Just a few games into his third season we can see that Ja Morant has taken another step in his game. His numbers last year didn’t tell the whole story as he wasn’t a high volume scorer or a model of scoring efficiency. However, in Morant’s last 23 games from his sophomore season we can see a noticeable and consistent spike in the data.
Morant averaged 23ppg, 7.6apg on 56% true shooting from April 19th-June 2nd. These numbers are far more indicative of Morant’s growth and impact on the court. Overall for the year Morant put up 19ppg and 7.4apg on 53.7% true shooting. This suggests a late year surge from Morant and an improvement across the board in his game. His play so far this season only confirms it. Let’s take a deeper look at some clips that highlight Morant’s ever developing leap as a future NBA superstar.
On this play Morant shows off his ability to influence defenders in a PnR setting with his tight handle and change of speed. Cleveland is hedging the ball screen with Allen nearly playing at the level of the pick. Once Morant gets the screen he slows his dribbling pace down for a split second by bending his knees and doing a subtle in and out hesitation dribble move. This small move combined with the slow pace is enough to get Allen to recover back to the popping Jackson Jr. Once Sexton recovers, Morant speeds up into an uncontested layup. The change of pace is what’s key. Not only did it influence the defenders in that PnR set but Markannen didn’t provide weak side help in time.
It’s a transition opportunity for the Grizzlies and Bane feeds Morant on the wing who’s guarded by Lauri Markkanen. Too easy for Morant as he accelerates with a behind the back move to get past Markkanen. Waiting for him at the rim is rookie Evan Mobley. By now we all know Morant has no fear when attacking the rim and it’s no different here. He jumps off his left leg and grips the ball with his right hand. Mobley brings a great vertical contest and bumps Morant off his initial path. But in prime Derrick Rose fashion, Morant is able to adjust mid air, scooping the ball past Mobley and finishing with a full extension as he’s falling to the ground. That’s more than just uber athleticism. Morant’s body control and coordination is truly unreal.
An essential aspect of becoming a star caliber guard in the NBA revolves around building up nuance in the PnR. This is where a reliable mid range floater comes in handy. On this play, Morant will take the screen from Adams and patiently wait for Sexton to recover. Mobley plays close to the level of the screen which suggests a hedge by the Cavs but he drops lower once Morant goes around. Morant doesn’t want to attack Mobley because of his length and foot speed on defense. Instead Morant falls into somewhat of a stationary dribble until Sexton gets back onto him. Once Sexton recovers, Morant speeds up into a righty floater on the left side of the court. The spatial awareness and patience were on full display there.
Other than his acrobatic finishing touch and explosive vertical athleticism, Morant’s best trait is his playmaking. Here we see Morant go full speed ahead into a drop coverage from Zubac. Since a drop coverage prevents easier shots at the rim it’ll be harder for Morant to score for himself. However, he uses his potent threat as a finisher to create this scoring opportunity for a teammate. Through his dribble penetration the Clippers helpers, in particular Morris, are sucked in and he uses this to open up a drive and kick spot up look. Morant again displays incredible court vision and body control. Despite being bumped by Zubac in mid air he adjusts and contorts his body to make a one handed kick out to Jackson Jr for a three. This is also a great example of Morant utilizing his rim pressure to leverage quality shots.
One of the signs of an advanced rim finisher, especially for a guard, is the ability to be an ambidextrous finisher. Morant sees the weak edge or drop by Zubac off the screen and uses the court as his runway for lift off. Before he jumps in the air though, notice how Morant wisely picks up his dribble right before Paul George can cheat over and swipe the ball away. Morant is being pushed to the left side where he has to finish with his non-dominant hand. Bledsoe gets back to give Morant an extra defender to worry about behind him. Morant again hangs in the air amidst a bevy of outstretched arms from two defenders and releases the ball on the decline of his jump. To do this with your non-dominant hand is flat out special.
The term “feel for the game” is thrown out a lot and this is a good example of Ja Morant’s feel for the game. Morant gets the ball near the top of the key. There’s a lot of congestion and Morant can either take the screen from Bane or Adams. He opts to go for the Adams screen. Next, Ja will patiently slow down his dribble as he snakes the ball screen in the paint. He also waits enough for Bledsoe to get back but since he slows down, Bledsoe is stuck on his hip and is in poor position to get a steal. Patience is everything because he’s waiting for Adams to block off Zubac in the paint so he can swerve around them for a clean finish. There were a lot of defenders grouped up on that play but Morant controlled the possession with his advanced feel for angles and more advanced PnR play.
He starts with Mann in front of him and gears up to take him off the dribble in an isolation opportunity. The first advanced move from Morant is the ball handling on this play. He starts off by faking the full crossover just enough to get Mann’s feet slightly off balance. Then he goes into the real cross from his fake and picks up his dribble right before Geroge can help over and pry the ball loose. The real manipulation comes from his excellent head fake and stop on a dime right before the pass. This not only gets Morris to jump but it forces Bledsoe to close out to Jackson Jr late. Morant looks Jackson Jr’s way as he’s starting his passing motion and by that point he’s successfully manipulated the Clippers defense with his vision and ball handling control.
One of the more valuable micro skills for an offensive initiator manipulating defenders with your eyes. The play starts off with Morant isolating against Jordan on the baseline. Jordan had to switch onto Morant and now he has a clear window to attack the rim. However, the Lakers send Bazemore to double team Morant with the hopes of forcing a turnover. As Morant crosses back he loses it momentarily but luckily keeps his dribble alive. As his dribble is being retained, Morant surveys the floor for an open man. He then very subtly looks to Bane in the corner. This look off forces Lebron James, who’s guarding Adams under the basket, to close out to Bane and leave his man. Morant then meshes his shot fake with his dump off pass to Adams. The small but effective eye manipulation to get LeBron out of position and create an advantage is what made this play special.
There isn’t all too much to analyze from a scheme perspective. Morant’s basketball IQ isn’t displayed rather his fearless nature, ridiculous finishing touch, and exceptional athleticism. Morant has a runway on this isolation look against Bazemore. He takes a wide base and flows into a smooth crossover that flips Bazemore’s hips around. Under the basket is a man who has an argument to be the best defender in all of basketball in Anthony Davis. Morant without a care in the world about that jumps one foot and glides past Davis. An up and under layup high off the glass is the result. Supreme confidence has always been there for Morant and why wouldn’t it be when you can make these finishes over a player like AD.
The action the Grizzlies run is Chicago where Morant has a pindown screen set for him and the ball handler gives him the ball via a dribble handoff. Morant first wants to step back into a three but Monk is able to closeout in time. Morant attacks the closeout and drives downhill now in a PnR set. His dribble handoff partner Brandon Clarke rolls to the basket while rookie Ziaire Williams pops out to the three point line after the pindown screen. The play design is marvelous and it’s set up to give Morant options to pass the ball. The Lakers decide to focus more attention on Morant and the roller Clarke. Either Bradley or Monk made the defensive error as both retreated back to Morant. This leaves Williams open for a three and Morant hits him with an on the money skip pass to the corner.
This last play is one of the most high level passes I’ve seen Morant make in his young career. Morant beats Bradley off the dribble like it’s nothing and there’s immediately lots of help thrown to Morant. Carmelo Anthony cheats over from guarding the shooter in the corner and Howard rotates to meet Morant in the paint. Xavier Tillman plants his foot and cuts back to the paint when he sees Morant aggressively attack that area. Morant will then take off into the air like a mad man without a plan. He has the superb court vision to spot the cutting Tillman and also adjust his flight pattern in mid air. Contorting his body Morant delivers a dump off pass right in between Howard and Bradley. The quick mental processing and decision making to make a play like that is rare for a 22 year old star.
Anyone can see that Ja Morant is an electric basketball player. He shows us that in every game he plays. But there’s so much more on the intelligence and skill side that we haven’t appreciated yet. His numbers haven’t been the most eye popping in the past but the time where those numbers catch up to his talent has arrived. Ja Morant is becoming a star right before our eyes and it’s beautiful to witness.