The 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year race has been the most controversial runaway ever. It’s Ja Morant’s award to lose. It’s been that way since December, but no one wants to face that fact.
In the midst of Zion Williamson’s late, but dominant, start to the season, he gained “steam” on Morant — whether it was actual steam or a conversation for ratings is up for debate. Last week, Kendrick Nunn said he deserves the Rookie of the Year award, because he’s a starter on a playoff team. A simple Google search would’ve add more context against his case.
Regardless of the noise, Ja Morant is and should be the hands-down favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award.
Since the NBA’s implementation of an Awards Show in 2017, they’ve started to announce three finalists before declaring a winner. While Morant is obviously in the picture, the question is, who will join him. Zion Williamson will probably be there for his stellar (but short) season. Kendrick Nunn, Coby White, and RJ Barrett will probably have their supporters as well.
We know Ja Morant will be there, but Brandon Clarke needs to be a Rookie of the Year finalist — even if it comes at the expense of Kendrick Nunn...or Zion Williamson. His name doesn’t carry the same brand power, but Clarke has probably been the best all-around rookie in this class.
It is one thing when your name is sprinkled into the top of a few statistical categories. Most people will look at the basics — points, rebounds, assists. However, Brandon Clarke wasn’t only a presence in the leaderboards, he dominated them.
Brandon Clarke was the analytics darling coming into the 2019 NBA draft, as he boasted the 2nd-highest PER in college basketball history (37.15) — ironically behind Zion Williamson. His gaudy advanced numbers translated well into the NBA. Among rookies this season that qualified that played at least half the season, Clarke was...
- 1st in Win Shares (4.4); 1st in Offensive Win Shares (3.1); 6th in Defensive Win Shares (1.3)
- 2nd in True Shooting Percentage (67.0), 4th in Field Goal Percentage (62.3), 2nd in 3-Point Percentage (40.4)
- 1st in Box Plus/Minus (3.5), 2.4 points higher than 2nd; 1st in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (2.8), 6th in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (0.8)
- 5th in Block Percentage (3.3)
- 1st in PER (21.8)
(No, I didn’t use that criteria to disqualify Zion. It was used more so for the major outliers that had dominate advanced numbers, because of garbage time production.)
Clarke was awesome by the advanced numbers, and some casual fans tend to write it off to an extent. He also was near the top in most traditional numbers as well. He was 11th in points per game (12.0), 2nd in rebounds per game (5.8), 3rd in blocks per game (0.8). He also was one of the better passers for his position, finishing inside the top 20 in assists per game (1.4).
Brandon Clarke is a force among most statistical categories, and that alone should garner top-3 consideration for this award.
Narrative often dictates these awards, as it could result in an early finish to the award race.
Ja Morant, the likely winner, has the best narrative. The Grizzlies were pegged to be one of the worst teams in basketball, and he led them to a surprising playoff campaign. He also put up historic numbers for a rookie point guard, while quarterbacking one of the better offenses in basketball. It really shouldn’t be a contest.
Zion Williamson’s hype created a narrative, as he miraculously came back from a knee injury to put up Monstar-style numbers. In the process, the Pelicans started gaining ground in the playoff race.
Kendrick Nunn had a fun story to start the season, since he was dropping buckets as an undrafted rookie. He has used this “starter on a playoff team” argument for his case to win the award. However, he also had 2 All-Stars — 2 top 20-25 players at that — and a top-3 shooter in that lineup with him. He was arguably the 4th-best starter on his team.
Brandon Clarke has a strong case as well. He served as the Grizzlies’ go-to scorer within the team’s egalitarian bench offense, averaging 12 points a game within a 2nd unit that was 6th in bench scoring. He also answered pre-draft questions regarding his shooting. Though it wasn’t a strong sample size, he was a 40-percent 3-point shooter. In addition, he was historically efficient scoring the basketball.
For the most part, Clarke was a playoff team’s 4th-best player, and some nights, he was the 2nd or 3rd-best player for this team. He also provided value as a quasi go-to scorer in a hyper-efficient bench offense. The argument for Clarke is there, and it shouldn’t fly under the radar.
Including Brandon Clarke in this discussion will result in the removal of one player, I know.
Kendrick Nunn deserves strong consideration here, as he was consistently a good complementary scorer next to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. He’s on a deep team, so his hierarchy on the team may hurt his case here — some people would argue that he’s not even the best rookie on this team. However, he put up good numbers all season long for a top-4 conference team. It wouldn’t entirely upset me if he’s in over Clarke.
With Zion Williamson, it’s quite polarizing. He was awesome when he came back, as advertised. When it comes to the Rookie of the Year race, I just don’t know how I can reward a player that didn’t even play 20 games when there are other deserving candidates for consideration. In addition, the Pelicans weren’t necessarily world-beaters to close the season, even though it was advertised as such. They were 10-9 in games with Zion, not 15-4. He also was a liability defensively, posting a DBPM of -1.1, despite his other-worldly physical tools.
Zion might end up having the best career here; he and Ja will surely have a 1A, 1B rank here for quite some time. I’m just wrestling with the “games played” argument here, especially since his team didn’t really light the world up when he came back.
This whole thing may sound like a silly argument, since the award should be wrapped up and gifted to Ja Morant. That’s been the case since December. Nobody’s going to remember the finalists — unless it’s the Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons race. They’re going to remember who won the award, or at least who should’ve won it in most cases.
While there is hype though, particularly for guys like Kendrick Nunn and Zion Williamson, Brandon Clarke deserves strong consideration here as well. He was one of the most impactful rookies in his class, while serving a huge role on a playoff-bound Grizzlies team. He spearheaded the 2nd-unit as this small-ball big that wrecked havoc on both ends of the court. His motor and efficiency were instrumental in the Grizzlies’ great season.
When the time comes to announce the finalists for the Rookie of the Year award, Ja Morant will be there, and so should Brandon Clarke. Even if it means excluding the more popular names.
Stats found on basketball-reference.