This upcoming week could be fairly exciting for the Memphis Grizzlies following their highly successful 2019-2020 season. Following the announcements of the Coach of the Year and Defensive Player of the Years awards, the NBA will likely announce the results for some, if not all, of its remaining awards this week. Specifically, the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans are highly anticipating the results of the Rookie of the Year Award.
The reason for the anticipation is not because of uncertainty as to who will win the award. Ja Morant arguably won the award his first week in the NBA. However, there are a few other aspects of the award the could interest Grizzlies fans. For one, it will be interesting to see just how unanimous of a choice Morant will be, as he could be one of the biggest runaways in the history of the award. Furthermore, where Brandon Clarke finishes will also be worth noting. As as been discussed on many occasions, Clarke’s absence from the finalists for the award is eye-opening following the consistent and historic quality from his rookie season. If he were to finish lower than fourth in the voting, it will be a travesty.
Despite the debate that Morant and Clarke made a strong case to finish first and second in the voting this year, the Grizzlies having two rookies finish in the top five of the award voting in the same year would be rare. In fact, it would be only the third time in the past twenty years a team had two rookies finish in the top five the same year, and the first since the 2016-2017 season (Before 2000, award voting records were inconsistent). There is a very good chance both rookies make the 2019-2020 All-NBA Rookie First Team, a feat that has only happened five times over the past thirty years.
The level at which Morant and Clarke played this season has rarely been seen from two rookies on the same team in NBA history. A big reason for their high level of success was the quality of their shooting and scoring. Neither rookie approached historic levels in terms of scoring totals; however, a team featuring two rookies with the quality of shot selection Morant and Clarke displayed is rare.
Morant and Clarke are the first pair of rookie teammates to score 700 or more points with a true shooting percentage of 55% or higher each in NBA history. This quality of play was a big reason as to why the Grizzlies were better than expected this season. Since the 1996-1997 season, the 2019-2020 Grizzlies are the only team to have 20 or more shots attempted per game by rookies with a field goal percentage above 50%.
Though the scoring totals of Morant and Clarke may not jump off the page, the rate at which they scored as rookies has also rarely been seen. Due to the wide range of minutes notable rookies in NBA history have played, a way to level the playing field is look at the amount of points they scored per 36 minutes. On a per-36 scale, Morant and Clarke are just the second pair of rookie teammates in NBA history to produce a scoring rate of 19 or more points (min. 1,300 total minutes played in season). While Morant and Clarke may not be the best pair of rookie scorers ever, they arguably are the most efficient scoring pair of rookie teammates in NBA history.
The scoring ability of Morant and Clarke is just one way in which they impacted the game. The overall quality provided from each rookie was also quite significant. They are only the second pair of rookie teammates in NBA history to both have a PER of 17 or higher with a usage rate of 18% or more (min. 1300 minutes played.) The only other pair was LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy for Portland in 2006-2007. This shows both Morant and Clarke were highly valuable when on the court this season. The fact that they played at this level while being featured as much as they were when on the court is incredible.
Ironically, if Morant and Clarke make the All-NBA Rookie First Team, it would not be an unprecedented feat for the franchise. The Grizzlies have been one of the more successful franchises in the NBA over the past two decades when it comes to featuring rookie duos. In the 2008-2009 season, O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol made the All-NBA Rookie First and Second teams, respectively. In the 2001-2002 season, Shane Battier and Pau Gasol both made the All-NBA First Team.
On a per game basis, Morant and Clarke were not on the level of Battier and Pau Gasol, and were basically on par with Mayo and Marc Gasol. However, in terms of shot efficency and overall contributions, Morant and Clarke were on the level of their predecessors. They were able to produce near the levels of the other two pairings despite averaging nearly ten less minutes per game.
When looking at the production rates of Morant and Clarke compared to the other two pairs of rookies, the quality of their play begins to stand out. Morant and Clarke had the two highest per-36 minute scoring rates, while the former is best in the group in assists and the latter is the best in rebounds. Though they played less games and overall minutes, this clearly shows, from a quantity standpoint, that Morant and Clarke were the most producive pairing of the three groups.
In terms of impact and quality, both Morant and Clarke remain impressive. They are first and third in PER. The fact that Morant and Clarke both are near the level of the Gasol brothers, arguably the two best talents in the history of the frachise, as rookies shows how special they are as natural talents. When the notion is suggested that this current Grizzlies core may have the highest ceiling in franchise history, numbers such as these above offer proof that, in time, that statement has a good chance to become true.
It should be noted that the statistics and data above are not meant to say that Morant and Clarke are two of the best rookies in NBA history or the best pair of rookie teammates in NBA history. It is simply meant to show that they are among the most valuable duos of rookie teammates in the history of the league. This is especially true when you consider how big of role they both played in the Grizzlies unexpected amount of success this season.
Both Morant and Clarke should be commended for their effort, intelligence, and natural talent. The front office and coaching staff should be commended for their development and utilization. As a whole, every part of the Grizzlies franchise played a part in Morant and Clarke producing one of the most memorable seasons for a pair of rookie teammates that the NBA has ever seen.
Stats found on basketball-reference.com