As I sat in the movie theater, I was on the edge of my seat with anticipation. Of course, it wasn’t because of the movie, which I had to see as part of my final exam for a class. It was because the NBA draft lottery was also taking place.
Now you can imagine my excitement as I saw through Twitter that the Memphis Grizzlies had moved into the top four. At the end of the night, they may have not won the Zion sweepstakes, but they did close the night with the second pick.
And while Zion Williamson may very well be a transcendent prospect, the second pick in the 2019 NBA draft is no mere consolation prize. The reason for why that is the case is Ja Morant, the supremely talented point guard from Murray State who was a consensus All-American this past year.
There’s just something that is so compelling about Morant beyond the fact that he is an incredible young basketball player (which we’ll get to in a moment).
Maybe it’s the fact that he was a zero-star recruit before Murray State offered him his first scholarship, a virtually unprecedented circumstance for someone so talented (to put this in perspective, Stephen Curry, who many consider to be the patron saint of the gifted underdogs, was a three-star recruit coming out of high school).
Maybe it’s his penchant for incredible play whenever it matters most. Although he played against primarily middling mid-major competition, Morant took his game to even greater heights when he played against superior competition, as evidenced by his 38 points against Alabama as well as 25 points and 7 assists against Auburn. Despite his team’s eventual second round exit, he also dominated in the NCAA tournament, posting a 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds triple-double in a win over Marquette as well as 28 points in their eventual loss to Florida State.
Do not let his mid-major status or humble roots fool you: Ja Morant may very well end up being the best player in his class, a transcendent point guard who could change the fate of the Memphis Grizzlies.
But why is this the case?
The Point God
From an offensive standpoint, Morant is the ideal of what you envision of a modern NBA point guard in every single way.
His single greatest gift is his passing and his ability to make his teammates better, as showcased by his status as the nation’s assists leader at 10 per game as well as his ridiculous 51.8 assist percentage. While he did lead the nation in turnovers (a common, generally inconsequential problem among high-usage talented point guards such as Trae Young at Oklahoma), he still exemplified an almost preternatural court vision that allows him to see openings in the defense before anyone else can. He is also able to skillfully whip passes to the opposite end of the court with one hand, giving him a unique advantage in his creative playmaking.
Passes like this are why Ja Morant reminds me of Trae Young in terms of his passing. Both outstanding live dribble, off hand facilitators. Big time read and delivery from the Murray State guard in crunch time. Fired up for the OVC title game this evening. pic.twitter.com/9ZhjJZbI2w— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 9, 2019
While he will have to learn to play basketball’s hardest position at NBA speed, I think it’s a real possibility that he could be one of the league’s 10 best passers from day one. His level of vision and feel for the game can’t be taught; it can only be appreciated.
Morant is also a gifted, dynamic scorer from all three levels on the court. His supreme athleticism—which is perhaps more reminiscent of a bouncier De’Aaron Fox than it is the more physically imposing Russell Westbrook—along with his nifty, tight handle allows him to get to the rim and finish at will with sometimes jaw-dropping results. It would certainly not be a stretch to imagine him as a future dunk contest winner.
Concerns about his shooting at the NBA level are massively overblown and are mainly directed towards him in my opinion because his elbow slightly contorts when he shoots, and he shoots the ball with a low arc. However, he still averaged 24.5 PPG and shot 36% from three on just under five attempts per game this past year, and many of these attempts came off the dribble. By any objective standard, that is indicative of a very good shooter, and there have been many great shooters in the NBA who have slightly flawed mechanics (ala Kevin Martin and Reggie Miller). Morant’s mechanics are not flawed to the extent of someone like Lonzo Ball, who has struggled to adapt his shooting to the NBA, and he can work out any slight kinks over time.
It’s almost a given that Morant will struggle defensively as he begins his NBA career. He displayed no real tenacity on that side of the ball in college, although that could partially be the case because he exercised impressive stamina with the ball almost always being in his hands. At 6’3, 175 pounds, his slight frame will also allow many NBA guards to push him around, especially in his rookie season. It goes without saying that he will greatly need to become stronger in order to become a passable defender.
However, it’s expected for most young point guards to struggle defensively. And the tools he brings to the court offensively will more than offset any deficiencies he has on the other end.
The Point Guard of the Future
There’s really not much more to be said about Ja Morant. He’s simply a generational point guard prospect that could have very well been the number one pick if he had been on the board in any of the last few drafts. Fortunately, the Memphis Grizzlies will have the opportunity to select him with the second pick in this year’s draft, and they reportedly intend to do so.
Morant will likely serve as the foundation of the Grizzlies’ rebuild along with Jaren Jackson Jr. In the short term, he will likely be the Grizzlies’ starting point guard after an inevitable Mike Conley trade, and he will immediately make the team around him better with his superb passing and playmaking. And in the long-term, he will hopefully help lead the Memphis Grizzlies to eventual title contention.