After shooting over 70 percent through his first few preseason games, bullying grown men in a way that basically every other 19-year-old on the planet can only manage in their most vivid REM cycle, Pelicans forward Zion Williamson has experienced his first dose of adversity as a pro.
The NBA’s reigning No. 1 pick underwent knee surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn meniscus in his right leg, sidelining him until sometime in December. New Orleans has ruled him out for six to eight weeks, which means his Rookie of the Year campaign won’t only start late, but also likely feature a period where he’s working himself back into shape.
Prior to suffering the injury, Williamson was a 4-to-9 favorite (-225) to win top honors among first-year players. I called it a lock barring injury in this space last week but suggested you cover yourself with a backup given the price and risk of him going down.
Unfortunately, that will now be necessary since he’ll become the fourth top pick to miss the season opener over the past quarter century.
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook quickly altered their odds after the Zion news became public, moving him to 3-1. That would offer fantastic value if I wasn’t convinced that the Pels will go out of their way to protect their most valuable asset. Williamson will be asked to lose weight to ease pressure on his legs and can no longer be considered a lock to participate in the Slam Dunk contest in Chicago at the All-Star break.
Although it has no bearing on his regular-season resume, the showcase was expected to pay homage to Michael Jordan’s famous Windy City duel with Dominique Wilkins back in 1988 by featuring Williamson against some of the game’s top dunkers. Reigning champion Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz and the Bulls’ Zach LaVine and Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, who memorably put on a show attempting to top one another in 2016, have been rumored to be in the mix.
Williamson may still be able to use the event to propel him to a strong finish that would elevate him above his peers, but he’ll have to be at 100 percent in order to commit to participate in the festivities come mid-February.
Our strategy for Rookie of the Year betting now changes dramatically given the likelihood that this surgery will derail Williamson’s first season as a pro. Every Rookie of the Year winner over the past seven seasons has participated in at least 70 games. Kyrie Irving received all but three first-place votes in winning back in 2012 despite participating in just 51. Brandon Roy picked up 127 of 128 first-place votes despite a heel injury limiting him to just 57 appearances in ’07. Patrick Ewing got into just 50 games back in ’85 but edged future teammate Xavier McDaniel, then of the SuperSonics, despite playing 30 fewer contests.
Williamson will likely end up playing around 50-55 games if all goes smoothly and needs to similarly dominate the way Ewing once did to overcome his late start. Joel Embiid averaged over 20 points per game for the 76ers in ’16-’17 but was limited to just 31 games and ended up losing out to then-Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, who prevailed in the voting despite a scoring average of just over 10 points per game, the lowest for any winner.
Memphis point guard Ja Morant, the No. 2 pick, was my go-to backup option last week and was available at +450 until Monday’s odds update. He’s now the favorite over Williamson but down to 2-1, making him less appealing if you’re looking for a larger score. Morant impressed in the preseason and is already one of the top athletes in a league filled with them, so he should be able to hold his own.
New Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, a Mike Budenholzer disciple who turned 35 in September, has already handed his 20-year-old point guard the reins to his first team. Memphis is building around him and last year’s top pick, Jaren Jackson Jr., who is actually a month younger than Morant. Expect the losses to pile up, but it’s hard to envision another rookie getting more minutes and opportunities than the kid drafted to replace franchise legend Mike Conley.
Knicks wing R.J. Barrett, Williamson’s teammate at Duke, went No. 3 and should get plenty of shots as he looks to live up to the hype. New Yorkers are crossing their fingers in the hopes that their basketball savior has finally arrived. He’ll get plenty of attention if he can put together a few big nights and has seen his odds adjusted from 8-1 to 4-1, so the books are wary of his potential.
The Heat got a steal in Kentucky guard Tyler Herro, who went No. 13 but has brought nothing but good fortune so far, looking quite comfortable spacing the floor. He’s a sniper but can get his own shot, giving him an opportunity to flourish for a team that may win their division. After opening as a 100-1 shot, Miami’s Herro was at 30-1 last week and is down to 10-1.
Bulls guard Coby White, who excelled in his lone season at North Carolina, hit six 3-pointers and scored 29 points in 23 minutes off the bench last week, so he’s moved from 30-1 to 10-1 too. He’ll play consistent minutes and should be a factor in Chicago’s improvement, but Brogdon was an anomaly in winning this award as a reserve, making it hard to get behind White.
My recommendation for a backup plan to riding Morant involves Washington forward Rui Hachimura, the Japan-born former Gonzaga star. He’s physical enough to be a matchup problem for opposing forwards and has tried to dunk on everyone throughout the preseason, demonstrating no fear. If he’s able to stick the jumper and develops as a 3-point threat, he’ll have a great chance to serve as Bradley Beal’s primary running mate with John Wall on the mend all season.
Hachimura opened at 50-1 and was at 25-1 last week but remains an enticing option at 12-1. He’ll get plenty of minutes and replaces Williamson as my choice to end up leading all rookies in double-doubles.