game debut against North Carolina, already an NBA All-Star-level happening that featured former president Barack Obama and other bold-face names among the capacity crowd at Cameron Indoor Arena, became an even bigger deal when Williamson ripped a Nike shoe and limped off the floor with a knee injury a minute into the game.
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These days, though, Williamson is a mixed bag. It’s not his talent that’s in doubt. (He’s rated among the league’s more productive players at both ends.) It’s his flagging durability, either a product of his unholy alloy of size and speed or the consequence of living in the fried food capital of the world. Williamson missed most of his rookie season with a torn right meniscus and has been dogged by injuries to his hands. He has yet to play a game this season because of a broken foot. All of this has made Williamson ripe for potshots from Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. Two years ago they roasted dire reports claiming Williamson had to relearn how to walk; in November they fell out laughing over footage of Williamson lumbering through a basic warm-up drill. “It’s like me and Shaq had a baby,” Barkley cracked. “You should not get hurt when you’re young.” All the while New Orleans continues to play mediocre ball.
It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe the Pelicans got this wrong, if maybe instead of Williamson they should’ve taken that other South Carolina hoops phenom.
Compared to Williamson, Ja Morant, an old youth travel league teammate, was a 6ft 3in, 173lb wisp jumping to the pros from Murray State – a “mid-major” school that had won just three NCAA tournament games. And yet: In his two years there, Morant lost only four games and reached the tournament both seasons, leading the 12th-seeded Racers to an upset win over Marquette. As Williamson began his rookie year recovering from surgery to repair his meniscus, Morant – who went second in the ’19 draft to the Memphis Grizzlies – tiptoed out of Williamson’s shadow to claim Rookie of the Year honors. In 2020-21, Morant quietly willed the Grizzlies to the playoff precipice, single-handedly knocked off the Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament – sealing the Grizzlies’ first playoff appearance in four seasons. Against the top-seeded Jazz, Morant poured in another ace scoring effort to help steal a game on the road.
This season the Grizzlies floor general with the dreaded hair and handles isn’t sneaking up on anyone. Prior to 2021-22 campaign, he declared himself a top-five point guard – a boast that was met with some consternation. But all he’s done over the past week is state his case. On Monday at league-leading Phoenix, Morant capped a 33-point night with a twisting, fallaway, game-winning layup over two defenders. Two days later against the Lakers he went toe-to-toe with LeBron James from the three-point line, missing just once on the way to rallying the Grizzlies from a 14-point deficit to victory on the strength of a 41-point night. Incredibly, this all comes nine days after Morant heard Grizzlies fans call for him to return to the bench when he had an off night in a loss to Oklahoma City, his first game back from a three-week layoff with a sprained knee and a bout in the league’s health and safety protocol.
For true Morant loyalists, the Lakers performance will hark to his college hot steaks against the likes of Belmont and SIU Edwardsville. For the rest of us, it’s more fodder for comparisons to Curry – the ultimate underrated small college kid who turns his sleights into cannon fodder. “Go back to LA!” was his parting shot to the spectators who dared show up to FedEx Forum dressed in purple and gold.
Morant has always been a wizard with the ball, equally adept at displacing defenders off the dribble or off a glance. Now he’s applying that same sorcery in service of his greatly improved long-distance stroke. Mindful of Morant’s explosive first step, Lakers defenders had to think twice before deciding whether to pick him up at the three-point line. That moment of hesitation was often enough to guarantee Morant wide-open looks against a flailing Avery Bradley or Russell Westbrook when Morant wasn’t crashing the offensive boards, blocking shots or spinning around more lost Lakers defenders in the paint. Overall he burned them for six makes, a career best.
Most impressive: the Grizzlies, who have rebounded from an 9-10 start to leading the Southwest division, have the form of a playoff shoo-in. As Morant’s scoring average (24.5 points) and his three-point accuracy (38.3%) continue to climb, it appears the 22-year-old may have sold himself short. Forget the league’s top-five point guards. Right now Morant looks like a top-five player – like a prime Derrick Rose, but with far greater judiciousness and restraint. Or, at the very least, Morant looks like he should’ve been the top pick all along.
Why he wasn’t has less to do with Morant’s talent than the LeBron-level hype around Williamson. What’s more, New Orleans tried building a team around a point guard before, and Chris Paul – one of the best ever at that position – could only do so much. Still: as hard as it is for any pro talent evaluator to justify passing on a big man many were touting as the next Charles Barkley, there remained some doubt about exactly what position Williamson would play. And that was before the questions about his eating habits. Citing his league sources, ESPN hoops reporter Tim MacMahon reckoned Williamson weighed around 330lbs – and damned if that doesn’t come across in Williamson’s Mountain Dew commercials.
While Williamson reaches for another beignet (allegedly), Morant seems to have stayed away from Memphis’ famed BBQ and soul food joints. That figures, given Morant’s estimable reputation as a workout warrior who owes his own early viral fame to the improvised workouts dreamed up by his father, Tee – a high school teammate of Ray Allen’s. But here’s really why Morant could’ve gone No 1: basketball is a little man’s game now. And in a league where layups and threes rule, Morant, not Williamson, is the player with the greater upside.
But then again it is still early days. Williamson’s career isn’t over yet, and who knows how much time he could buy back time with a better diet and discipline. Until he gets it back together, you can’t say you didn’t see Ja Morant coming anymore. If you don’t think he’s a top player yet, at the very least you now know this: he’s hungry, too.