Currently at 3-7, the Memphis Grizzlies have been exactly what many expected them to be: a young team with plenty of flaws that will struggle more than they will succeed. Memphis is also a highly variable team - one that resembles a playoff team in the first half of games then transforms into a clear lottery team after halftime. Despite the negatives, there have been plenty of moments in the young season where the natural talent on the roster is enticing. This is especially true for the Grizzlies dynamic rookie duo: Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke.
On both the local and national stage, many were excited about this pair joining Jaren Jackson Jr. in Memphis because of the overall athleticism and the potential for nightly highlights the trio possessed. While making SportsCenter’s Top 10 and providing endless content for YouTube videos is great for publicity, Grizzlies’ fans will be more concerned with how the rookies and Jackson Jr. will gel to make Memphis competitive again. The defensive potential of Clarke and Jackson Jr. and the passing ability of Morant have been the key abilities that makes the Grizzlies young core one of the most exciting in the league. However, another key component of both Morant’s and Clarke’s games that could give the Grizzlies a nightly advantage has emerged early in their careers: the ability to finish near the rim.
Both Morant and Clarke were thought to be two of the best finishers in the 2019 draft, and the Grizzlies seemed to put a preference on that specific skill on draft night. So far this season, both rookies have produced overwhelming validation that those opinions were correct. While head coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff have spoke many times about a preference to take more threes, it also seems as if they are letting Morant and Clarke stay true to their strengths when it comes to scoring opportunities.
A big reason for their success is the elite athleticism both rookies possess. However, and perhaps even more importantly, Morant and Clarke are both quite intelligent when it comes to using that athleticism to get high percentage shots. Both players have shown an obvious preference for taking their shots close to the basket. Before last night’s win over the Spurs Morant had taken 81% of his shots within 14 feet of the basket, while Clarke has attempted 75% percent of his shots within that range.
While they both share the same goal of getting close looks, Clake and Morant take different approaches with their shot attempts. Morant has attempted 55% of his shots within 4 feet of the basket, which ranks in the 94th percentile among guards in the NBA. Clarke had attempted 35% of his shots between four and 14 feet from the basket, which ranks in the 97th percentile among forwards in the league.
This contrast in styles is somewhat explained by the two rookies’ physical profiles. Morant’s quickness allows for him to get to the rim before defenders can contest his shot. Additionally, his body control and ability to quickly adjust his shot gives him a good chance to score rather his shot is contested or not (as seen above on several of his scores against Minnesota.) Clarke’s lack of height could be a disadvantage against taller defenders right at the rim. To overcome that, Clarke uses intelligent feet movement to create space around the basket. He then utilizes his elite leaping ability to attempt high percentage shots, even over taller defenders if they contest him.
While getting good looks at the basket is obviously important, the success of both rookies’ shot selection is ultimately determined by how often they convert. Clarke has made 63% of his mid-range shots this year, which ranks in the 99th percentile among NBA forwards. While Morant has not been as effective at converting his looks, he has been efficient at creating points in multiple ways. Morant has been fouled on 12.6% of his shot attempts, one of the highest marks among NBA guards. While Morant can cause concern for potential injury with his all out effort at the rim at times, even if he does not score, his ability to draw fouls makes him resourceful as a scorer when driving to the hoop.
The significance of both rookies’ effectiveness as scorers may be a bit watered down when compared to the NBA as a whole 10 games into their careers. When compared to their fellow rookies, it becomes a bit easier to appreciate the production of Morant and Clarke. As of November 11th, nine rookies had attempted at least 35 shots within 8 feet of the basket. Brandon Clarke had the best FG% in that group with a 68.6% percent mark, while Ja Morant was third with a 55.6% mark.
Furthermore, both Clarke and Morant have been two of the most efficient and effective scorers overall in this rookie class. Of the 15 rookies who had attempted at least 60 shots as of November 11th, Clarke was second in the group in both True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage, while Morant was fourth and fifth, respectively. Both TS% and eFG% are important stats to follow to gain an understanding of a player’s overall ability to score. While they could falter a bit, if Morant and Clarke can stay close to their current levels in both categories, it is a good indication that their offensive games are more advanced and realistic ceilings as players are higher than many expected.
The overall impact of Morant and Clarke thriving from close range may not make that much of an impact on the wins column this year. However, their emergence as scoring threats could eventually make the Grizzlies one of the best scoring teams from close range in the NBA. Dillon Brooks has shown the ability to be a reliable shooter from mid-range. Along with Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas scoring from the post, the Grizzlies potentially could feature two to three options that can get to the rim and succeed for 35-40 minutes a game.
The Grizzlies production at the rim and from mid-range could provide a needed nightly boost for a team that lacks pure shooting talent. If the Grizzlies can consistently produce points close to the basket, it could raise the effectiveness of the offense as whole. Currently, the Grizzlies lead the NBA in field goals made per game between five and 14 feet from the rim.
As Valanciunas gets healthier and Morant, Clarke, and Jackson Jr. see their minutes steadily increase, the significance of their scoring production near the basket could turn into an offensive advantage against much of the NBA. The offense should be more consistent and the Grizzlies should remain competitive through entire games. Hopefully, this can help shorten the expected time table for the Grizzlies to be a playoff contender once again.
As the season continues to progress, there is a good chance both Morant and Clarke will experience more growing pains as they adapt to the NBA. As teams get more game tape to review, the league will adjust to make it for more difficult for both players to get good looks near the rim. However, as the numbers above show, both Morant and Clarke possess the natural talent and intelligence to adjust as well. Furthermore, they have the support of their coaching staff to trust their games and play to their strengths. Though the Grizzlies may continue to experience more tribulation than triumph as a team, both Morant and Clarke have displayed the ability to continue developing and flourishing as featured offensive options.
As a result, while Morant has certainly verified his status as a favorite for Rookie of the Year, one of the his biggest threats for that honor could be his own teammate in Clarke.