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The beautiful mind of Ja Morant

The basketball savant is taking Memphis to unexpected heights

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The truly great athletes aren’t just participants in their sports. They’re artists. Their canvas is the field, or court, and their brush or instrument is their body. They contort and control their environment in such a way that even a novice can take in their work and appreciate the genius of it. Be they by brush or baton, strokes of the pen or strums on the string, or even leaps through the air or bounces of a ball, the artist conveys both an understanding of the beauty in their labors and the difficulty that comes with making their final product look so easy while being so painstakingly hard.

Ja Morant, the unquestioned Rookie of the Year front-runner in the NBA, at a young age is this type of player. He is a basketball savant who, even though he is just 20-years-old, understands layers of the game that many with far more experience just don’t have the ability or aptitude to execute.

The proof is in the film, the numbers...and in the explanations from the artist himself.

The art of teamwork

Morant has gathered quite the reputation as a fourth quarter scorer. The only players scoring more points in the final frames of games are former MVPs and All-Stars. Here are the top-10 in scoring in the fourth quarters of games among players that have played at least 30 games this season according to’ current statistics. Sorry, Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving - the 30 games cutoff excludes you.

  1. James Harden - 9.2 points per 4th quarter
  2. Trae Young - 8.6 points
  3. Giannis Antetokounmpo - 8.2 points
  4. Ja Morant - 7.9 points
  5. LeBron James - 7.3 points
  6. Damian Lillard - 7.2 points
  7. Kawhi Leonard - 7.2 points
  8. Bradley Beal - 7.0 points
  9. Zach LaVine - 7.0 points
  10. Donovan Mitchell - 7.0 points

These numbers exclude the last two games for Ja - Tuesday and Wednesday’s wins over the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks, respectfully. Ja scored ten points in the 4th quarter against Denver and four against New York, so the average between those two contests of seven points per final frame of the games played would not bring down his average too much. It’s safe to say he is still solidly between Giannis and LeBron - at worst two of the best five players on the planet right now - when it comes to point production in the last 12 minutes of regulation.

That roughly 7.9 points per 4th quarter number especially shines through when compared to his overall scoring output of 17.5 points per contest. This means that on average Morant is putting up about 3.2 points per quarter until he gets to the 4th, where his scoring more than doubles.

So is he sitting on his hands during the first 36 minutes of games? Of course not.

He’s looking to get others going instead. And this has been known from essentially the beginning. From The Commercial Appeal in Memphis in October of 2019, before the season began...

...“I can score zero points,” Morant said. “I don’t care as long as we get what we’ve got to get done and my teammates leave happy.”

...“I feel like we have a lot of talent here where I don’t have to score,” Morant said. “But I’m going to still be aggressive.”

Morant understands, even at this stage of his young career, how much he needs the players around him in a rhythm to be successful. The book will continue to be written on Morant in terms of game plan - trap on pick and rolls, pickup at half court, force perimeter play and do not allow dribble penetration, etc. Team will understand just how good of a finisher Ja is at the rim eventually (60% from 0-3 feet according to and the offense won’t be able to effectively work if Ja is a one-man show.

Per quarter, Morant is tied for 16th in the first (1.8), tied for 9th in the second (1.9 assists), and tied for 13th in the third (1.7) when it comes to assists among players that have played in at least 30 games. When the 4th quarter hits? He is 5th...but the assists are largely the same at 1.9 per quarter. He is remarkably consistent when it comes to getting teammates easy looks to score, even as his own scoring output increases. Not everyone is capable of that, be they rookie or veterans.

This is because of the investment Ja makes in those around him throughout the entire 48 minutes of the game. It is both a short-term and long-term venture - in the here and now, the more the ball moves and the Grizzlies rack up assists, the more efficient (and sustainable) the offense can be. Long-term? Morant earns the trust of those he shares the floor with. It isn’t just Ja’s offense. It’s not the Morant Memphis Grizzlies. It’s about the collective, and the idea that a rising tide raises all ships.

Only one player other than Ja Morant averages 1.7 or more assists per quarter for all four quarters, is a top-five scorer in fourth quarters, and is under the age of 22. That player is Trae Young, a 21-year-old All-Star starter this season. Ja’s time on that front is coming. But if you asked Morant would he rather be an All-Star starter as a rookie or in the playoff hunt (which Young’s Atlanta Hawks are not), Ja would almost certainly reply that he’d prefer the latter.

That’s part of what makes him special.

Combining the mind and the body

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

One of the most promising aspects of Ja’s game is in the area where he can most improve - turnovers. His worst quarter for lost possessions is somewhat surprisingly his best for scoring - the fourth quarter. Maybe that shouldn’t shock us...he is much more active in terms of overall usage in the fourth quarter than any other part of a game.

  • 1st quarter - 21.8% usage rate, 3rd among rookies
  • 2nd quarter - 23.5% usage rate, 2nd among rookies
  • 3rd quarter - 23.3% usage rate, 3rd among rookies
  • 4th quarter - 32.1% usage rate, 1st among rookies (14th among all players that have played at least 30 games)

Ja and Luka Doncic are the only two 20-year-olds among the top 50 players in the entire NBA in 4th quarter usage. In fact, the 3rd place 20-year-old in 4th quarter usage is Ja’s teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. (24.9%, good for 5th among NBA sophomores). Doncic and Jaren are, of course, in their 2nd NBA seasons - no other rookie that has played at least 30 games has been asked to do as much as Ja both overall (25.8% usage rate) and especially in 4th quarters (the previously mentioned 32.1%, almost a full 10% higher than 2nd place Coby White 23.2%).

In fact, the highest usage rate beyond Morant of a rookie who has played at least 30 games and is also on a current playoff team overall is Kendrick Nunn (23.3%), and in the fourth quarter is Tyler Herro (20.2%), both of the Miami Heat. Those two players are having great seasons and are major reasons their team is having such a remarkable run toward the postseason. But they have a star player (Jimmy Butler) and veteran guard (Goran Dragic) in front of them in usage rate carrying more of the load. Morant is 1st on the Grizzlies in overall usage. As a rookie. On a team currently with a .500 record.

That’s extremely impressive.

So patience with turnovers should be given to Ja...especially when you actually watch him play. Because at times, when he coughs up the ball, he is clearly still processing what the “right play” is...even when in mid-air.

It worked out this time. But there are other examples of plays where Morant forces something that isn’t quite there while flying at defenders, and it leads to opportunity for the opposition on the other end. These missed chances create momentum for the other team, as they often get high-efficiency attempts in transition with numbers on offense, leading to four-and-five point swings at inopportune times. When Memphis is up four, for hypothetical example, and with a smart pass or drive the lead could possibly extend to a three-possession one after a made shot beyond the arc but an errant pass from Ja leads to a dunk on the fast break for the opponent, that can change the direction of a game rapidly.

The good news? Morant gets that. And as he continues to, with experience, align the information surging through his mind with the movements of his body those turnover numbers will go down and assists and points will go up. That’s not to say his style of play will drastically shift - part of what makes him special is his willingness to create while in the process of leaving his feet and creating contact both in front of and behind him on dribble penetration.

It does stand to reason, though, that Ja will contort his frame to draw contact and get to the free throw line instead of forcing a pass. That’s a layer of efficiency that superstars like James Harden already have in their games. Once Morant adds similar tools, his overall impact offensively will be all the more dangerous.

There are universal truths when it comes to genius-level thinkers and doers. Creation is messy, and change can create chaos. Movement in to a new age or way of living can be beautiful and bold, or it can be ugly and unnerving. Appreciation for those brave enough to not only pursue uncharted and unique ways of playing, or writing, or drawing, or painting, but be on full display as they find their footing in the beginnings of their journey often comes later in life for them, and often times after they’ve passed on to whatever is next beyond our shared existence on this earth.

The artist known as Ja Morant is already appreciated, both in Memphis and beyond. What make his work truly spectacular, though, is that while it is a physical act worthy of highlights and headlines it is his perceptive view of the game of basketball that will make him truly elite. He know he needs others around him to help create his masterpiece. He is aware of where he can continue to grow, and how his current style can be adjusted and tweaked to cultivate even more remarkable work in the future.

The beautiful mind of Ja Morant is ever evolving. And the Grizzlies and their fans are the lucky ones that get to experience it every single time he steps on the basketball court.

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