There was a certain beauty in the hilarious vulgarity of the moment when Ja Morant screamed, “tell that bleep bleep about me” at no one in particular after hitting a three in the grill of a lazy James Harden. And the beauty was in the fact that no one should have to be told about Ja Morant anymore, even as he still hasn’t played an entire season in the NBA.
If you look at Morant’s Twitter header, you will find his personal Nike tag line, “From underrated to undeniable”. To be sure, he is already undeniably great. He has already arrived as perhaps the face of the next generation of elite point guards.
However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there isn’t a single NBA star past or present that was a finished product by the end of their rookie season. Greatness in its fullest form takes time, and that fact will be no different for Ja Morant.
In fact, Morant has areas of his game that need substantial improvement—which only makes his ceiling all the more tantalizing with how much better he can still become.
This is definitely not an uncommon area of improvement for young point guards in the NBA. But Ja Morant still needs to get significantly stronger all the same.
Improving his strength with help his game in several ways. For starters, improved lower and upper body strength could allow him to grow into a borderline-elite defender, instead of just a solid one like he already is. His combination of above-average lateral quickness and 6’7” wingspan allowed him to occasionally wreak havoc defensively off the ball this season.
However, Morant would often struggle defensively against physical and more explosive guards, such as De’Aaron Fox. If a ball-handler can just drive straight through your chest like Fox does to Morant here because you are, as the kids say, a mouse in the house, then it doesn’t always matter how laterally quick you are or how long your wingspan is.
While defense was a concern for Morant coming out of college, he has definitely exceeded expectations on that end, even to the point where we can now wonder whether his defense will grow into a bonafide strength rather than just not a weakness. But in order for that to happen, the weight room must be a priority for him.
As Morant continues to get stronger, it will also improve his ability to finish at the rim. Of course, he is already one of the better finishers among guards in the NBA. His delectable combination of vertical explosiveness and preternatural touch around the rim has allowed him to create some truly jaw-dropping (Ja-dropping?) moments like these.
It is not hyperbole to say that Morant could eventually become an all-time great among point guards when it comes to finishing at the rim. Even now he is shooting 60% around the basket, which is on par with Kyrie Irving’s and Russell Westbrook’s respective percentages for their careers (61% and 59%).
Just imagine when he’s able to finally start finishing some of his most violent dunk attempts, like against Kevin Love earlier this year. Increasing his upper body strength will be key to making that a reality.
Ja Morant’s relative weakness as a three-point shooter has more to do with comfort (or lack thereof) than ability. Even going back to college, he has always been a quality three-point shooter. He shot 37% from three on 4.8 attempts as a sophomore at Murray State, and he has even shot 37% from three as a rookie this year.
However, he appears to have not yet found the same comfort zone from beyond the arc in the NBA that he found in college. He has only attempted 2.4 threes per game this year, which is 52nd among the 54 guards that qualify.
If Morant prefers to be a pure playmaker that does most of his scoring damage inside the paint, that’s not only perfectly fine, but also probably preferable. The fact that only Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson scored more points on a better FG% as rookies than Morant testifies to that fact.
Ja Morant is averaging 17.6 PPG on 49.3 FG% this season.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 3, 2020
There are only 2 rookie guards in NBA history with a better PPG and FG% in a season; Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.
(Submitted by @Hoop_statistics) pic.twitter.com/xOrC5T4dCb
But he simply too good of a shooter to not be attempting more threes than he is—and reaping the benefits of doing so. If he improves his three-point shooting volume while also maintaining his current percentage, he will see significant improvements in not only his scoring, but his overall efficiency. Volume three-point shooting is a boon for TS% as well as eFG%, and it also improves scoring by simple mathematics; there’s a reason why the modern NBA game has become so oriented around the three-point shot.
If Morant doubles his three-point attempts next year, then I would be surprised if he didn’t average 25 points per game while still maintaining if not improving his overall efficiency. It’s the next step for him to take offensively in order to become a truly overwhelming all-star every single night.