When Zion Williamson makes his much anticipated debut tonight, this year’s draft class will get a much needed boost of excitement for a group that has been lackluster overall. However, you would not know that if you were a fan or frequent observer of the Memphis Grizzlies. The continued development of Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke are not only opening eyes and dropping jaws, they are making Memphis one of the most beloved and admired franchises in the league.
This is quickly becoming one of the rare years where it is very likely the Rookie of the Year award is wrapped up by the All-Star Break. In all honesty, the race for second place in this year’s Rookie of the Year voting will likely create as much buzz as the race for first place would any other year. There is a legitimate chance the Grizzlies could have the Rookie of the Year winner and runner-up on their roster, though a few players down in Miami and Williamson could eventually thwart that dream. Regardless of what place they end up, there is no doubt that Morant and Clarke are one of the greatest pair of rookie teammates in NBA history.
Since the Rookie of the Year award no longer requires much debate, looking at the outstanding start to Morant’s career from a broader perspective should generate even more adoration. This past decade has been deemed “the Golden Age of Point Guards” for many years, mainly due to the historic production of several future Hall of Fame floor generals across the league. As time has gone on, the general idea of a point guard has evolved. As a result, I thought it would be fun to see just how well Morant’s rookie season stacks up against the rookie seasons of the league’s best guards, in general.
Obviously, there are several avenues to take when judging how well Morant’s production compares to his peers. For that reason, I felt there were a few necessary parameters to set to make the comparisons easier. First, I feel the past 15 years is a good time frame to truly see how impressive Morant’s debut has been (also, it was Chris Paul’s rookie season, and includes the rookie seasons of all the great guards currently in the NBA.)
Secondly, I figured that two different perspectives would be a good, thorough approach to truly validate where Morant’s debut stands in recent history. Those perspectives focus on his statistical totals up until this point in his career, and how impressive the quality of his play has been based on advanced metrics.
Finally, a simple goal of this exercise should be highlighted: The overall point is not to suggest that Ja Morant will be as good or better than any of his peers or predecessors mentioned; it is simply meant to further validate the fact that Morant arguably is in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons an NBA rookie guard has ever had.
First Half-Season Totals
Through the Grizzlies first 43 games, Ja Morant has competed in 37 contests. In general, he has likely exceeded the expectations many had for him, especially in terms of his play in big moments. Across the board, Morant is at or near the top of numerous offensive statistical categories for this year’s rookie class. That narrative remains the same when Morant’s totals are compared to other rookie guards in recent memory.
Compared to all other rookie guards through the first 37 games of their career over the past 15 years, Morant ranks 6th in total points and 6th in total assists. He also ranks 2nd in FG% percentage and 2nd in average Game Score. He is the only player to be ranked in the top ten in each of those categories. Simply put, the immediate impact that Morant has made on offense is quite rare for a rookie guard and very encouraging for his future.
In terms of quantity, Morant has clearly been one of the most productive rookie guards that the NBA has seen in quite some time. However, while his counting stat totals show he has been quite productive, other stats give a better idea as to how much quality is in his game. Many rookie guards can have gaudy numbers yet remain quite ineffective on offense. In terms of Morant, the quality of his play is just as amazing as his nightly array of highlights.
When comparing Morant’s numbers with other guards, the fact that he has only played half a season should be kept in mind. Unlike Morant walking into an immediate starting role, many rookie guards saw their roles grow significantly as their rookie seasons progressed. As a result, I compared Morant to those rookie guards who averaged at least 20 minutes per game and played at least 37 games in their rookie season.
Morant’s quality of play stands out across the board. He currently ranks 3rd in PER, 11th in true shooting percentage, 6th in Assist Percentage, 4th in usage percentage, and 17th in effective field goal percentage. He is currently 21st in Win Shares Per 48 minutes; however, that is a metric that has continued to improve as his season as progressed. Clearly, few rookie guards in recent memory have been featured more than Morant, yet even less have consistently made the overall positive offensive impact Morant does every time he steps on the court.
Morant does not grade as highly in advanced metrics that significantly take into account defense and overall impact. He is more of a liability than an asset on that end of the court at this point. Furthermore, his turnover rates are also a bit troublesome at times. However, struggles with defense and decision making are quite common for rookie guards.
As mentioned above, especially in the case of his advanced metrics. Morant’s numbers are what he is on pace to accomplish versus being confirmed over a full season. As the league continues to adjust to his trends, he could hit a period of regression. Nevertheless, the fact that Morant already ranks this highly suggests he should only continue to improve, both on offense and overall. As a result, his rookie season could be even more impressive when compared to his peers by the time it is over.
Though he has been compared to other guards in general, Morant truly stands out against other true point guards themselves. It is quite encouraging to find that the only two point guards who have produced a higher PER than Morant’s current measure of 18.6 during their rookie years were Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving. Both Paul and Irving are near the top in almost of all of the categories that Morant ranks highly in. While I will stop short of claiming that Morant’s career will reach the same level as Irving or Paul, the fact that his rookie season is mentioned in their company speaks for itself.
In fact, Morant is well on his way to joining Irving and Paul in a group of six point guards who have won Rookie of the Year over the past 15 years. The other three are Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, and Michael Carter-Williams (John Wall’s memorable rookie campaign finished second to Blake Griffin). Four of the five Rookie of the Year winners went on to become All-Star and MVP level producers. Being apart of this group could be the most valid current indicator of just how special Morant is and will be.
Ja Morant is well on his way to a season that has a strong case to be one of the five best offensive seasons by a rookie guard over the past 15 seasons. Though other rookies may have made more impact overall, few have been as advanced offensively right from the start. As a result, just like the other rookie point guards that have won Rookie of the Year, Morant is clearly on his way to a career in which he will be in contention for several other awards for the foreseeable future.