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New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Rookie of the Year race and the first chapter in the NBA's next great rivalry

Zion Williamson vs Ja Morant.

The No. 1 pick vs the No. 2 pick.

Two names that will forever be linked.

Two players that capture imaginations, demand attention and emit off-the-chart energy every time they step onto the floor.

Rare are the talents who keeps fans on the edge of their seats or eyes glued to the screen simply by standing on the floor. Rare are the talents who deliver the types of plays that nobody else saw coming, the types of plays that simply seem special in the moment.

Anticipation and delivery. Potential and kinetic energy.

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Williamson and Morant have the rare ability to bring out the kid on Christmas morning in each and every one of us. That feeling of eagerly awaiting presents under the tree, gleefully ripping off wrapping paper and becoming instantly mesmerized... you remember that feeling?

And now we get both of them on the floor at the same time. Here are three things to think about heading into Saturday's clash in New Orleans:

Who will win Rookie of the Year?

Morant appeared to be the runaway winner and he still might be.

Over 17 points and seven assists per game on a team that's surged to eighth in the Western Conference, Morant isn't just game managing and holding his own. He's taking over games. He's making statements every time out. He's standing up to the very best the NBA has to offer and he's letting them know that he's here right now. Not tomorrow... today!

Think James Harden knows who Morant is now?

He's playing a larger and more meaningful role than any other rookie and he's doing all of those exciting things while rejecting the notion that life is supposed to be hard for rookie point guards in this league.

For Williamson to catch Morant after missing half the season, he can't be spectacular. That won't be good enough because Morant's been spectacular in his own regard.

Williamson needs to be transcendent and who knows, maybe he will be.

MORE: Running diary of Zion's rookie season

As the minutes continue to increase, maybe Williamson's production will take a dip. It's a lot harder to do in 30 or 32 minutes what he's so far been able to do in 24 minutes a night.

Do you know how many players in NBA history have ever averaged over 27 points and 12 rebounds per 36 while shooting over 60 percent from the floor?

Zero.

It's beyond early, but that's what Williamson is doing so far through four games. Per-36 numbers won't be enough to truly enter the ROY discussion nor should they be. But once he starts playing even more... watch out.

Is this the next great rivalry?

OK, so a few things here:

  • They don't play the same position.
  • Williamson is 19. Morant is 20.
  • It's EARLY

Giannis Antetokounmpo. Luka Doncic. Trae Young. Jayson Tatum. Ben Simmons. Donovan Mitchell. Let's pump the brakes on the notion that Williamson and Morant will be the defining players of the next generation because #ThisLeague is LOADED with young talent.

And yet...

When was the last time two players entered the league at the same time after going 1-2 and then went on to deliver the goods in lockstep from the very beginning?

MORE: The NBA's top 30 players right now

Simmons and Brandon Ingram? Simmons sat out his first year and while both are now All-Stars, it took a few years for Ingram to really pounce on his potential.

LeBron James had Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh but the second pick was Darko Milicic.

Elton Brand and Stevie Franchise? They share Rookie of the Year honours, but neither reached the point where they were legitimate superstar level players.

You have to go all the way back to Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning to find two transcendent talents from the same draft take off from the jump.

Seriously, go through the list .

Williamson and Morant may never become Magic and Bird. Nobody is Magic and Bird, a rivalry that started in the national championship game in college before either set foot in the NBA.

But with their style of play and the highlight-driven era in which we live, the table is set for Williamson and Morant to evolve into a generational one-on-one rivalry. Add in the fact that both star on young teams in the same conference that project to become playoff contenders before too long and it's easy to envision them before long battling each other out with much more on the line than Saturday League Pass supremacy.

Projecting into the future

Minutes into Williamson's very first game, ESPN analyst Mark Jackson mentioned that he'd prefer Morant long term.

The debate about who will eventually be the better player is a fair one. It's a league dominated by playmakers with the best of the best being those comfortable doing stuff with the ball in their hands. There hasn't been a "get the ball to that guy" MVP since Dirk Nowitzki in 2006-07 and for good reason. It's easier to build around and rely on the star who can do it all himself without needing the complementary pieces to set it all up for success.

Both are going to be great players. Both are going to make you text your friends and say "you won't believe what I just saw." Both are going to elicit strong reactions from players, coaches, broadcasters and fans everywhere.

I'll admit: sometimes we unnecessarily get dragged into "Door 1 or Door 2" conversations instead of simply walking through both doors and appreciating each for what they are.

But that debate, that banter, that unanswerable question, that back and forth, that dialogue... that's part of what drives interest and keeps fans engaged. It's part of what fuels the fireworks on the floor and off of it. There's no need to pick a side, but sometimes we do for one reason... it's fun.

Zion Williamson is fun.

Ja Morant is fun.

Saturday will be fun.

Everything that happens now and moving forward with these two will be... wait for it... fun.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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