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Ja Morant injury could shake up NBA Rookie of the Year race

Grizzlies point guard out indefinitely with back spasms. As the current favorite, is now the time to bank on Zion’s return? We take a look.

Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins talks with guard Ja Morant during the first half against the Utah Jazz at FedExForum.  Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies PG Ja Morant is out indefinitely due to back spasms and its made the NBA Rookie of the Year race even more interesting. Morant had been in the lead as the favorite on DraftKings Sportsbook at +180 before the injury, but now any time he misses hurts his chances of taking home the award. Let’s take a look at some of the top odds for ROTY:

Ja Morant +180
Zion Williamson +200
R.J. Barrett +500
Eric Paschall +1400
Kendrick Nunn +1400
Tyler Herro +1600
Rui Hachimura +2000
Coby White +2000

After those eight players listed, things become pretty murky with the rest of the crowd not really having much of a chance. Williamson has no return date set right now, coach Alvin Gentry told the undefeated last week. So at this point we still don’t know when Zion will be able to debut for the New Orleans Pelicans. The longer he’s out, the better things get for players like Barrett and Paschall, who are both on bad teams but will get more minutes and in turn put up stats. I know that isn’t the whole crux of the award, but it counts for something.

Outside of those four, I think the two who stand out as darkhorse candidates are Hachimura and White. Again, both are on pretty bad teams, but really outside of Nunn and Herro, all these candidates are on bad teams. Hachimura is coming off a career-high 30 points for the Washington Wizards and is getting more stable minutes. The Wizards offense is among the best in the NBA and that means Hachimura will at the very least put up stats.

White is in a similar situation. He’s sort of dealing with an ankle injury, but has shown real flashes with the Chicago Bulls so far this season. If he can somehow get into the starting lineup or take advantage of an injury to, say, Tomas Satoransky or Zach LaVine, I think White could take off a bit. He’s streaky, but man, when he’s feeling it from distance, he’s as deadly as any shooter. Plus, his quickness would be used best if he was the primary ball-handler, not coming off the bench in spurts.

I think this award remains very much up in the air. When’s the last time we saw a ROTY race that was this unclear through almost the first two months of the regular season? If Zion can come back soon, I think he’d be the frontrunner, but we still don’t know exactly how he’ll adapt to the NBA, plus it’ll only be more difficult coming back from injury. But is it crazy for him to be considered the safest bet? A little bit. I think there’s value here and anything is possible.

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