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Ja Morant Is Taking Off Like A Young Derrick Rose

It didn’t take long for Ja Morant to prove he had the talent to be special in the NBA. As a rookie, it was evident that he could be a franchise cornerstone, and he played well enough for the Memphis Grizzlies to take on a new identity that revolved around his play style. Then, Morant followed his Rookie of the Year performance by leading Memphis to its first playoff appearance since 2017, though it had entered the season with only a 28 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast model.

Now in year three, Morant is soaring, both literally and figuratively, as he continues to take the league by storm — a prime example being his recent back-to-back performances of 46 points and 52 points. Morant has placed his name firmly in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, after entering the season outside of the top 12 players considered most likely to win the award by DraftKings Sportsbook.1 He also has the Grizzlies on pace for 56 wins, which would tie the franchise’s high-water mark in a single season.

While it would have been hard for anyone to foresee Morant elevating his play to this level this season, he is following in the footsteps of another great point guard who was propelled to superstar status in his third NBA season: Derrick Rose.

With its long view of basketball history, our 2021-22 NBA Player Projections model offered some clues about Morant’s potential in that regard. Before the season, the model determined that Morant’s most comparable player through two NBA seasons was indeed Rose. In Rose’s third season in the league (2010-11), he becoming the youngest player to win the MVP award. Now, 11 years later, the Grizzlies’ guard is in a position to accomplish the same feat — at the same age (22).

And just like the Chicago Bulls did with Rose as he made his leap to superstardom, Memphis has leaned hard on its star player this season. Morant currently has the sixth-highest usage rate (32.9 percent) among players averaging at least 25 minutes per game,2 placing him ahead of some of the most notable stars in the league — including Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. 

And Morant has managed to become more powerful as a scorer. Last season, we broke down how Morant plays much bigger than his size (6-foot-3, 174 pounds), using his aggressive playing style to attack and finish at the rim at a high level. This season, he’s still penetrating defenses but doing so even more frequently (and effectively).

According to Second Spectrum, Morant’s 21.1 drives per game rank third among all players, trailing only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (24.5) and Luka Dončić (22.2) and up from his sophomore average of 19.5 drives per game. He’s also been more efficient on those drives, shooting an effective field-goal percentage of 52.7 and averaging 1.033 points per chance this year, above his marks of 51.8 and 0.985, respectively, in 2020-21. And as a result of all of that time spent attacking the rim — and better conversion when he gets there — Morant currently leads the league in points in the paint per game (16.8). He is on pace to end the season as one of only three point guards to finish in the top five in points in the paint since the 2000-01 season,3 and he’s on track to be the first PG to lead the league in points in the paint since the 1996-97 season, when the NBA started tracking the stat.

Morant is doing a lot of damage as a driver

NBA leaders in drives per game, along with points generated on drives as a scorer or passer, 2021-22 season

PPG Created on Drives
Player Drives Per Game Total As Scorer As Passer
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 24.5 19.2 14.4 4.8
Luka Dončić 22.2 20.0 12.3 7.7
Ja Morant 21.1 19.4 15.2 4.2
Dejounte Murray 18.1 15.4 8.9 6.6
Trae Young 17.8 15.7 10.3 5.4
Bradley Beal 17.4 14.2 10.0 4.3
Russell Westbrook 17.4 13.0 7.5 5.6
Malcolm Brogdon 16.9 14.5 8.2 6.3
De’Aaron Fox 16.6 15.0 12.2 2.8
Caris LeVert 16.1 12.8 9.3 3.4

Among players with a minimum of 100 total drives. Stats through games of March 1.

Source: Second Spectrum

Much like Rose during his MVP season, Morant excels at attacking the rim and finding creative ways to finish the play. Whether they were ending a drive with a seemingly impossible layup at the rim or finishing with an emphatic slam, it’s easy to see the parallels between both guards’ games at the same point in their respective careers.

While Morant and a prime Rose share the ability to take and make tough shots under the rim, the ability to make plays above the rim is an even more impressive shared trait. According to Second Spectrum, Morant’s 1.1 dunk attempts per game this season rank second among all guards, and his 54 total dunk attempts are tied for fifth. And, just like Rose during his MVP season, the young star’s ability to take flight has been one of the biggest storylines in the league this year.

In addition to his improvement as a scorer in the paint, Morant has been more efficient shooting the ball this season. The first-time NBA All-Star has improved both his field goal percentage and his scoring average. After averaging 19.1 points per game on 44.9 percent shooting, he is up to 27.6 points on 49.8 percent shooting. Morant currently ranks seventh in points per game after finishing outside of the top 50 leading scorers last year. He has improved his marksmanship, shooting 34.4 percent on 3-pointers this season after making 30.3 percent last year.

If he maintains this level of offensive production, Morant is likely to end the season among the front-runners in the MVP race. Only three point guards since 2001 have ranked in the top five in MVP voting in at least one of their first three seasons; Morant could join Rose, Dončić and Chris Paul in that distinction. And if he truly follows in Rose’s footsteps — like the historical comparisons predicted — Morant would become the third player to win the award before turning 23 years old.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Morant currently has the fourth-best odds to win MVP.

  2. Through games of March 1.

  3. The other two were Russell Westbrook in 2019-20 and Ben Simmons in 2017-18.

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

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