Lynn Murdoch Jr/NBAE via Getty Images
From the moment they were drafted in 2019, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson seemed destined to spend a decade facing the next great competition in the NBA.
Two South Carolina producers from the same AAU squad, each blessed with heavenly athleticism and swag. Saviors of small markets and proven leaders of teams on the rise.
The mile on Tuesday between Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies and Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans was exactly the kind of back-and-forth, emotionally-charged meeting we all thought we’d have a few times a year and, with any luck, in a handful of game series… With one small problem.
Williamson was on the sidelines as he recovered from a foot injury in New Orleans’ 113-102 win.
He missed one hell of a game, one defined by Morant’s relentless effort to focus on highlighting Pelicans’ three-point wake-up CJ McCollum.
Morant has ticked all the best-playing boxes as he alone can.
We got half the field at the end of the first quarter.
Hope Central @TheHoopCentral
Ja Morant in Hummingbird
Incredible rear-view theft that led to what can only be described as the high end.
Ross TD ⚡ @ruscp
This Ja Morant clip is one of the best heists/wit plays I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/UcVdzHPR0z
and the slam dunk, the dunk that I can’t remember being done by anyone Morant’s size.
Hope Central @TheHoopCentral
Ja Morant is the absolute best.
This is a hand switch jam in the air, the wrong foot with the hand hanging over. The mind wanders in search of a relatively rare sight. This is not a unicorn who highlights the open ground. It looks a lot like a unicorn that also taps, dances, and spins the plates while reciting the first 1,000 digits of pi backwards.
It was that play that required an individual response. Williamson, who once did this, was the man to offer one.
Elliot Clough @Elliot Clough
A reminder for the TL regarding that Zionist Drowning Against the Kings
The Pelicans fought en masse instead. New Orleans managed a season-high 18 triples, and McCollum snapped a slump to score 30 points.
Meanwhile, Larry Nance Jr. cemented his status as the team’s closing center, and Jose Alvarado made his “usual unwrapped Mentos roll in a Diet Coke effect” over the proceedings.
With the NBA kicking off in November, this was a 10 on the intensity scale. Everyone was excited, including the normal McCollum, who nearly stuck an official with a truck after a questionable foul call, and Trey Murphy III, who started in Zion’s place and splashed posters to complete a 30-footer who apparently hit her once or twice every night. .
Morant, who led all scorers with 36 points, hit “too small” with Alvarado as Jaren Jackson Jr. loomed in his season debut, finishing with five blocks in 25 minutes.
Steve Jones Jr. @SteveJones 20
Jose Alvarado vs. Ja Morante is fun, everyone gets to see how small he is. pic.twitter.com/Ke8Xh8o41X
Imagine what Williamson would have added to a game that already had a lot going for it.
But that’s the problem with Williamson up to this point in his career, and that’s the obvious contrast between him and Morant. We had to speculate on Williamson’s cap, wondering how fit he would be for a winner and wondering if he really was a pillar of the franchise.
Certainly, there have been moments when Williamson seemed to be part of Morant’s worth card, like when he averaged 27.0 points in 61 games scored in 2020-21.
But injuries have hampered Williamson’s progress and negated his athletic prowess, while defensive shortcomings and uncertainty about his role in attack make him nothing short of a cornerstone no questions asked.
For Morant, there are no such questions. They have been replaced with exclamation marks.
“He’s not the best player in the world right now. I’m not saying that disrespectfully, but in two to three years he’ll be the best player in the world.”
Shaq on Ja Morant < a href = " pic.twitter.com/LqRp9ZguXQ
O’Neal was a little off his heels on this one, but at the very least, we can agree that Morant’s bio ranks him as a core talent separate from and above whatever category Williamson occupies.
Zion topped Rookie of the Year honors in 2019-20 and led the Grizz to 56 wins last season while finishing seventh in MVP voting, earning Most Improved Player honors and an NBA Second Team nod. This season, he picked up his form again by adding a three-point shot.
Although Zion was 4-0 in head-to-head meetings with Morant, that’s a pretty small sample size, with the latest contest coming back on February 16, 2021. This speaks volumes about Morant’s development in the interval, just as it underscores how Williamson’s progress has been held up by layoffs. long for workers.
The Grizzlies star is bold enough to create new enemies every night. Everyone wants a piece of a player — and thus the Memphis team as a whole — that thrives on confrontation and whose style of play essentially demands it.
Alvarado was an expected foe on Tuesday, but just as effective as the Bills’ backup in his role, he’s no competitor to Morant.
There is a void the size of Zion that needs to be filled here. He and Morant came down similar paths and seemed to have a similar future—until they parted ways.
There are a million reasons to hope that Williamson will regain the strength and rebound he showed earlier in his career. Back to par with Morant is one of the biggest.
If these two can regroup after a few years, we’ll have the rivalry we (and they) deserve.