In a season full of surprises, perhaps nothing is more shocking than the Memphis Grizzlies having control of a Western Conference playoff spot nearly 65 percent of the way through the year.1 The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook set Memphis’s over/under for the 2019-20 season at just 27.5 wins; even though FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based forecast was slightly more optimistic, it still had the Grizzlies finishing with the league’s sixth-worst record at 32-50.
Instead, the NBA’s youngest team2 is 27-26 with 29 games to go and currently holds a 2.5-game lead for the last spot in the postseason over the ninth-place Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies have been even better over the past seven weeks: Memphis is 17-7 in its last 24 games — a record that nearly matches that of the Jazz and is a full game and a half-game better than both the Lakers and Clippers, respectively, during that time. That record is no fluke, as the Grizz are sporting an above-average offense and a top-10 defense and have posted the league’s ninth-best net rating since Dec. 21.
There are plenty of explanations for the Grizzlies’ marked in-season improvement — Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shooting and defense, Jonas Valančiūnas’s consistency as a scorer and rebounder, the rise of players like Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke. But the one that stands out above the rest is the play of the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month for November, December and January: point guard Ja Morant.
Morant is on track to do something as a rookie that has only been done by one other player in the history of the league, regardless of experience: average at least 17 points and seven assists while playing less than 30 minutes per game. The only player who has ever hit each of those benchmarks is Mark Price, who did so all the way back in 1992.
Morant’s shooting numbers are also excellent for a player his age and his size: 49.7 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from beyond the arc. Among the 156 players 6-foot-3 or shorter to average at least 20 minutes per game during their rookie season, his effective field-goal percentage is fifth-best. Though he does not shoot from three all that often,3 Morant has proven accurate when he does. (Just ask James Harden.)
Opposing defenses know he favors driving over pulling up off the dribble, so they often go under screens set for him in pick-and-roll situations, but his combination of speed, change-of-direction skills and, frankly, determination allows him to venture into the paint with relative ease anyway. Morant is absolutely relentless in attacking the lane: On a per-100 possessions basis, only Derrick Rose and De’Aaron Fox drive to the rim more often than Morant, according to Second Spectrum. Those drives are also extremely fruitful: Among the 198 players who had driven to the rim at least 100 times through Sunday’s games, the 1.193 points per possession generated on trips that include a Morant drive ranks 38th — a very solid number for a rookie point guard and one that places him ahead of players like Jimmy Butler and Pascal Siakam.
That relentless attacking nature plays a role in Morant’s shot selection, as well. The majority of his shots come within close range of the basket,4 which is not exactly common for a point guard. Among the 94 players leaguewide who have attempted 500 or more shots this season,5 Morant’s average shot distance has been shorter than all but seven other players, according to Second Spectrum data. The only players ahead of him are Ben Simmons and six centers.
None of this is to say that Morant has it all easy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. He takes some of the most difficult shots in the league, with an expected effective field-goal percentage of just 48.8 percent, according to Second Spectrum. But he’s overcome that difficulty by quickly mastering one of the league’s hardest shots: the back-of-the-paint floater. Morant has an unorthodox timing on this shot, and it often seems as if he’s released it a beat before the defender expected, allowing for a cleaner release than usually afforded on that shot. Morant can get to the floater in a variety of ways, altering both the release point and the trajectory of his attempt to adapt to the traffic between the ball and the rim.
Here’s how good he already is at these shots: There are 46 players who have attempted at least 50 floaters this season,6 per Second Spectrum. Among those 46, Morant ranks only 27th in expected effective field-goal percentage, but he ranks seventh in actual effective field-goal percentage, converting on those shots 13.81 percentage points more often than expected given the shot distance and location of the closest defenders.
Morant also has an uncommonly advanced feel for the game for a player of his experience level,7 displaying a keen awareness of the way his movements on the floor affect those of every other player out there with him. He seems to know exactly where he wants to go almost all of the time, as well as exactly how to get there and exactly what will happen if and when he does — and why it will happen exactly that way. And as the video below demonstrates, on the occasions where the thing he expects to happen doesn’t happen, Morant has shown a knack for in-air improvisation that would make even Point Gods jealous.
He has orchestrated the Grizzlies’ offense in a way that typically takes point guards years to master. He can make a one-handed hook pass — with either hand — off a live dribble, and he can spot the open man in either corner and hit him right in the shooting pocket. He’s already a heady lob passer, showcasing particularly good chemistry with fellow rookie Brandon Clarke on those plays. He knows when and how to fake a pass, and he seems to know where all of his teammates are, even when he has his head down on a drive to the rim.
The league’s most visionary dimers see not just the passes right in front of them, but the passes that aren’t yet open and the passes that will exist only if they manipulate the defense just so. Morant is at that level already, like an embryonic version of Chris Paul who is 2 inches taller and also the most athletic player on the floor.8 His spatial awareness is off the charts, and as the video below shows, he uses it to pull defenders to and fro, creating open looks that at times seem as though they appeared out of thin air.
Add all this up, and Morant’s impact is pretty spectacular. He is one of just eight players this season, through Sunday, to have at least a 25 percent usage rate while posting a true shooting percentage of 57.0 or better and also assisting on at least 30 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor. The other seven are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, James Harden, LeBron James, Nikola Jokić, Damian Lillard and Trae Young. Seriously. He’s on track to become the youngest player ever to hit all three of those benchmarks — and the first to ever do it during his rookie season. He’s that special.
Morant’s defense has a ways to go to catch up to his offense9, but that’s understandable given the level of offensive responsibility with which he’s been tasked. Even the league’s premier veteran orchestrators can’t always maintain that balance on both ends of the floor. The Grizzlies also seem to recognize how taxing an offensive burden Morant has (and will have throughout his career), as they’ve chosen to surround him with high-level, multi-positional defenders like Jackson, Melton, Clarke and recent trade acquisition Justise Winslow. That crew can help make up for Morant’s defensive shortcomings while he gains the requisite strength and experience to defend on the perimeter. And in the meantime, he’ll just keep feeding them open looks.
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