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2020-21 Memphis Grizzlies Player Previews: Ja Morant

Morant’s 2nd season will see him coming Harder Than Ever

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Atlanta Hawks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Allow him to reintroduce himself…his name is Ja. South Carolina and Murray State’s finest. Affectionately known in Memphis as “Big 12” and “Big Stepper” and to the NBA the reigning Rookie of the Year and one of the league’s rising stars.

On June 20, 2019, with the 2nd overall pick the Memphis Grizzlies got their man in Ja Morant - the electric mid-major guard who had been a walking highlight reel his final year at Murray State. Supplanting Mike Conley, one of the best and most beloved players in Memphis Grizzlies history, the shoes Morant were left to fill were enormous to say the least. Joining incumbent young star Jaren Jackson Jr., they were given the responsibility to be the face of the new Grizzlies standard that was predicated on pace and high basketball IQ in a more modern take on the Grit and Grind of old and that Morant did in the most exciting ways possible. Ja Morant put on a show in his rookie season whether it be setting up his teammates or putting opponents on posters – the former Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year was box office.

The 2019-2020 season solidified that the Grizzlies got a vital piece of their young core. That is undisputed. The Grizzlies have two true point guards in addition to more trustworthy ball handlers than ever with Morant established as the team’s lead guard. Morant is hungry for more, both for this team and himself, the question is how large of a leap will they make in year two? The NBA playoffs aren’t the outside expectation for Morant and the Grizzlies but if the dynamic point guard’s evolution continues at the current astronomical rate, Morant and the Grizzlies could kick the door in on the playoffs as soon as this season.

2019-20 Overview

What an introduction.

In his rookie season, Morant was a player unlike any that the franchise had ever seen. Ja Morant started the season in a unique situation as a rookie point guard under a rookie head coach in the second season of a rebuild but early on he showed Grizzlies fans and the NBA one thing: he was different. Whether it was blocking a Kyrie Irving game winner in his third official game, trying to dunk on anyone in an opposing NBA jersey, telling James Harden to “ask about him,” or making the players around him better while putting on a show, Ja Morant was not the average rookie.

Under the guidance of new coach Taylor Jenkins, Morant helped usher in a new era of Grizzlies basketball gone was the slow, methodical offense of years past now the Grizzlies had a fast paced offense predicated on the rookie point guard that loved to get out and run. The Grizzlies offense that finished 4th in the NBA in pace allowed Morant to thrive throwing lobs and finding open teammates in transition. He was successful in the half court in pick and roll/pop situations with the Grizzlies front court leading to a number of his trademark floaters in the paint as well as a number of easy baskets for teammates as he gained a reputation for putting opponents on posters. The more he strived offensively, the better he made his teammates look, and the more the Grizzlies surpassed preseason expectations due to his play led him to become the nearly unanimous 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year and 2020 NBA 1st Team All-Rookie selection.

Before the league shut down due to COVID-19, Morant was averaging 17.5 points per game, 3.65 rebounds per game, and 6.5 assists per game. He returned after a four month layoff and improved in every statistical category to average 20.7 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, and 9.6 assists per game in the seeding games and play-in game in the bubble including a triple-double vs. the Milwaukee Bucks. This constant improvement and adaptability at the NBA level hints at future All-Star game appearances for the Grizzlies guard and a lot of winning for the “Next Gen” Grizzlies.

Projected Role

Ja Morant Debuts Memphis Grizzlies City Edition Issac Hayes Uniforms Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

There are no questions here.

Ja Morant is the Memphis Grizzlies starting point guard and self-proclaimed “Head of the Snake.”

The Grizzlies will go as far as their dynamic second year point guard takes them. Morant will act as the team’s primary scorer and playmaker, especially during the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. During his rookie season, Morant would be content making plays for others before heating up in the second half. This will not be the case this season as his teammates work off of him all four quarters as Morant returns as a more aggressive incarnation in his sophomore season. The return of his right hand man Tyus Jones is a huge bonus for a number reasons. Primarily it gives him a reliable backup but Jones provides another dependable point guard to use in two guard and the newly introduced four guard lineups that will allow Morant to be a playmaker off the ball.

Season Best Case Scenario

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The best case scenario for Ja Morant’s second season showed itself in the Grizzlies preseason. Ja Morant was spectacular in his rookie season but there were minor things by his own admission that would take him to the next level. Throughout the preseason, Morant was more aggressive than his rookie season reacting to the defense and taking what he was given to make plays from himself and others. The best part about this aggressiveness was how precise he was with it. Morant was plagued by the turnover issue that haunts every rookie point guard but upon the Grizzlies return the issue has started to diminish.

While this level of efficient production is unfair to expect over the course of 72 games, this is the best case scenario for Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies. Morant taking the next step and becoming an aggressive AND smart playmaker is everything the Grizzlies could ask for from their second year point guard.

Jump shooting was a primary focus of Morant’s offseason training and it showed in the Grizzlies first two preseason games before fizzling down to his career average of 33% from deep by preseason’s end. You can tell he’s been in the lab working on it as he has become more confident in the shot whether it be taking threes in transition or eliminating the pause before he takes the three. Last season, Morant made teams respect his ability to get to the rim with and without the basketball but opposing defenders were content letting him take jump shots.

This season, if Ja Morant can make a similar jump from year one to year two as Jaren Jackson Jr. did from the perimeter increasing his 3PT% by 3.5% in his second season this would be huge for his development. This would not only have to make defenders respect his jump shot but it would open up the driving lanes that began to shrink as teams began to game plan for him throughout the season allowing more opportunities for lobs, dunks and his patented floater. This isn’t out of the realm of possibility either.

If this happens, in the words of early 2000’s legend Ja Rule “It’s Murda” for the rest of the league as Morant will enter the top 5 point guard discussion & most likely lead the Grizzlies to the playoffs.

Season Worst Case Scenario

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

A few months ago, the obvious answer would have been the possibility of a sophomore slump. By the way he played throughout the preseason, it seems that Morant drastically benefitted from the mini de facto second season in the Orlando bubble as the game has slowed down on both ends for the Grizzlies point guard. A minor concern could be if Morant doesn’t continue to develop his jump shot from deep but he’s a skilled enough player to be a highly productive player while he continues to work on it.

The worst case for Morant is injury plain and simple. His rookie season saw him get beat up quite a bit. Morant started the season recovering from a knee procedure that didn’t fully heal until August. There was the back injury thanks to landing on a camera man after a dunk. Then in the bubble he played the last 4 games with a fractured thumb as well as an undisclosed significant upper leg injury that he detailed to The Undefeated’s Marc Spears playing through it stating,

Strength training was a major focus of Morant’s offseason training and can go a long way towards injury prevention especially with his style of play. Hopefully it does because a catastrophic injury to Morant would rob him of a spectacular season and likely nuke the Grizzlies season.

Overall Expectations

Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant is special.

The 2019-20 season saw Morant announce his presence – capturing the Rookie of the Year in the process. The 2020-21 season will see the star point guard solidify his presence as an All-Star caliber point guard and make the Grizzlies must see TV. Morant stated that the goal last season was to get to the playoffs and it remains the goal this season. He will be a major factor in whether those playoff aspirations come to fruition.

Albeit a small sample size, this preseason Ja Morant was a lot more aggressive. Offensively, the game slowed as he became a better, more decisive playmaker entering his sophomore NBA season. The turnovers were down and the assists numbers were up making the potential chances of his assist numbers jumping from 7.3 to 8-9 assists per game within the realm of possibility. Defensively, Morant is starting to figure it out as a much more engaged defender and with his newfound strength helping him fight through screens.

Year Two will see “Big 12” set a new standard for himself and this team. Get your “Jaggles” ready. This season is going to be fun.

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