While the world copes with uncertainty in an unprecedented time in many of our lives, the sports world has taken an unusual turn. With nearly everything canceled for the next month on nearly every level of competition, athletics will not be there as an escape of enjoyment for billions of fans around the globe. While logic suggests the measures being taken are the necessity, that truth makes this reality no less easier to accept. As a result, without sports in the present, fans will have to resort to other means to occupy their time for the near future.
Obviously, nothing beats the playoff push and championship chase that the NBA was about to embark on. However, one byproduct of this hiatus is that fans across the world can take time to reflect and perhaps gain greater appreciation for recent happenings in the NBA and other sports leagues. Thankfully, for fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, there are plenty of moments this year that are fun and enjoyable to reflect on. While many players have been sources of many of these moments, none compare to the scintillating start of Ja Morant.
Without a doubt, Morant’s rookie season has been nothing short of special. However, a few of Morant’s predecessors in the annals of Grizzlies’ lore have had comparable starts to their career. Though the Grizzlies have never had a true superstar on their roster, they have had a few impressive debut seasons over time. Without a doubt, Morant’s season certainly belongs in that group.
As a result, it seemed logical that if this could be the end of the 2019-2020 regular season, it would be interesting to explore just how impressive Morant’s rookie year stands out compared to those that came before him. Due to obvious differences in playing time and roles rookies have had for the Grizzlies over the years, it made sense to set a baseline for an overall comparison. As a result, for per game and advanced statistical measures, I compared Morant to those first year players who played a thousand or more minutes for the Grizzlies.
Rookies with 1000+ PTS, @memgrizz history:@JaMorant, 2019-20— Grizzlies PR (@GrizzliesPR) March 9, 2020
O.J. Mayo, 2008-09@paugasol, 2001-02@ShaneBattier, 2001-02@ShareefAbdur_R, 1996-97
Bryant Reeves, 1995-96
Morant is the 1st rookie in franchise history with 1000+ PTS and 400+ AST.https://t.co/lxxwbEqhYl
In terms of statistical totals, Morant is at a bit of a disadvantage due to the shortened season. However, while his final totals may not top the rankings, where they are compared to others who played more minutes is quite impressive. Though Morant ranks 12th in total minutes played, he is first in assists, fifth in points, sixth in FG%, and fifth in 2PFG%. Though it is unlikely Morant will catch OJ Mayo for most points by a Grizzlies’ rookie, his overall numbers show that few have matched Morant in terms of overall contribution during their rookie season, especially on offense.
.@JaMorant (404 assists) has already shattered the @memgrizz rookie season record for total assists. The previous record was held by Antonio Daniels (334 in 1997-98).— Grizzlies PR (@GrizzliesPR) March 9, 2020
Morant (7.0 assists) is on pace to break Mike Bibby's rookie record for assists per game (6.5 in 1998-99).
Morant’s season becomes even more superb based off per game and advanced measures. Morant ranks first in assists, fourth in points, sixth in steals, fourth in field goals, third in free throws, and fifth in three pointers on a per game basis. Though Morant also ranks first in turnovers per game, a significant reason for that is because he has the second highest usage rate (after Shareef Abdul-Rahim) in franchise history for a rookie. Despite being relied upon more than any other rookie except for one in franchise history, advanced statistics suggest Morant’s quality of play remained quite good. He sits sixth in total win shares, third in PER, second in assist percentage, third in offensive rating, fifth in offensive win shares, fifth in WS/48, and second in OBPM. When combining overall production and quality of play on a nightly basis, Morant has easily had one of the best opening acts to a career in franchise history.
Statistically speaking, other players may have just as valid of a case as Morant does in the debate for best rookie in Grizzlies’ history. Brandon Clarke’s efficiency, the point production of Mayo and Abdul-Rahim, and the Gasol brothers’ defensive ability were all impressive and at higher levels than Morant. However, Morant was the seventh youngest of the 26 in the aforementioned links. Furthermore, combined with his usage rate and assists, Morant ranks fourth in TS% and efG%, and is the only non-post player in the top five.
The significance of the specific stats in the previous paragraph is to highlight the overall impact Morant has made at such a young age. It also shows that Morant’s efforts indubitably elevated the overall level of play for this Grizzlies’ offense as a whole. The fact that this year’s team had similar low expectations as the teams other top Grizzlies’ rookies played on, yet are in the playoffs at this moment, validates just how valuable Morant has been. While it can be argued that other Grizzlies’ rookies have had better statistical seasons, it is hard to argue that any of them made the immediate impact Morant has this year. It truly has been the most impressive display by a Grizzlies rookie since Pau Gasol’s Rookie of the Year campaign in the 2001-2002 season.
Beyond rookies, Morant’s season also is in rare company when compared to any previous or current Grizzlies’ player, regardless of experience level. A big reason why is because no Grizzlies player has ever shown the combined ability to score and pass that Morant has this year. Only Mike Bibby and Jason Williams have averaged more assists per game in a season than Morant’s 6.9 assists per game this year (minimum 50 games played.) Though it has been done 24 previous times in franchise history, Morant is one of only 11 Grizzlies who have averaged at least 17.6 points per game in a season (minimum 50 games played.) However, Morant is the only player to have averaged these per game numbers in the same season. Along with how rare these numbers are for a rookie to achieve, Morant truly has displayed abilities no previous Grizzlies player has before.
Another area of Morant’s game that is already elite compared to other Grizzlies is the quality of his scoring approach, especially for a guard. There have been 53 instances in which a Grizzlies’ player has attempted 800 or more field goals in a season in franchise history. Among this group, Morant is 11th in FG%, fifth in 2PFG%, fifth in eFG%, and seventh in TS%. The only Grizzlies’ guards to produce better in these categories are Mike Miller and Mike Conley. Though others in franchise history may have been considered better scorers due to their abilities shooting threes, few have done better than Morant at converting their chances and playing to their strengths.
Overall, it is hard to definitively say that Ja Morant has had the best rookie season or one of the best offensive seasons overall in franchise history. However, one fact that has emerged from Morant’s performance this year is that few Grizzlies, past or present, have displayed the talent that Morant has shown. When the only names that consistently appear above Morant on single season leader boards are Zach Randolph, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley, there is no better indicator of how special Morant’s season and talent have been to witness. While he is years away from being at the level of those names, whenever this season officially ends, Morant will have taken his first step toward becoming one of the Greatest Grizzlies in franchise history.