News broke today that the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson may need another surgery on his right foot. He was supposed to return to practice last December, but the 21-year-old’s comeback was pushed back indefinitely due to complications on his surgically repaired right foot—which setback may or may not be related to his weight.
Coincidentally, the Pelicans hosted the Memphis Grizzlies last night—the team which “lost” the Zion lottery in the 2019 NBA Draft and had to settle for no. 2 pick. The Grizzlies would go on to select the erstwhile unheralded guard from Murray State, Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant.
Morant missed the game against the Pelicans, but the timing of the Williamson news had fans immediately comparing the 2019 draft to the class of 2007 featuring Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Durant, of course, would go on to become one of the 20 greatest basketball players who ever lived, while Oden played a grand total of 105 games during an NBA career that only spanned three seasons.
Is Williamson the next Oden? Unless the sole criterion is missing games due to injuries, the comparison seems lazy.
For one, Oden never made an All-Star team; his best season came in 2010 when he averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Williamson was already an All-Star last year, when he put up 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists on 61.1% shooting. If we’re talking about potential, Oden had All-Defense, maybe All-Star, potential; Williamson has superstar potential.
There’s this thing that humans do when tragedy befalls a young talent—we always tend to romanticize what might have been. Len Bias was better than Michael Jordan in college (he wasn’t; Jordan won the national title and the Wooden Award while at UNC). Penny Hardaway was both the ‘next Jordan’ and ‘Magic Johnson 2.0’ at the same time (okay, Penny was good and had HOF potential, but peak Tracy McGrady was better).
Oden was the next Bill Russell or Patrick Ewing. Based on what we saw when he was healthy, he seemed closer to Deandre Ayton and Clint Capela:
On the other hand, Williamson has already established himself as a true franchise cornerstone following a stellar sophomore season, finishing 8th in both scoring and field goal percentage, and 4th in PER.
There are only 17 players in NBA history who averaged at least 27 points in their second season—a list that includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James. Williamson leads them all in field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage, and true shooting percentage.
The insinuation of the Oden comparison is, of course, that the Pelicans picked the wrong player to build their franchise around. Unverified rumors of Williamson’s unhappiness in New Orleans notwithstanding, it’s way too early for such silly talk based purely on on-court production.
Morant has taken the leap this season and will be starting in his first All-Star Game on Sunday, but don’t let your short-term memory fool you. Williamson was equally good last season. The way I look at it is that Morant has simply caught up with his rival:
Remember the whole Rookie of the Year “debate” two years ago? I was Team Ja and there’s no doubt in my mind that the right guy won. But the only reason why there was even a discussion was because Williamson played at a much higher level in the 24 games he appeared in that season.
Morant has now closed that gap. Memphis is having a great season (3rd best record in the NBA) as Morant has emerged as an All-NBA caliber star. Notably, the Grizzlies have also finished ahead of the Pelicans in the team standings in each of the past two years. Yet I’d caution against drawing conclusions on the Zion vs. Ja debate based solely on team success. Remember, the Grizzlies are 12-2 without Morant this season.
Memphis is a well-constructed and well-coached team. Morant has enjoyed front office and coaching stability since entering the league. Williamson, meanwhile, has played for two different coaches in each of his first two years and will play for a third if and when he returns. Perhaps the question is not so much “which player would you build your franchise around?”; but rather, “which franchise would you rather go to?”
Needless to say, Morant’s biggest advantage is his availability. He has played over twice as many NBA games as Williamson. And with the recent report, it is very likely that Williamson sits out the rest of the season. The concerns about Williamson’s health are real, especially for a player with his body type and style of play. Larry Johnson became a shell of his All-Star self after injuries robbed him of his athleticism and explosiveness.
The Williamson-Morant conundrum is therefore vastly different from Oden-Durant. Williamson and Morant have hit similar peaks, but Williamson did it earlier. As it stands now, the debate in a hypothetical 2019 re-draft will be more about durability than peak performance. Oden-Durant was different. Like Sam Bowie-over-Jordan 38 years ago, Durant had better peak and longevity. KD was the better player in every year they played in the league; even the best, healthy version of Oden was inferior to Durant’s floor at the pro level. The truth is, there was no 2007 draft “debate” to speak of in hindsight—just justifications by diehard Blazers fans.
It’s also premature to assume that Williamson’s career will be cut short like Oden’s. Sports medicine has advanced very rapidly over the past decade. Durant himself came back strong from an Achilles injury that was once considered to be a career death blow. It’s worth noting too that Williamson played in 61 of New Orleans’ 72 games last season, which could provide a sliver of hope about his durability once he makes a full recovery.
For the sake of the league and its fans, let’s hope the Williamson vs. Morant debate is settled on the court instead of imaginary what-if conjectures.