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Projecting Ja Morant’s rookie season in Memphis

What should really be expected of Ja Morant in his rookie season?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Press Conference Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In all of the annals of recorded fiction, there is hardly a more compelling story than that of the coming of age story. These stories often focus on the growth of the protagonist as they gradually mature from adolescence to adulthood. And of course, they typically follow teenagers.

From Luke Skywalker in Star Wars to Simba in The Lion King, the protagonist matures over the course of their adventures until they have finally reached a point where they have conquered their demons and accomplished greatness. They finally arrive. And we get to enjoy their journey every step of the way.

This is also the opportunity that fans of the Memphis Grizzlies have with the beginning of Ja Morant’s career, proving that fiction often imitates reality. We will have the chance to watch a tremendous young talent gradually grow into possibly one of the league’s best point guards. He could lead the franchise to greater success than it has ever known.

But first, Morant will have to deal with the growing pains and struggles that are characteristic of almost all young point guards. His journey could be a long and even sometimes painful one to watch (the honeymoon phase will probably be put to the test the first time he has a game with double-digit turnovers).

So the question is, how difficult Morant’s struggles will be at the beginning of his career? What can we expect from him as far as production as concerned in his rookie season?

Some Common Sense

There are multiple facets to consider here, but let’s start with the most important: Someone has to score. The best player currently on the Grizzlies’ roster is Jaren Jackson Jr., who averaged a whopping 13.8 PPG last year. Now of course, Jackson was the team’s third option, and his scoring should benefit from the absence of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. But it just shows that there is a major scoring void going into this year—one that Ja Morant will be able to help fill.

Another factor related to scoring is usage. Mike Conley was 30th in the league in usage last year with him using 27.3% of the team’s possessions. That may not seem very impressive, but the ball was still in his hands far more than any other Grizzly (Jackson came in second at 51st). Without Conley, there will be a massive need for a primary ball handler that Ja Morant, who was 17th in the country in usage last year (remember this stat; it will be important again in a minute), will satisfy. With Morant taking the reigns from Conley as well as his incredible ability to create for others with the ball, the ball will be in his hands more than anyone else, which should only increase his production.

Statistical Comparisons

While Morant may have just played at the mid-major level at Murray State, it’s no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most prolific college basketball players ever. He’s the only player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists for a season. His 10.0 assists per game led the nation, and he was its 7th leading scorer at 24.5 PPG.

Of course, the NBA careers of players like Adam Morrison and Jimmer Fredette (or lack thereof) prove that prolific stats at the college stats don’t necessarily translate to excellence at the NBA level. But Morant still compares favorably to elite guards who also had dominant final years at the college level in recent years—even ones who came from mid-majors themselves.

Two good examples can be taken from Portland’s backcourt in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollumn. In Lillard’s final (and senior) year at Weber State in 2012, he averaged 24.5 PPG like Morant but was a far less prolific playmaker at just 4.0 APG. He would then proceed to win Rookie of the Year the following year after averaging 19.5 points and 6.0 assists on a Blazers team that had more returning talent (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, and Wesley Matthews) than the 2019-2020 Grizzlies will. In McCollum’s senior season at Lehigh, he also trailed Morant in overall production, averaging just 23.9 points and 2.9 assists. It’s also worth nothing that both McCollum and Lillard were nearly two years older than Morant coming into the league.

Another solid statistical comparison can be made with the league’s best point guard in Stephen Curry, who also played at a mid-major in Davidson. In Curry’s junior year, he did eclipse Morant as a scorer at 28.5 PPG but was still not in the same ball ballpark as a playmaker at just 5.6 APG. Curry would then have a fantastic rookie campaign like Lillard in which he averaged 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists. That 2009-2010 Warriors team also had more returning talent than the 2019-2020 Grizzlies will.

In the world of Power Five college basketball, the only point guard in recent years that has produced at a similar level to Morant is my personal hero Trae Young. Young was a phenom in every sense of the word in his only year at Oklahoma, leading the nation in both scoring (27.4 PPG) and assists (8.7 APG). And in his rookie year with the Atlanta Hawks in which he averaged 19.1 points and 8.1 assists, he showed that his incredible shooting ability is only surpassed by his supreme playmaking.

However, there’s a truth that’s both exciting for me as a Grizzlies fan and difficult as a Trae Young stan to admit: Ja Morant was easily a superior passer and playmaker to Young in college and very well may be better at both right now. The case for this is simple: Morant averaged more assists while having the ball in his hands soundly less than Young (Morant was 17th in usage last year at 33%, while Young had the second highest usage in NCAA Division 1 history at the time with him using 37% of his team’s possessions). Morant also did this while having clearly inferior teammates at Murray State than Young had at Oklahoma.

While the situations may be different, it’s completely reasonable to believe that Morant will be a more prolific playmaker than Young was in his rookie season.

The Verdict

Let’s tie all of these threads together.

In the absence of Mike Conley, the Memphis Grizzlies have a massive scoring and usage void going into next season. Ja Morant, who again was the nation’s 7th leading scorer and perhaps its best passer over the last 10 years, will statistically benefit from this opportunity. Opportunity is the key word.

As just a sophomore at a mid-major in Murray State, Morant was also a more complete and overall more productive player than elite NBA players like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and C.J. McCollum were in their final years at their respective mid-majors.

Curry and Lillard in particular were prolific right away as rookies in the NBA. Trae Young, who might be Morant’s closest statistical comparison over the last decade, also was phenomenal in his rookie season.

So it really is simple: When you combine opportunity, talent, and historical precedent into one package, you can expect immediate success. Morant has all three of those factors in his favor, and he will find success even at the beginning of his NBA career.

Of course, there will definitely be struggles along the way. Stretches of ugly play are almost always a certainty for even the best rookie point guards, and all the guards listed above had more refined perimeter shooting games entering the NBA than Morant currently does.

But it’s reasonable to expect Morant to average something along the lines of 18 PPG, 4 RPG, 8.5 APG. Players who were less complete and prolific than he was in college were able to put up similar stat-lines with arguably less opportunity in their rookie years. He should be able to do so as well.

With those numbers in mind, he should also probably be the top contender for Rookie of the Year, especially with New Orleans President of Basketball Operations David Griffin saying that Zion Williamson doesn’t need to be the Pelicans’ franchise savior just yet.

And if Ja Morant can be this good already, then his coming of age tale will be one for the history books.

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