Similar to the hype around Jaren Jackson Jr. and Luka Doncic last year, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant will be at the forefront of many NBA fans minds during the 2019-2020. Many around the league, including several NBA general managers, feel these are clearly the top two rookies in the league, and two top candidates for Rookie of the Year.
Logically, Williamson is the clear favorite, as he arguably is one of the most talented rookies to enter the league over the past decade. However, due to his recent injury news, he will miss significant time to start the season. As a result, other rookies now have a golden opportunity to make the Rookie of the Year race much more interesting, especially Morant. If Williamson returns and plays to his full potential without further injury, there still is a good chance he will win the award. However, if Morant has a good start to the season and continues to improve, he could become the first Grizzlies player to win the award since Pau Gasol.
Ultimately, awards are only a part of the determination on how successful Morant’s rookie season will be in Memphis. The awards often deal with many factors that rookies such as Morant cannot control. Of more significance is how Morant handles the things he can control, such as his health and developing his overall game. While he will be a good source of immediate highlights and decent levels of success from the start, it is very likely that Morant will also experience some significant struggles. With the high expectations people have for him, there is a real possibility that Morant could be a disappointment if he struggles with his shooting or turnovers.
The most direct way to determine the overall success of Morant’s season logically comes through a statistical approach. The Grizzlies are projected to be among the worst teams in the league, so wins and losses seems to be a flawed way to judge the roster. For Morant and others, a sound approach may be good production in statistics that are based off their strengths, and improvement in the statistics that are based off their presumed weaknesses. With this in mind, I feel we have a good basis to project what a successful season from Morant might look like.
While a single player’s stats carry some value by themselves, they gain more significance when they are compared to other players with similar skill sets during similar times in their careers. In the case of Ja Morant, a best case scenario for the start of his career has been compared to the likes of John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and De’Aaron Fox. As a result, it made sense to compare the rookie seasons of these three players in order to formulate what a statistical baseline might look like for Morant.
A dashboard version for the rookie seasons of Wall, Westbrook, and Fox is as follows:
16.4 PPG/ 8.3 APG/ 4.6 RPG/ 3.8 TOPG/ 40.9% FG/ 29.6% 3P/ 1.8 STPG/ 15.8 PER/.041 WS/48
15.3 PPG/ 5.4 APG/ 4.9 RPG/ 3.3 TOPG/ 39.8% FG/ 27.1 % 3P/ 1.3 STPG/15.3 PER/.035 WS/48
11.6 PPG/ 2.8 APG/ 2.8 RPG/ 2.4 TOPG/ 41.2% FG/ 30.7% 3P/ 1.0 STPG/ 11.2 PER/ -.014 WS/48
In their rookie seasons, Wall played 2,606 minutes, Westbrook played 2,668 minutes, and Fox played 2,026 minutes. They each started between 60-65 games. While Fox played a bit less than Wall and Westbrook, these per-game stat lines are based on similar amounts of playing time. Obviously, the ceiling for these examples would be Wall, while the floor would be Fox. However, to keep things simple, an average of these these three statlines would be as follows:
14.3 PPG/ 5.5 APG/4.1 RPG/3.1 TOPG/40.6% FG/29.1% 3P/1.4 STPG/14.1 PER/.021 WS/48
Obviously, there are likely more complex avenues one could take to get a more exact prediction. However, in general, I feel that this stat line for Morant’s rookie season is more than reasonable. Furthermore, I feel that there is a very good chance he could actually do a bit better in a few areas to make his rookie season potentially historic.
While not impossible, I feel it is very unlikely that Morant will match or exceed Wall’s numbers from 2011. However, I do feel he can come relatively close. If Morant could average 15 points, 7.5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game while playing 2000 or more minutes as a rookie, he would accomplish a feat only five other players have achieved. Four of these five players (Oscar Robertson, Chris Paul, Damon Stoudamire, and Ben Simmons) won Rookie of the Year, while Wall finished second to Blake Griffin.
If Morant were to accomplish those averages while playing 70-75 games this season, he could reasonably reach 1200 points, 500 assists, and 300 rebounds. Only nine players in NBA history have accomplished that statistical threshold in their rookie season. Based on his talent and the obvious amount of opportunities the Grizzlies will give him, if Morant can stay healthy, he certainly has the potential to make his first season in Memphis memorable.
Beyond joining rare company based off his overall production, the stat lines above from Wall, Westbrook and Fox also offer an idea of where Morant may struggle. The main area will be shooting, which was viewed as a needed area of improvement for Wall, Westbrook, and Fox. As many have pointed out over the past several months, the same goes for Morant. In fact, if Morant were to exceed 40% on field goals, 30% on three pointers, and 75% on free throws, his rookie season would be right in line with some present and past superstar point guards. While the hope is that he will become a better shooter in time, history suggests it could be a slow process.
The other area where Morant may experience inconsistency is defense. Of the nine players included in the link above, seven of them produced more than 100 steals. That would be a very welcome development for Morant’s game. While he certainly has the athleticism and talent to create turnovers on defense, his fundamentals and discipline still need plenty of work. Without a doubt, the Grizzlies drafted Morant due to his offensive upside. That upside is at its best when Morant is in the open court. He could find himself in that situation more frequently if he develops his instincts and gives a consistent effort on defense.
It is important to remember that Morant’s rookie season will likely contain more quantity than quality, as many rookies have done before. With that in mind, there a few key statistics to monitor that could indicate rather or not the quality of Morant’s game is improving. First, a decrease in his turnovers from month to month is a very encouraging sign that Morant can adapt to different defensive looks. Second, an improvement in the team defensive rating when he is on the court versus when he is off shows progress in his effectiveness as a defender. Finally, if Morant can keep his True Shooting percentage above 50%, and see the number increase as the season moves forward, it is an indication he is improving his shot selection and scoring potential.
Overall, Ja Morant will have every opportunity to produce statistical totals that have rarely been seen from rookie point guards in NBA history, especially when it comes to passing. Only nine rookies have produced more than 650 assists in a season, a total that averages out to nearly 8 assists a game. Just last year, Trae Young accomplished the feat in 81 games. If Morant can approach that assist total, it would be hard to view his rookie season as anything but a success. If he can complement his passing with improved production through his shooting and defense as the season progresses, it will be a dream come true for Grizzlies fans.
To put it simply, a best-case scenario for Morant’s rookie season would be if he could score like Russ and pass like Trae did in their rookie seasons. If he accomplishes that, he would present a hard case to deny for best rookie in the league even if Williamson does return to good health and play well. While a Rookie of the Year award would be a wonderful accomplishment for Morant and the Grizzlies, seeing his potential turn into quality production that steadily improves is the ultimate goal for Morant’s present and future in Memphis.