There is hardly a more dreaded phrase in the cultural zeitgeist that surrounds the NBA than the “rookie wall”. The rookie wall really can’t be quantified (unless some analytic nerd has come up with something that I don’t know about, which is admittedly a possibility), but it’s supposedly the point during the latter part of the season usually after the all-star break in which even the best rookies begin to struggle. Whether it’s because of the unfamiliar grind of an 82-game season or simply because opposing teams have gained greater knowledge of how to defend them, it appears that many rookies just can’t adjust and even begin to regress somewhat.
If an NBA rookie were a character in a video game, then the rookie wall is like the boss fight you get to that you simply don’t have the weapons and stamina yet to defeat. Your only option in that circumstance is to “get back in the lab” as the kids say and try to be more prepared for the next time.
However, there is no rookie wall for Ja Morant, and he will more than likely continue to maintain his elite level of play while also possibly improving. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Morant is an exception to what normally happens to rookies in the NBA. Rather, the existence of a rookie wall appears to be greatly exaggerated for elite rookie point guards if recent history is any indication.
In fact, elite rookie point guards in recent history like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Trae Young all improved after the all-star break rather than regressed.
Let’s take a look at each of these player’s rookie seasons individually.
Stephen Curry (2009-2010)
Stephen Curry was the runner-up to Tyreke Evans for the Rookie of the Year award (he was the Zion Williamson to Tyreke’s Ja Morant, you could say) and had one of the more prolific rookie seasons in recent memory, averaging 17.5 points and 5.9 assists per game.
Yet Curry’s rookie season wasn’t smooth-sailing from the very beginning. For his first few months in the league, he generally struggled to adapt to the NBA’s frenetic pace. Over his first 40 games in his rookie season, he averaged just 12.9 points, 4.5 assists and 1.5 threes per contest.
It truly wasn’t until the second half of the season that Curry began to show flashes of the incredible player that he would soon become. Over the last 42 games of his rookie season, he averaged 21.9 points, 7.3 assists and 2.7 threes per game.
To be sure, Curry’s production only increased as he slowly acclimated himself to the speed of the NBA over the course of an entire season.
Westrbook’s transformation over his rookie season wasn’t quite as drastic as Curry’s, but it still represented improvement in his overall production.
Over the first half of Westbrook’s rookie season, he averaged 14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists. And over the last half of the season, he increased his production to 16.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists.
Again, he didn’t turn into an MVP-caliber player who’s a nightly triple-double threat overnight. But he did continue to progress and improve over the latter half of his rookie season.
Damian Lillard (2012-2013)
Lillard’s rookie campaign is arguably one of the most statistically prolific of the last two decades among point guards, as he averaged a ridiculous 19.0 points, 6.5 assists and 2.3 threes per game. It was very obvious even at that time that he would eventually become one of the NBA’s premier point guards.
Since he was already very good over the first few months of his rookie season, Lillard would have had to have basically played like a perennial all-star in order to showcase significant improvement over the latter half of the year. He generally maintained his numbers and overall production while still slightly improving as the season went along.
Over the first half of the season, Lillard averaged 18.2 points, and 6.6 assists. And over the last half of the season, he averaged 20.0 points and 6.4 assists.
Trae Young (2018-2019)
If there truly is no rookie wall, then Trae Young is the most obvious piece of evidence to that fact that we have.
Young had the most statistically productive season for a rookie point guard in over two decades, with the only two other rookies in NBA history to average at least 19 points and 8 assists being former Memphis Grizzly Damon Stoudamire in the 1995-1996 season and Oscar Robertson all the way back in 1960.
However, Young’s play was a mixed bag as it varied from “very good” to “Josh Selby” during the first half of his rookie campaign. For the first half of his rookie season, he averaged 15.4 points, 7.2 assists and 1.4 threes per game.
For the second half of the season, on the other hand, Young basically became the offensive playmaking dynamo that he currently is as he managed to reinsert himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation alongside Luka Doncic. Over the last half of the season, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.7 assists and 2.5 threes per contest.
Like his generational predecessor before him in Stephen Curry, Young made a massive leap during the latter part of his rookie season that gave everyone a tantalizing taste of the player that he would eventually become. And now, he will be compared endlessly to Ja Morant for the next decade to come.
So now here we sit as the Memphis Grizzlies have played 61 games and have 21 games remaining. Since the All-Star break, Ja Morant has already had some highly impressive performances, such as his 20 points and 11 assists game against the Sacramento Kings as well as what was probably the best game of his young career against the Los Angeles Lakers in which he posted a 27-6-14 stat line.
It would not surprise at all if Ja Morant averaged 20 points and 10 assists for the rest of this season. With the rookie seasons of these other elite point guards in mind, there’s certainly historical precedent for him to take his game to the next level. And Ja Morant is not just a mere elite rookie point guard. He is already a tremendous and generational talent that is currently one of two players in NBA history to average 17 points and 7 assists while shooting 49% or better from the field, with the other being Magic Johnson.
The sky is truly the limit for Ja Morant. And regardless of whether he merely maintains his already superb level of play or instead takes his game to an entirely new level over the next two months, you can take it to the bank that he will not be hitting a wall any time soon (outside of Anthony Davis).