It was only about a week and a half ago when the NBA world was up and running. The biggest debate was how the playoff picture was going to shape up and if the Memphis Grizzlies were going to hold on to the 8th playoff seed in the Western Conference. Now, times have most definitely changed to where we do not know when, or even if, we will see the league play again this season. In the meantime, it gives us as the NBA community the opportunity to find release from these crazy times in discussions that are on a broader level.
One debate that we left when the season suspended play was the Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson conversation. It was one of the national media’s favorite topics once Zion came back healthy and tore through some teams early. Everyone was quick to do everything they could to crown him Rookie of the Year while only playing in 20 games. While this article will not dive into that specific discussion directly (even though it is obviously still Morant), we will be focusing on the national appeal of the two and how that will project over the next few years. Hopefully this can help take the Rookie of the Year conversation and turn it to a discussion about celebrating both of these young stars going forward.
Coming into the league, everyone knew Zion Williamson was going to be a star. He was touted as one of the best draft prospects since LeBron. He was a highly touted recruit who went to Duke University and had every person hanging on each one of his games at 18 years old. He literally had a Zion point tracker on some of his ESPN games. Zion was the face of college basketball, and there was no doubt this fame would translate to the NBA.
In comparison, Ja Morant had a much quieter upbringing in to college. He was not even ranked by the recruiting services coming out of a small high school in South Carolina. Morant was discovered by Murray State after seeing a three-on-three game at a basketball camp. From this, he got an offer from the school. He was still a virtual unknown coming into college and only started jumping on people’s radar after his freshman year. Then after his sophomore year, everything changed. Morant put up his best numbers breaking records and getting national attention from the Ohio Valley Conference. This meteoric rise took him all the way to the second overall pick in the NBA Draft and now favorite to win the Rookie of the Year.
Both Williamson and Morant are now the faces of the 2019 Draft Class. Two completely different paths to get here, but now they are a few of the faces of the youth movement in the league. It is a perfect contrast that helps play into growing their national appeal. Even at a young age, both players know how to act with this much fame and stardom. There are clear examples of this when Ja Morant does not backing down on Twitter and Instagram when people come after him which turns into a national story for a few days. He knows how to have fun with this banter while not doing anything to harm his reputation.
He went out on the court and proved he was a top player in the league. Then, Zion Williamson takes the national spotlight by promising to pay the salaries to the arena workers at the Smoothie Center in New Orleans. It is acts like these that make him become well revered off the court. It may be because of the times we live in now - both of these individuals have grown up in a social media world. They know how to act in front of a camera to make the whole world love them.
Another side note that helps these two, as well as the league as a whole, is where they are playing. Memphis and New Orleans are ride or die with their athletes that play for their teams. These two smaller markets will do just about anything for Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. In addition, these two cities get an added bonus of national media attention covering these two young stars. It is good for Memphis and New Orleans and also good for the league to bump up the exposure of some smaller markets. It is something to look forward to for years to come.
Ja Morant and Zion Williamson beyond their first few seasons in the league will transcend the game for years to come. The league is in a fantastic position. The old guard is still playing at the top of their game while new faces under 25 are taking huge steps forward in their game. Ja, Zion, and others all know how to make the smart branding moves to forward their national appeal for years to come. The NBA community should be very excited where the league is headed with young stars such as Ja Morant and Zion Williamson.