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Zach Pekale | | October 21, 2019

Zion vs. Ja and 8 more must-watch NBA games for hoops fans

Ja Morant breaks down his game ahead of the NBA draft

The 2019-20 NBA season is upon us. While the top rookies aren't in action Tuesday on night 1, here are some notable dates to keep an eye on throughout the year.

Don't make any plans for the evening of Jan. 20. That's the first time we'll likely see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant on the same court together. The Williamson-Morant game next year is one of nine can't-miss matchups to watch between former college basketball stars during the 2019-20 NBA season. Here's that game and eight more we picked from the NBA schedule.

New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies - Jan. 20

Players featured: Zion Williamson (Duke), Ja Morant (Murray State)

Zion and Ja were two of the most tantalizing talents of the 2018 college basketball season.

Williamson, a Wooden Award winner and consensus All-American, was the first overall selection at the 2019 NBA draft following an electric freshman campaign. Williamson is out 6-8 weeks with a knee injury but is expected to return in time for this matchup.

Prior to Memphis drafting him No. 2 overall in June, Morant guided Murray State to a 27-win season and the Ohio Valley Conference tournament title.

For both to be on the same court last year, Duke and Murray State would have needed to advance to the Final Four. While neither team reached Minneapolis a season ago, the stage is set for their first encounter.

Memphis Grizzlies at Cleveland Cavaliers - Dec. 20

Players featured: Ja Morant, Dylan Windler (Belmont)

The Ohio Valley Conference sent two teams to the Big Dance for the first time since 1987. 

The reasons? Morant and Dylan Windler. 

Morant erupted for 17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists against Marquette in the Round of 64. The sophomore recorded the eighth triple-double in NCAA tournament history to lead the No. 12 seed Racers past the Golden Eagles.

Chosen by Cleveland with the No. 26 overall pick, Windler was one of three seniors selected in the first round. He helped Belmont win at least 20 games in each of his four seasons, the last of which culminated with the Bruins reaching the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid. After a win at the First Four, Windler nearly orchestrated an upset of Maryland with a 35-point performance.

Morant and Windler provided a trilogy of entertaining battles in the OVC. Their next chapter takes place in Cleveland.

Phoenix Suns at Chicago Bulls - Feb. 22

Players featured: Coby White, Cameron Johnson (North Carolina)

White’s introductory press conference for the Chicago Bulls was among the highlights of draft night. Asked about the Phoenix Suns choosing Cameron Johnson with the 11th overall pick, White became overjoyed for his college teammate as the news was relayed to him.

At North Carolina, the duo combined for 33 points per game. White’s team-leading 4.1 assists per game complemented Johnson’s 45.7 percent stroke from behind the arc and together, they propelled the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 behind a fluid perimeter attack. 

NBA Draft: Coby White and Nassir Little's top NCAA tournament highlights

Despite both players playing abbreviated amounts of time in Chapel Hill, their careers were memorable. They’ll face one another for the first time as adversaries in Chicago.

Atlanta Hawks at Denver Nuggets  - Nov. 12

Players featured: Bol Bol (Oregon), Deandre Hunter (Virginia)

The Oregon Ducks won eight consecutive games leading into the NCAA tournament, capturing the Pac-12's automatic bid in the process. Dana Altman’s team was playing some of its best basketball before bowing out to Virginia in the Sweet 16. Would adding Bol Bol to the mix change the outcome?

In nine games, Bol nearly averaged a double-double, logging 21 points and over nine rebounds per game before a foot injury cut his season short. A 52 percent 3-point shooter, his offensive versatility stretched opposing defenses and cleared the paint for Oregon to showcase its athleticism.

Although Bol did not play in the NCAA tournament, a glimpse of that matchup will be available when Hunter and the Hawks travel to Denver.

New York Knicks at Portland Trail Blazers - Dec. 10

Players featured: RJ Barrett (Duke), Nassir Little (North Carolina)

Duke-North Carolina is one of the more storied rivalries in college basketball. UNC leads the all-time series 139-112, winning both regular-season games in 2018-19, albeit without Zion Williamson for all but 30 seconds of those contests. 

WATCH: The 12 best dunks of Zion Williamson's college career

In a third game at the ACC Tournament, the Blue Devils bounced the Tar Heels en route to the championship. Among the standouts of the series was Barrett, who averaged 24.7 points per game. 

Tobacco Road shifts to Rip City as Little and the Blazers host Barrett and the Knicks.

Washington Wizards at Los Angeles Clippers - Dec. 10

Players featured: Mfiondu Kabengele (Florida State), Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga)

Gonzaga and Florida State have faced off in the Sweet 16 in each of the past two seasons, splitting the meetings. 

Most recently, Hachimura and the ‘Zags bested Kabengele and the Seminoles to reach the Elite Eight. Hachimura went for a game-high 17 points in the win.

Kabengele and the Clippers host Hachimura and the Wizards in Los Angeles. 

 Miami Heat at Boston Celtics - Dec. 4

Players featured: Grant Williams (Tennessee), Tyler Herro (Kentucky)

Kentucky and Tennessee met in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament after trading dominant regular-season victories.

The Wildcats led by eight with less than three minutes to go before Grant Williams scored eight of his 20 points over the next 1:14, capping a 10-2 run with a 3-point shot to give the Volunteers a lead and ultimately the win. 

No longer in SEC country, Williams has since been drafted by the Boston Celtics. He’ll try to continue his success when Herro and the Miami Heat come to town.

Boston Celtics at Sacramento Kings - Nov. 17

Players featured: Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Kyle Guy (Virginia)

Think back to the Elite Eight and for just a moment, remember how many moving parts needed to line up for Mamadi Diakite and Virginia to force overtime against Purdue. 

What if Ty Jerome makes his free throw or Diakite doesn’t tip the miss back to Kihei Clark? How about if Clark mishandles the rebound or Matt Haarms gets a better contest? The possibilities are endless. 

Any of those events taking place could have resulted in Purdue advancing to the Final Four, keeping Carsen Edwards in national spotlight.

In four postseason games, the junior averaged nearly 35 points per game. Most notably, a 42-point outburst against the eventual national champions. For Virginia, 25 points from Kyle Guy proved to be enough for the Cavaliers to advance.

Edwards and Guy go head to head in Sacramento since combining for 67 points and 15 made 3-pointers in late March.

Minnesota Timberwolves at Atlanta Hawks - Nov. 25

Players featured: Deandre Hunter (Virginia), Jarrett Culver (Texas Tech)

Texas Tech and Virginia were the first duo to compete for its first title since 1979 (Michigan State-Indiana).

Hunter had a career-high 27 points to propel the Cavaliers past Culver (15 points) and the Red Raiders in overtime, bringing UVA full-circle after losing to a No. 16 seed the season prior.

Both Hunter and Culver were top-10 draft choices, their rights traded to the Hawks and Timberwolves respectively, setting the stage for a November rematch in Atlanta.

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