The Memphis Grizzlies selected Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He’s been validating that selection ever since, establishing himself as the front-runner for Rookie of the Year and leading his new team to surprising success.
Morant is averaging 17.9 points and 7.0 assists, leading rookies in both categories while shooting 49.2 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from deep and 80.6 percent from deep. The numbers are there, but Morant has been even more impressive than his numbers suggest, playing with a level of swagger and maturity that’s unusual for a 20-year-old rookie.
His highlight-reel plays galvanize his team and the hometown crowd. Watch him call for the alley-oop here, and then bring the fans to their feet:
Or the cut to the rim here with the celebration afterward:
It’s almost irrational that a rookie could play with this much confidence, even to the point of calling out some of the league’s most elite players and then backing it up.
But this is what he does.
I mean this guy Ja went out there and called out James Harden in the 1st quarter (TELL THIS MF ABOUT ME) then went out there and went 4-4 in the 4th for 11 points, while Harden was 0-7. Grizzlies have never had someone with this much *justifiable* off-the-charts confidence pic.twitter.com/QlJcNwedq2
— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 15, 2020
It is Harden’s teammate, Russell Westbrook, who serves as Morant’s best pro comparison. The incredible athleticism, the fearless assault on the rim, the other-worldly speed and the creative passing all bring to mind the young Russ.
There is one difference, though: Morant has a jumper.
He can already pull up and hit consistently, (something that still comes and goes for Westbrook):
This is completely unfair to whoever has to guard him. If you give Morant space, he just plants the deep ball. If you play up on him, he just blows by you:
In another breakaway from the Westbrook comparison, Morant can also play off the ball, get open and knock them down off the pass as well. Whereas it’s been long-known that Westbrook’s effectiveness diminishes greatly without the rock in his hands—though he’s still a fabulous cutter and run-ahead transition threat—Ja has been able to competently operate through screens in the halfcourt.
Sometimes, the defense simply forgets about him above the three-point line when he’s away from the action, but he’s been making them pay:
Morant is a remarkably complete scorer for a rookie, and you can’t help but think that things are only going to get better through future seasons as well as down the stretch. That’s because Morant and the Grizzlies are just catching their groove right now, winning eight of their last 10. Morant is averaging 19.3 points and 9.0 dimes with a 66.0 true shooting percentage during that stretch.
Remember, this was a team that was supposed to be among the West’s 2-3 worst squads. They’re currently sitting at 20-23 and in the eighth seed.
Yes, the Grizzlies would make the playoffs if the season ended today, and they only seem to be growing stronger.
For a guy who scores so well, Morant has been equally comfortable passing the ball. He has great vision and court awareness. He doesn’t just set his teammates up for easy shots, he seems to find the guy with the best shot, making the game easier for his teammates… Whether that’s getting something going to the rim:
…Or setting them up for a corner three, after drawing their defender to himself:
And while this didn’t get the assist, it exemplifies how Morant can combine his passing talent with his ability to drive to the rim, making him a veritably unguardable player:
Ja Morant acts like he is going to jam it on Larry Nance, then proceeds to do a 180 in mid-air, and finally drops a no-look pass to JJJ 👀🤭 pic.twitter.com/XRzlNfb4Pc
— ClutchPoints NBA (@ClutchPointsNBA) January 18, 2020
According to PBPSTats.com, 107 of Morant’s 251 assists have been for three, 99 have been at the rim and only 45 have been for mid-range shots. That means his passing leads to efficient scoring. Per NBA.com, Morant’s teammates have notched 642 points on his 449 assist attempts, which means they’re shooting an effective field-goal percentage of 71.4 off his passes.
It shouldn’t be a shock then that the Grizzlies offensive rating has been 120.4 with Morant on the court over the winning streak, according to NBA.com.
I mean, these are not you’re grit-and-grind Grizzlies. (It’s more like glitz-and-shine?) They’re fourth in pace this year and, over the course of their winning streak, third in offensive rating, third in effective field-goal percentage, first in assist ratio and first in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Much of that has to do with the performance of Morant as the lead guard, his confidence in himself and the team’s growing confidence in him.
On second thought, all that confidence isn’t irrational at all.
Stats accurate as of January, 20.
Kelly is a TBW co-Founder and frequent contributor. He spent 4.5 years in the USAF before attending University of Minnesota, Bible college in Anaheim and 15 years in youth ministry. Basketball blogger-turned-NBA Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report, BBallBreakdown, Fansided, The Step Back, Hoops Habit, SportsNet, Vantage Sports, Dime and FanRag, among others, his work has been read over 25 million times. The former NBA Assistant Editor at FanRag (2016-18), he is an NBA Twitter staple who is well-connected and respected among today’s finest basketball writers.