With the NBA season set to start in a week, league awards discussion increased in the basketball world. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, NBA awards will be based on the regular season through Mar. 11. The Last Word on Pro Basketball staff continues the 2019-20 awards’ discussion with a current Top 3 power ranking for Rookie of the Year and Most Improved Player. Who will emerge as the winner between the Ja Morant and Zion Williamson battle for Rookie of the Year? Will history be made for Most Improved Player?
NBA’s Rookie of The Year and Most Improved Player Categories
Top 3 Rookie of the Year Power Rankings
3. G Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Who expected an undrafted 24-year old rookie to be in the discussion for Rookie of the Year honors? Not many, highly likely including Kendrick Nunn himself. The 2018 Horizon League Player of the Year went undrafted out of Oakland University and signed with the Golden State Warriors, before released in October 2018. Fast forward to a year later, Nunn made his debut with the Miami Heat, starting over guard Goran Dragic, and finished strong.
Nunn finished with 24 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals in a 120-101 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. He went on to start all 62 appearances, leading the Heat to a 41-24 record. He is ranked third in scoring among all rookies with 15.6 points per game. The fact that he averages nearly twice as many assists per game (3.4) as turnovers (1.6) shows good ball-handling and decision making. Nunn also has a soft touch to his shot, shooting under 45% from the field.
2. F Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
The Duke product has shown why he deserves to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion. In just 19 games, Williamson averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and has scored 20 points or more in 16 games for the New Orleans Pelicans.
His freak athleticism and strong offensive game, especially when crashing the boards, have emerged the power forward as an elite force down low. What hurts Williamson’s chances is the number of games missed due to injuries. Games played does not necessarily play a huge factor, since Philadelphia 76ers‘ forward Joel Embiid finished third in votes after only playing 31 games. If the NBA awards were determined during the Orlando bubble, Williamson would have a legitimate chance to pass Ja Morant. Of course, this is prior to the 2K21 cover athlete’s announcement of leaving the bubble due to family matters.
Despite the rankings, Williamson will no doubt be dominant for years to come if he can tweak his defense and remain healthy.
1. G Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Coming into the league as the 2019 No.2 pick, Morant has dominated since stepping on an NBA court. Despite being on the losing end against Nunn’s Heat, the Murray State product finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, and a block. He is currently averaging 17.6 points, 6.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and is the lone rookie with 20 games of 20+ points (25). He is also second in scoring among rookies and the leader in assists.
While one can argue that teammate Brandon Clarke is statistically the more valuable player, Morant’s court vision and leadership easily puts him above the former Gonzaga Bulldog. The Grizzlies were out of the playoff picture entering the 2019-2020 season. However, Morant’s game and tenacity have helped them join those talks by holding onto the eighth seed. He is an exciting player to watch, with his electric passing and high vertical bounce, hence the alley-oop highlights. Morant is clearly the Rookie of the Year winner.
Top 3 Most Improved Player of the Year Power Rankings
3. G Luka Dončić Dallas Mavericks
Now, hear me out on this one. It is clear that Luka Dončić is one of the most dominant players in the NBA at only 21 years old. With his previous professional experience playing with Spain’s Real Madrid since age 16, there is no doubt that the Dallas Mavericks‘ point guard is an electric force in the NBA with his long wingspan, superior passing skills, and size.
The Slovenian guard has averaged 24.4 points, 7.1 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game in only two years with the Mavericks. Within one year, Dončić has emerged from a promising young player to an All-Star and MVP candidate, which is rare. He is shooting 73% at the rim, despite a lack of burst or length and 46% from the field.
Dončić is ranked lower than the latter players due to the fact that second-year, first-round picks rarely win the Most Improved Player award. The last player to win the award was Don McLean in 1994. Regardless if he wins or not, Dončić will be a superstar in the NBA within the next few years.
2. F/C Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
In his third season, Bam Adebayo is averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 5.1 assists while shooting 56.7% on the court. The Kentucky product also became a full-time starter, All-Star, a solid two-way player, and a potential All-NBA candidacy.
In addition, Adebayo is one of only 11 players with at least one 30 points, 10-rebound, 10-assist game, according to NBA.com. He had three triple-doubles before the hiatus. He has shown his emergence as a prominent center in the NBA with his superb passing skills and versatile defense. It also helps that the Heat traded Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trailblazers.
Adebayo has a very high chance of snagging the Most Improved Player award due to his impact on a playoff-contending Heat team and growth over three seasons.
1. F Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
By looking at his stats throughout his career, Brandon Ingram has significantly progressed as a player and leader. He earned his first All-Star appearance this year, averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists while shooting 46.6% from the field.
In 2016, the No.2 pick was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team while with the Los Angeles Lakers. Ingram has received criticism from analysts and fans on his lack of eye-catching numbers for a second pick. The 22-year old also suffered a neck contusion and a deadly deep vein thrombosis in 2017 and 2018, which brought him more negative attention. His long wingspan and perimeter shooting, along with developed maturity help shape Ingram to the player he is today. Unlike with the Lakers, Ingram shines with the New Orleans Pelicans due to playing in a ball-dominant system. Playing under LeBron James took away opportunities for the forward since they both played the same position.
Under Head Coach Alvin Gentry, Ingram has slowly grown into a solid perimeter shooter who excels in transition and on defense. Given the circumstances prior to the 2019 season and stellar performance, expect Ingram to be in serious consideration for the Most Improved Player award.