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Revisiting Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant draft debate: Did Pelicans get 2019 No. 1 pick right?

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There are few things that NBA fans love more than a good ol’ fashion re-draft and the 2019 NBA Draft class has one of the best debates in history between the top two picks.

In the first year of the NBA’s new lottery odds — which flattened the chances of the team with the worst record in the league landing the No. 1 overall pick in an attempt to prevent tanking — the Pelicans, who had a slim six (!) percent chance to land the top pick won what was then considered the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

The surprising result sent the Pelicans staffers into a frenzy, knowing the type of attention that a special talent like Williamson would draw to the franchise. It felt like good karma for an organization that was prepared to trade away its disgruntled former No. 1 pick, Anthony Davis, giving New Orleans a franchise-altering building block for a fresh start.

There was never a debate about who was going to go No. 1 overall in 2019. It was always going to be Williamson.

The Duke freshman phenom was a five-star recruit and the No. 2-ranked player in his high school class. He was an internet sensation growing up during the rise of the social media era where his highlights were instantly available as soon as the future NBA star did anything remotely noteworthy during a game. He was the most-hyped prospect since LeBron James and to that point, he had lived up to that label to earn the No. 1 pick.

But four years later, you could make the case that he wouldn’t go No. 1 if we went back in time and did the draft over again.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft was Ja Morant, a relatively unknown prospect who, even on draft night, still had a number of doubters who questioned how his game would translate to the NBA. He was the polar opposite of Williamson in so many ways.

Morant was a zero-star recruit in high school who only had one high-major Division-I offer. His recruiting profile didn’t even have a headshot. Playing for Murray State, there were so many fans who had never even seen the No. 2 overall pick play. He had a triple-double in the 2019 NCAA Tournament as a bit of a coming-out party, but the electrifying guard was still off the radar for most.

And yet, it took all of one NBA season to realize that Morant could be just as, if not more, special than Williamson.

Williamson suffered a torn meniscus during his rookie year, causing him to miss all but 24 games. That opened the door for Morant to take home Rookie of the Year, averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 assists per game while leading the Grizzlies to the Play-In Tournament in the bubble just one year after Memphis finished tied for the second-worst record in the West.

The following season, we finally got to see what a healthy Williamson would be capable of, averaging 27.0 points per game on 61.1 percent shooting from the field. Williamson joined two Hall of Famers — Charles Barkley and Kevin McHale — as the only players in NBA history to average over 25 points per game on 60 percent shooting from the field.

As a result, Williamson made his first All-Star team, beating Morant to that honor.

In Year 3, Williamson missed the entire season due to a foot injury and Morant took a major leap, turning into a walking highlight reel as he established himself as one of the must-see-TV players in the league.

With averages of 27.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game while leading the Grizzlies to the No. 2 seed in the West, Morant was more than just a first-time All-Star — he was an MVP candidate. Morant earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team, beating Williamson to that honor.

Now in Year 4, Williamson is back on the floor, re-establishing himself as one of the best young players in the NBA and Morant continues to improve, developing into one of the faces of the league.

Four years removed from the 2019 NBA Draft, I can confidently say that Morant has been the better player because, as the saying goes, the best ability is availability. But in the event of a 2019 re-draft, would he go first overall ahead of Williamson?

The Williamson-Morant debate is a rare instance where even if you consider Morant the better player, it’s still reasonable to think Williamson would go No. 1 overall if we were to do it all over again.

Both players ended up in the ideal scenario where if New Orleans were to run it back, even knowing Williamson’s injury fate, I still think they would take Zion again. He has been embraced by the city and the roster is perfectly formed around him, as the Pelicans look like the most promising young core in the NBA.

Meanwhile, in a hypothetical where the Grizzlies have the No. 1 pick, I think they would take Morant over Williamson. Morant has completely embodied Memphis’ “Grit n’ Grind” mantra, following the lead of some of the franchise’s all-time greats like Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. His attitude and swagger matches that of the city, making him the perfect fit for the team he ended up on.

The top-two picks of the 2019 NBA Draft was a situation where what occurred was what was meant to be.


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