It was around this time last year when the Ja Morant hype train truly left the station. To that point, Morant was a mid-major mystery box: an athletic point guard coming off an ultra-efficient freshman season that demanded NBA scouts take a cursory glance at what he would do next for Murray State.
Ever since, he’s been a sensation.
Morant’s dramatic rise up draft boards was distilled by every arresting moment of greatness that peppered his sophomore season. He went coast-to-coast against Alabama and dunked on half the team. He cut backdoor against UT-Martin and recaptured the Jordan dunk silhouette on a poor defender trying to take a charge. He cocked the ball back to the moon for a tomahawk slam against Eastern Illinois. Somehow, the passes he threw along the way were even more brilliant.
At the tender age of 19, Morant was coined as the next Russell Westbrook. Expectations like that could crater any would-be prodigy, but it’s clear it isn’t happening this time. Morant is as good as advertised.
In his second game back from injury, Morant delivered the type of moment that the foundation of his ascension was built on. He turned Aron Baynes inside-out with a crossover, almost came to a stop as he reached his spot on the floor, and then loaded up for an incredible slam to solidify a Grizzlies’ victory.
It’s plays like this that built Morant into the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft, and plays like this signaling he’s going to fulfill the promise that fueled his hype. Memphis should have itself an all-star level player.
Morant is already a quality player as a rookie
Morant is carrying a huge burden for the Grizzlies in his rookie season, and he’s performing about as well as they could have hoped. His usage rate of 29.2 percent is No. 17 in the NBA and highest of any rookie by a mile. Morant also leads all rookies in scoring and assists.
Morant is scoring with just about league-average efficiency despite being relied upon more than any rookie. His 55 percent true shooting percentage is in line with what Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose posted during their MVP seasons. He’s done it despite converting only 57 percent of his attempts at the rim, an average mark that should climb as he gains strength and learns to absorb contact.
Morant has been everything he was promised to be as a passer. After leading college basketball with a 51 percent assist rate as a sophomore at Murray State, Morant is again among the leaders in assist rate in the NBA as a rookie. His 35.6 percent ranks No. 12 in the league. He has elite vision and a rare ability to leverage the threat of his own scoring to hit teammates on the move.
the slip.— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) November 5, 2019
the finish.@JaMorant x @Bruno_Caboclo #GrzNxtGen pic.twitter.com/Y9tU4IRnnw
Morant has also been better than expected as a shooter. He’s making 42.2 percent of his threes right now, though he’s only averaged 2.4 attempts per game from deep. Opposing defenses have continued to go under screens and dared Morant to shoot. He’s making them pay so far.
Will he regress to the mean or prove this is his new normal? That question could determine just how high Morant’s offensive ceiling is.
Morant’s is doing incredible things every game
Morant is a mixtape maker’s dream. You can count on two or three ridiculous plays every time he takes the court.
In his first game back from injury, Morant stoned the Warriors with this sweet ball fake:
Another look at that ball fake Ja Morant pulled on Burks, fooled the camera as well pic.twitter.com/5MNvZDqUeO— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 10, 2019
He froze Kyle Kuzma in a similar fashion during a fast break a couple weeks earlier:
Ja Morant steals the ball, fakes out Kuzma & scores!— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) November 24, 2019
(Via @cjzero) pic.twitter.com/3DWV2Tpmk3
Here he beats the entire Utah Jazz team down the court and flushes through multiple defenders:
Ja Morant cleared for takeoff pic.twitter.com/JYw575305P— ESPN (@espn) November 16, 2019
He also already has a game-winner on his resume against the Hornets:
JA MORANT GAME-WINNER.— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) November 14, 2019
(via @NBATV) pic.twitter.com/I1IUOkNb1R
Right now, Morant is a good player and a great entertainer. He’s going to keep stacking these highlights to develop a devoted individual fanbase who sees his rise a lowly recruit to NBA star as an inspiration to anyone who plays the game.
Morant’s story might be relatable, but the things he doing on the court are truly special.
Morant has the makings of a star. He just has a little ways to go
It’s important to remember Morant is far from a finished product. He still isn’t impressing in the all-in-one impact stats that have contextualized NBA performance. His offense is only a slight positive and his defense is a slightly greater negative, according to PIPM. The RAPTOR stat at 538 that measures adjusted plus-minus has him as only the eighth most impactful rookie this season. He defense looks worse through that lens.
Instead of using this as a chance to criticize advanced stats, take it an opportunity to show how much room Morant has to grow. He’s going to get stronger. He’s going to continue refining his three-point shot and increase its volume. He’s going to learn the many nuances that go into playing effective NBA defense. He’s going to eventually be surrounded by better teammates who can complement his strengths and weaknesses more effectively.
The biggest thing is just staying healthy. As SB Nation’s Zito Madu wrote, Morant’s breakneck style defines who he is as a player, but also puts him at risk of injury. Can he figure out a way to soften his landings? Can he learn to minimize risk when he goes for a jaw-dropping play?
The start of Morant’s NBA career has hinted that he’s the real deal. With every incredible moment like his dunk on Baynes, that becomes more apparent. Wherever Morant goes from here, we can’t wait to watch it play out.