Really, we all should’ve seen this coming: the third-year breakout from Ja Morant that transforms him from rising star to undeniably great star. His five-game playoff showing was a vibrant, vocal warning of an impending leap that would propel him into the All-NBA stratosphere.
Against the Utah Jazz in last season’s first round, the intrepid high-flier averaged 30.2 points on 57.8 percent true shooting, including a 47-piece in Game 2. Utah’s perimeter troubles are, of course, well-documented by now. But this was a second-year, downhill-inclined guard in his inaugural playoff series who absolutely cooked the league’s third-ranked regular season defense anchored by a historically great rim protector.
That series, per 100 possessions, Morant averaged 35.9 points, a gigantic leap from the 27.9 points he averaged across two regular seasons. And then, this year, the sequel topped the prologue: 38.4 points per 100 possession and 26.4 per game (sixth league-wide), easily two career-highs.
After notching just 10 games with 30 or more points in his first 135 career games (playoffs included), he’s scored at least 30 points 19 times through 45 games this season. He’s recorded 40 or more three times, an entirely foreign NBA accomplishment to him before May 26, 2021.
Jaw-dropping, prolific scoring performances are no longer shooting stars. They’re just stars — a natural, expected occurrence in Morant’s universe.
His 57.1 percent true shooting is also a career-best 1.1 points above league average. During his first two seasons, his true shooting was below league average. Morant’s ability to backpack substantially more scoring volume while upping his efficiency is fueling his arrival among the NBA’s elite guards.
Enough with the numbers, though. To quote the greatest poster the NBA has ever employed in Kevin Durant, “Who the f*** wants to look at graphs while having a hoop convo?”
Let’s get into the how of Morant’s magical scoring. He is masterful at priming screens and utilizing them for all their worth to frustrate defenders. He’ll veer one way, then duck behind the pick and restart the dance, canvassing for an optimal angle to pursue. His slalom-like change of direction and ball-on-a-string handle empower him to thrive in cramped quarters emulated by few others (if any?). He seamlessly transitions from moving left-right to elevating vertically for finishes.
Most defenders can’t react quickly enough to that dynamite transition and it allows him to create space in the paint, which can be incredibly tough for big men to cover. Everyone has eyes on Morant when he enters the lane and he still consistently carves out room to rock.
His improved core strength augments strides around the basket, where he’s better equipped to endure contact because he’s better balanced and generates more force as a leaper. While his rim frequency remains elite (95th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass, his third straight year above the 90th percentile), he is shooting a career-high 67 percent there (86th percentile), six points better than last season’s previous high-water mark.
An aura of creative unpredictability and inevitability lords over Morant’s game. Anticipating how he’ll render four or five defenders as traffic cones on the way to the hoop is a frivolous exercise, but it’s certainly an imminent development on many possessions.
He teleports through space and redefines the concept of effective defensive positioning. A sliver of an opening, wherever it may be, multiplies into a trampoline of a runway for him. Sag off to invite his inconsistent jumper into the fold and he’ll rev up to attack downhill. Press him and his instantaneous acceleration will burn you.
Just a pretty ridiculous dunk from Ja Morant, looks like he teleports pic.twitter.com/SAri6iAQh0
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) November 9, 2021
Space, whether it’s already available or must be conquered, is always his ally and he rarely has trouble inhabiting it. He’s not entirely unstoppable, but he is much more difficult to contain these days than his first two seasons. Even then, such a job wasn’t easy.
Morant is the Memphis Grizzlies’ first All-Star since Marc Gasol in 2016-17. Later this year, he’ll likely become their first All-NBA guard in franchise history and third All-NBA member ever (the first since Gasol in 2014-15). Many factors are responsible, but this scoring development is the gasoline igniting such a delightfully bright evolution of his flame.