Ja Morant

Kansan sports columnists Ronnie Lozano and Logan Fricks debate which NBA rookie will make the biggest first-year impact: Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant or New York Knicks guard R.J. Barrett.

Ja Morant | Ronnie Lozano

The Memphis Grizzlies selected Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant with the No. 2 overall pick, and he will have the biggest impact of any rookie from the 2019 NBA draft.

Memphis traded the last member from the franchise’s “Grit and Grind” era, point guard Mike Conley Jr., to make way for the explosive Morant to take control of the team.

Morant’s game should transition to the NBA well, especially alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. Their playing styles have the potential to mix seamlessly because of how their skill sets complement each other. 

In college, Morant was a willing passer, even with less-talented teammates at Murray State. Sometimes the passing was out of necessity, but he was still able to distribute the ball when he wasn’t under duress. He averaged 10 assists to go along with 24.5 points per game.

Given his willingness to pass and ability to score off the dribble, he will be able to set Jackson Jr. up for easy baskets.

The pair can create a pick-and-roll threat that develops their games together. Their potential to feed off each other will help Morant get easier opportunities to score as well, which is a welcomed sight for someone who had to work so hard to create offense in college.

The rookie will also be playing for a first-year coach, Taylor Jenkins, who has experience with building team chemistry. Before the Grizzlies hired him, Jenkins worked as an assistant for the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks under coach Mike Budenholzer.

Jenkins was an assistant under Budenholzer for six years with the two teams, and they were top 10 in the NBA in assists each of those seasons. Last year, they were able to overhaul the Bucks’ style with shooting and spacing. Milwaukee went from 25th to second in three-point attempts en route to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Unlike the Bucks, it will take a few years for Memphis to be a playoff contender. However, Jenkins can come in and build the team around ball movement and spacing, giving Morant a chance to run the offense.

As a result, his impact may become greater than the two Duke rookies (Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett) he was drafted in between, along with other top first-year players.

That doesn’t mean Morant will be perfect. He plays point guard, which is the most talented position in the NBA, so there will be growing pains. Also, he has a tendency to be too flashy sometimes and commits unforced turnovers.

Ultimately though, the Grizzlies will give Morant an opportunity to become the most impactful rookie next season, and that is all he needs.

RJ Barrett | Logan Fricks

A dream finally came true for former Duke forward RJ Barrett on the night of the NBA Draft. After years of working to this point, Barrett heard his name called by the New York Knicks with the third pick in the NBA draft.

In his lone season at Duke, Barrett led the team in scoring with 22.6 points per game and averaged 7.6 rebounds on top of that.

With the Knicks, Barrett will be asked to do less than he had to do at Duke, not being forced to be the primary ball-handler nor will he need to take over as the go-to scorer constantly. Barrett’s biggest struggles at Duke were his tendency to do too much at times.

The Knicks are not anywhere close to a top tier team, but players like Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox will help Barrett transition into the NBA game.

Once Barrett gets a feel for the NBA, he will start to make an impact and could lead him to winning rookie of the year.

Barrett will not have to run the floor constantly, but similar to forwards like Oklahoma City's Paul George, he will be asked to do so at times. Because Barrett is a well-rounded ball-handler, it could lead him to averaging 4 to 5 assists per game in his rookie season alone.

Barrett will eventually find his flow and start to score with consistency. Because he won’t have to take on primary ball-handling role like he did at Duke, he could find himself becoming a more consistent shooter. Barrett was only a 30.8% three-point shooter at Duke, because he tried to take unnecessary shots and went through droughts.

If Barrett can up his consistency and take smarter shots, he could become a dangerous wing. Not only would he be a threat from behind the arc, but he is also arguably the best finisher in the draft and can overpower defenders.

His ability to score from all over could help him to averaging 15-plus points per game and become potentially the best scorer among all the rookie prospects.

Barrett could make a huge impact with New York and might be the best well-rounded player in the draft. Because the Knicks do not have top tier talent, Barrett could be the most impactful rookie this season.

With the addition of Barrett, the future is bright for the New York Knicks.