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NBA Rookie of the Year Betting Odds & Picks: Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant vs. The Field

  • The updated betting odds for the NBA Rookie of the Year race make Memphis' Ja Morant a heavy favorite (-250), followed by Zion Williamson, who has odds of +650 and is set to make his regular-season debut soon.
  • Kendrick Nunn (+700 odds), R.J. Barrett (+1100) and Tyler Herro (+1100) round out the top five.

The Monster is coming.

Zion Williamson started practicing last week for the New Orleans Pelicans, forecasting a return sooner rather than later. It comes after the Pelicans are enjoying a little resurgence, having won five of their last seven games with one of the losses to the Lakers.

So … could the No. 1 overall pick still win Rookie of the Year?

Games played matters far less for winning Rookie of the Year than it does for winning MVP. Patrick Ewing won with just 50 games played in 1986 while Brandon Roy won with just 57 in 2007. Even if Williamson returned next week and didn’t miss another game, he’d still finish under 45 games played for the season.

In 2017, Joel Embiid was the league’s most dominant rookie, but only played in 31 games. Voters couldn’t justify awarding Rookie of the Year to a player who played so few games, so Embiid finished third despite gaining more first-place votes than second-place finisher (and teammate) Dario Saric.

What’s the other problem for Williamson besides games played?

Ja Morant.

The Grizzlies rookie is the odds-on favorite at -250 (via PointsBet), while Zion, the heavy favorite to open the season, has slid to +650. Kendrick Nunn is +700. Tyler Herro is +1100. Same with RJ Barrett.

[In New Jersey and want to bet on the ROY race? Check out PointsBet.]

Morant, whose scoring ability was questioned by experts as a prospect, is averaging 17.6 points and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 47% from the field and 40% from 3-point range.

His impressive numbers aside, Morant is absolutely thrilling to watch. The Murray State product enjoyed his breakout early in the season with a signature win over Kyrie Irving and the Nets:

But since then, he’s continued to improve and thrive.

Morant shows a rare combination of elements for a player this young:

  • An absolutely fearless, borderline reckless attack at the rim no matter the situation, which is both a good and bad thing
  • Tremendous patience in halfcourt sets when probing to exploit the offense
  • A combination of speed and athleticism that makes things look easy
  • Controlled and efficient shotmaking in both trigger situations off sets and as a shot creator

In short, he’s a badass.

You’ll see a lot of this in his game, the speed to break down the perimeter containment, the hard dribble to get the defender moving backward, then the footwork to reverse and the touch to nail the shot:

He’s not just all attack, though. He’s got a great sense of where his defender is. You’ll routinely see him put opponents “in jail” by stopping when they’re behind him to put his hip between them and the ball, allowing him to move forward for a shot.

Morant currently is shooting less than 50% at the rim, and per possession is just 31st percentile. Much of this is because he simply keeps going at guys, no matter the contact he’s facing. He’s not going to get a generous whistle as a rookie, and he’s not as strong as he will be in even two years, much less five. That means sometimes he gets swatted.

But you’ll still welcome that aggression, which keeps teams on their heels and the calls will come in time:

As a passer, Morant shows uncommon savvy and control of the game. Saturday afternoon he absolutely faked Kawhi Leonard, that’s Kawhi Leonard, out of his socks:

Here he fakes the first defender with the pass, then gets the help defender up in the air on the shot fake, and delivers the pass to Jackson for the and-one:

Morant’s not reversing the ball much on his passes yet; there’s room for growth in his pass strength and speed. But the placement is always really solid. He lands passes cleanly in shooting pockets and his bad pass turnovers are about what you’d expect for a player of his age in his position.

The one thing I am concerned about is related to that aggressiveness in attack. Morant is always in attack mode, and it doesn’t matter who it is—Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol—that he’s attacking. But that means he also takes a lot of falls and often they are bad falls. He’s already missed a little time with injuries because of falls. Look at how he lands on this play vs. the Nuggets:

That is not good.

Hopefully, nothing happens, but it’s enough to spook you.

Still, there are clear and plain reasons that Morant has leaped to the top of the Rookie of the Year race. He’s dynamic, has come up big in big spots, has a few showcase moments, and has outpaced a very weak class.

RJ Barrett, even with the Knicks’ recent resurgence, is a non-story; Herro and Nunn have been good but have also split a lot of the hype for the Heat; Rui Hachimura (+2000 odds at PointsBet) has dealt with injury and gets lost amid the melange of interesting Wizards having good offensive seasons on a bad team; Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. (150-1 odds) shows flashes, but doesn’t get consistent minutes.

It’s really down to Morant and Zion, barring a late surge by a dark horse.

Zion would have to be the best-looking rookie since LeBron James to have a chance. Then again, Zion was profiled as the most exciting prospect since LeBron and certainly looked the part in his limited action in Summer League.

But even with the chance of an injury to Morant slowing him down on the back end, you’d have to assume Williamson makes it through the rest of the season untouched for him to warrant a bet.

At the same time, there’s not good value on Morant here at his -250 odds at PointsBet, given the wide range of possibilities and Zion’s impending return.

One more note: tanking matters. The Grizzlies are on a bit of a resurgence, but their pick is owed to Boston if it lands outside the top six. If it doesn’t convey this season, it’s unprotected in 2021. Now, that’s a better draft, so Memphis may push to win anyway. But they also might have a real shot of at least finishing in the teens pick-wise next year.

The Pelicans meanwhile are still, miraculously, in the playoff race despite a horrible start to the season. They can chase for the eighth seed, but if a team pulls away, they too may decide it’s too risky to keep playing Williamson.

This is why Herro and Nunn might be the best value picks on the board, along with MPJ or another darkhorse like Coby White (+6000). Those teams are likely to remain in competition for a playoff spot deep into the season.

Morant is the leader and it’s going to be difficult to catch him, but there may be better chances to buy in on him than now when he’s separated himself from the pack.

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