When thinking of the long-term future of the Memphis Grizzlies, it is hard to not smile. The team is set up nicely, establishing a core that plays to the “standard” of the organization for years to come. They have assets in hand to improve standings in drafts, or bring in additional talent already established in the NBA. They has one of the league’s brightest young groups, highlighted by the reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and his running mate Jaren Jackson Jr. Between draft picks and cap flexibility, the franchise is on solid footing for the foreseeable future - and this is the first time these relatively new developments can be stated so clearly and truly in...well...ever.
In the short-term, however, the prospects for the Grizzlies aren’t quite as sparkling.
Injuries suffered in the Orlando Bubble to Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. linger. It’s likely neither Justise nor Jaren are ready for the start of the season, per Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman in his post-draft media availability, and it’s possible that Jaren is out for a solid stretch of time beyond opening night. Those are two key contributors to the Memphis Grizzlies rotation - and with Jaren Jackson Jr. that’s an understatement - that cannot be replaced so easily. Rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman cannot realistically be asked to fill the void, and Memphis struggled mightily without Jaren and Justise during seeding play. While Tyus Jones returns, the lack of the versatility Jackson and Winslow provide will be detrimental to the play-in hopes of the Grizzlies.
Unless, of course, the team make a drastic leap without them. And there’s one player in position to lead such a monumental jump.
In the absence of the only players comparable to him in terms of overall impact (Jackson) or facilitation at the rim (Winslow), Ja Morant is going to have to take this team on his young shoulders and carry them to start the campaign. That means he can’t defer to anyone. That means he must attempt to find his shooting stroke as opposing teams go under picks and screens against him. That means he has to be a catalyst for others to create beyond the offensive end. For Memphis to survive and advance to playoff/play-in competition once the cavalry comes in the form of good health, necessity must breed innovation for Ja Morant.
Will he be able to rise to the occasion in this, his encore to a historic Rookie of the Year campaign?
Four quarters of Ja Morant
Few players in the NBA scored as well in the final frame of games as Ja Morant last season. Ja finished tied for 7th in the entire Association in points scored in fourth quarters with 7 points according to nba.com/stats. His name is among the greats of the game in that regard - James Harden, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard...when it came to closing out games as a scorer, Ja shared elite company. But among the top-10, Ja Morant was tied for 1st in fewest shot attempts in the final quarter (4.6, with Joel Embiid) and was 2nd in field goal percentage (behind Giannis). He was among the very best of this game, as a rookie, in closing time without taking the same amount of shots that they did. He also was impactful without having an elite shooting stroke (second worst among the top-10 from range), meaning he was able to get to the rim and finish almost at will.
Making more of these moments matters for Ja - not in terms of quality, but in terms of quantity.
Taking the next step for Morant means while he must continue to work in his shooting stroke from beyond the arc, more importantly he must apply the scorer’s mentality to not only the fourth quarterbut the previous three quarters as well. For Ja, while elite in 4th quarters, is only above average overall when it comes to points per minute played. He ranks 44th in that category per teamrankings.com, tied with the likes of Serge Ibaka and JJ Redick, behind teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. - and only .02 points better than Dillon Brooks. Improved three point shooting will help - it is why Redick can be 44th in this area, and would only make Morant more difficult to defend.
But Ja’s psyche has to adapt as well - not just his shooting form and touch from three.
In the play-in game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Ja Morant scored 35 points on 28 shots (with only eight free throw attempts -six made - and six threes attempted, three converted!) He dominated off the dribble...and that won’t change anytime soon. But prior to that game, Ja’s most shot attempts in a game was 23. He only shot 20 or more shots eight times, including the play-in, last season. Another Memphis Grizzly took 20 or more shots eight times - Dillon Brooks. No disrespect to Dillon Brooks, that Dillon should not ever again share that stat with Ja.
It doesn’t have to come at the expense of Ja creating for others - across the 8 games Morant shot 20 or more attempts, he averaged over nine assists (including 8 assists in the play-in). It needs to come as a priority to Ja to be more active in getting his own looks. The best shot moving forward more and more is Ja’s shot.
But it’s important to understand that this has more to do with Morant than anything. Because there are times that Ja, like Marc Gasol before him, would try to prioritize shots for others. And that matters - getting confidence for teammates is key to team basketball, a concept Head Coach Taylor Jenkins preaches. Yet the selfless mentality at times hurts the team with Ja specifically.
Brooks is a great example - when left to his own devices, he will do his best to try to be the offensive force that Morant could/should be. He simply doesn’t have that talent. When he forces his shot, sometimes off the dribble in the mid-range (maybe the worst kind of shot their is in the modern NBA), more often than not it shows. Dillon has gotten to this place in his career through that supreme self-confidence, but Ja is the superior scoring offensive talent. He needs to act like it more, and not allow Brooks and others to take those chances.
He’s proven he is capable of carrying the offense late in games. He’s shown he can get others their opportunities - although his 15% turnover rate, the worst among point guards not named Ben Simmons last year, is further evidence of forcing the ball to others that could use improvement. But given his usage, we will forgive that to an extent...especially considering it will naturally go down some if he keeps the ball to shoot more consistently.
In order for the Grizzlies to avoid a slow start due to missing the likes of Jaren and Justise, he must take even more scoring ownership across all 48 minutes. If he waits until the end of games, it will probably be too late.
The next step defensively
In the debates that occur when comparing Ja to the other great young rookie point guards - namely Trae Young - oftentimes the defensive potential of Morant is cited as an opportunity for him to create superstar separation. At 6’3” with a 6’7” wingspan, Ja has the length and lateral movement capabilities to be at worst a net neutral defender. That is probably what is realistic as well - it’s hard to envision a reality where he is both the offensive force the Grizzlies need him to be (as previously stated, considering the fact his 82nd percentile usage rate among point guess playing over 1,000 minutes last year per Cleaning the Glass will only go up) and also be an elite defender. But for him to be that middle ground defensive player, growth is needed - and it can happen in an area where he already thrives.
In the play-in game, CJ McCollum exposed Ja as an on-ball defender towards the end of the game. Great offense beats great defense, and it isn’t as if Morant was abysmal down the stretch. He had to do everything in the play-in, and being a rookie point guard playing 42 minutes against an elite backcourt isn’t easy. But he allowed for McCollum to have too many opportunities to get his space to create his offense.
Part of that was losing his edge with angles - not attacking the space CJ wanted to occupy, but coming right out at him without leverage, going where he was instead of where McCollum’s momentum was going to take him. That gave the Portland guard the lane to the rim necessary to either attack the paint or pull up for three. This comes with experience against elite NBA on-ball talent - Morant won’t make those same mistakes.
But another aspect of the game defensively that Ja can prioritize is better understanding these driving lanes, and passing angles, on his was to creating turnovers. Morant was only in the 24th percentile in steal percentage among point guards with at least 1,000 minutes played last year. That is actually slightly worse (.1 percentage point) than Trae Young, and is also the worst among point guards that played at least 2,000 minutes per Cleaning the Glass. Morant isn’t much of a gambler (his 2.1% foul mark is tied for 7th among the same splits), not making many errors in terms of reaching and committing silly errors after losing his footing against the likes of McCollum. Yet he, as he gets more comfortable, can be more able to pick and choose his spots to attack the ball either in the air or off the bounce. The lessons learned from the Portland game and last season at large can be connected to another offseason (after the Bubble prep essentially served as one) of being more physically developed for the NBA game.
Defensive improvements in terms of steals and pass deflections will lead to more offensive opportunities for the Grizzlies in an area where the team thrives. Put the young talent the team added in the NBA Draft to the side - the roster that Memphis returns is at its best when it is moving from defense to offense. De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, even Kyle Anderson with his slow-mo stylings...the team can create for themselves and others while on the run. Morant is the leading man in those stylings, and if he can not necessarily risk more but better understand timing and aggression through opposing schemes he can open up the roster to more easy points. Those could be hard to come by early on...so it would be in the best interest of the Grizzlies to have their best player take a major jump as a defender on and off the ball to the tune of a big steal percentage improvement.
The mental makeup of Ja Morant is already approaching legendary status in Memphis. His willingness to take up the mantle of the city and be a wonderful representative for the community in multiple ways on and off the floor is impressive for someone so young. It’s with that knowledge that the hopes for his development entering his sophomore season aren’t really hopes as much as they are spoilers. Morant refuses to fail. He’s proven people wrong throughout his basketball life - there’s no reason to believe that what has been past for him won’t be prologue moving forward.
But potential must become production. And for Ja, as both a chaos creator defensively and as an offensive option as a scorer, growth must be paramount. It’s a lot to ask of a 21 year-old, but he’s shown time and again he is able to rise to the occasion. Whether it’s carrying the team with a hand injury in the Bubble, meeting a giraffe named after him at the Memphis Zoo, or modeling the latest City uniforms honoring Stax and Issac Hayes, Morant has shined as the bearer of the new Grizzlies standard.
He’s not alone. But while he must rise in order for the team to compete, the record of the Grizzlies isn’t as important this season as Ja’s continued development. Which is good - he’s without his likely long-term running mate, at least for now. Instead of that being a lost opportunity, though, this is a moment for Ja to further evolve in to a superstar. It’s what his team needs. It’s what the city of Memphis wants.
And perhaps most importantly, it is what the awesomely audacious Ja Morant surely expects of himself as the curtain rises on his encore performance.