Are we witnessing the start of a thrilling new NBA rivalry?
The signs looked good when rookie prodigies Zion Williamson and Ja Morant went toe-to-toe in the NBA for the first time Friday.
The pair, who have already made a big splash in the league, were the 2019 NBA Draft’s No.1 and No.2 picks respectively, and their first head-to-head suggested the makings of a famous duel.
The match up had fans salivating over the prospect of another rivalry to echo Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, or Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
But their bond runs deeper than just being the top two draft picks after they played together in South Carolina in the early days.
“He knows he’s my brother,” said Williamson after they traded jerseys and smiled for cameras following Friday’s clash.
But he added: “We are going to be rivals. That’s just the South Carolina nature: to be dogs and go at each other.
“Off the court we know it’s all love, but on the court we’re trying to win.”
A rivalry is born
While Williamson’s Pelicans won, the result was secondary to the battle between the two on court.
The styles between the two contrasted greatly.
Williamson is brutish, explosive, exhibiting superhuman power in his dunks. His jump off defies gravity.
Morant is more graceful. He floats the ball into the basket with finger rolls and gliding jump shots.
But the similarities become clearer the more you watch.
The way Williamson escapes coverage and finds space is smooth and subtle, surprising considering his six-foot-six-inch, 285 pound (129kg) frame.
And Morant isn’t afraid to get physical despite his slighter stature. Despite Williamson’s propensity to dunk, Morant had the better dunk on the night, a two-handed slam from a Dillon Brooks lob.
Williamson won the statistical battle in that first encounter, scoring 24 points and recording six rebounds and three assists. Morant had 16 points, only one rebound and three assists.
Since then, Williamson has recorded his second double-double (double digit figures in two scoring categories), taking the Houston Rockets for 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Williamson now has two double-doubles and while Morant has eight, he has played 44 games to Williamson’s six.
Neither have a much-coveted triple-double just yet, but on the face of their career performances so far, it won’t be long before one gets there.
The origin stories
Morant’s path to the NBA couldn’t have been more different from Williamson’s.
They briefly played together for the South Carolina Hornets in the Amateur Athletic Union during high school, but that’s where their paths split.
Coming out of high school, Williamson was a consensus five-star recruit. ESPN had him as the second-best high school basketball player in the nation, while 247Sports had him as the best.
He received offers from 16 NCAA Division 1 programs, and on a live ESPN telecast he committed to Duke, a blue-chip college program led by legendary college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Williamson has had cameras on him ever since.
At Duke, he played only one season. That was all he needed to make his mark.
Video clips of him dunking in increasingly theatrical and athletic ways went viral. He averaged 22.6 points per game (PPG) and 8.9 rebounds per game (RPG), and was certain to be the No. 1 overall selection as soon as he declared for the NBA Draft.
Whenever he has played — be it at college or now in the NBA — the team result seems almost secondary to how Williamson performs. He recently said the attention he receives “is a lot to take in sometimes.”
Morant has had a very different journey to the NBA. He was not ranked coming out of high school and an offer from South Carolina was the only top-tier Division 1 college that reached out to him. He ended up committing instead to Murray State, a mid-tier college that plays in the lesser known Ohio Valley Conference.
In his rookie season at Murray State, Morant recorded a modest 12.7 PPG and 6.5 RPG but an encouraging 6.2 assists per game (APG).
He took off from there. In his sophomore season, while his RPG decreased to 5.7, he made up for it in an increased PPG of 24.5 and his record of 10.0 APG was the best in all of Division 1 basketball.
Morant hasn’t looked back.
The big leagues
While Williamson has been out with injury for most of the year, the 20-year-old Morant has established himself as frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year.
He’s won two Rookie of the Month awards already and as of February 4 has recorded an average of 17.3 PPG, 7.1 APG and 3.4 RPG. Morant also ranks 12th on the overall list for APG and among rookies he ranks top for PPG and APG.
He has exceeded expectation, even for a No. 2 overall selection, narrowly missing out on selection for the NBA All-Star game.
While Morant made his mark, Williamson was on the sidelines recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery after picking up an injury in preseason.
Morant has been supportive of Williamson, tweeting a series of positive messages during the 19-year-old’s NBA debut.
Their teams are both part of the Southwestern Division in the NBA, meaning they will face each other four times a season.
While they “don’t talk a lot,” according to Williamson, the chance to come together after Friday’s game was “nice.”
He hopes there will be plenty of future battles with his “brother.”