Memphis Grizzlies Guard Ja Morant Named Rookie of the Year

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Morant, who was the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, beat out Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans, who went No. 1.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Ja Morant was announced as the winner of the N.B.A.’s Rookie of the Year Award on Thursday night after nearly leading the Memphis Grizzlies to an unexpected postseason berth while dazzling crowds with his playmaking abilities and highlight-reel dunks.

Morant, a 6-foot-3 point guard and the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft, received 99 of a possible 100 first-place votes. The Miami Heat’s Kendrick Nunn, who went undrafted in 2018 and spent last season in the G League, placed second in the voting. The New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, a dynamic forward who was injured for much of the season, placed third and received the only other first-place vote from the panel of sportswriters and broadcasters. (The New York Times does not participate in awards voting.)

“I need to figure out who was that person who didn’t pick me first,” Morant said in a conference call. “I want to shoot a direct message to them and thank them for motivating me even more to do more, be better and do whatever I can to help my team win basketball games. If anybody know who that is, let me know.”

Morant, 21, who grew up in Dalzell, S.C., was a lightly recruited high school player before he emerged as a star in two seasons at Murray State, a mid-major school in Kentucky. It did not take him long to acclimate to the speed of the N.B.A. In his first season with the Grizzlies, he averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists a game while shooting 47.7 percent from the field.

When the season was suspended in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Grizzlies were eighth in the Western Conference and positioned for a playoff run. But they were undone by injuries once the season resumed at Walt Disney World, and lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the first-ever play-in game for the final spot.

Morant recalled telling his family and friends on draft night that it was his goal to win the award.

“And I told them I was going to do whatever I can and work to get it,” he said. “But I also told them it wasn’t my main focus. My main focus was to try to be better at the end of the season than I was at the beginning of the season.”

Still, the Grizzlies’ future appears bright. Morant is a player around whom the franchise hopes to build in the wake of the “grit and grind” era that featured players like Mike Conley, now with the Utah Jazz, and Marc Gasol, who won a championship last season with the Toronto Raptors. The Grizzlies have a talented young core that also includes Jaren Jackson Jr., a second-year center who averaged 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. Brandon Clarke, another first-year player for the Grizzlies, finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting.

“For him, it’s just been rapid growth,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said of Morant in an interview earlier this season. “The great thing about him is he’s mature beyond his years, he’s got a high basketball I.Q., he loves the game, he’s always watching and studying and talking about it with his teammates, and he embraces coaching.”

Williamson, the first overall pick in last year’s draft, missed the first half of the season with a knee injury but was a thrilling presence when he did play. In 24 games, he averaged 22.5 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 58.3 percent from the field.

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