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The year of Ja Morant

Memphis has their star of the future in their rookie point guard

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

With the second overall pick…the Memphis Grizzlies select Ja Morant out of Murray State.

On June 20, 2019, 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. In Morant, the Grizzlies had a player like the franchise had never seen before, and the excitement to see him suit up in Beale Street blue was immense. Screams echoed throughout the FedExForum on draft night with all eyes set on an explosive debut for the Grizzlies summer league team.

That did not happen.

2019 Las Vegas Summer League - Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Grizzlies fans would have to wait to see their new point guard on the floor, as he sat out summer league to recover from a minor operation to remove loose bodies from his right knee. While he did not get to play in Las Vegas last summer, Morant still showed glimpses of what was to come during the regular season, acting as the Grizzlies biggest cheerleader on the sidelines alongside his newest running mate Jaren Jackson Jr. during the Grizzlies run to a 2019 Summer League championship.

At His Best

Ja Morant started this season in a unique situation as a rookie point guard under a rookie head coach in the second season of a rebuild. He started the season on a loose minute restriction, as he continued to heal from his surgery. Even early on Ja Morant showed Grizzlies fans one thing; he was built for this. 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, playing his best against the best competition.

After shaking off the rookie nerves in limited action the first two games of the season, he stepped up to show why he was a top Rookie of the Year candidate in his third professional game — versus the Brooklyn Nets matched up against one of the NBA’s best in Kyrie Irving. Morant had one of his best games of the season scoring 30 points while adding 9 assists, along with the aforementioned block on Irving to force overtime. This game assured Morant, and the rest of the league, that he was the star many believed he could be.

While Ja Morant found his footing as an NBA starting point guard, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jae Crowder acted as the teams leaders, but as the season went on Morant emerged as the Grizzlies newest leader on the floor. Under the guidance of new coach Taylor Jenkins, Morant ushered 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 — one that finished sixth in the NBA in pace — allowed Morant to thrive, throwing lobs and finding open teammates in transition.

He was also successful this season in the half court in pick and roll/pop situations with the Grizzlies front court. This led to a number of his trademark floaters in the paint, as well as a number of easy baskets for teammates, and 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. All that led him to become a clear-cut favorite to become the 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Before the league shut down due to COVID-19, Morant was averaging 17.5 points per game, 3.7 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.

Two of his best games of the season came against the Boston Celtics (26 points with 16 assists) and a triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks in the seeding game finale. These are All-Star caliber numbers, if he can maintain this level of dominance over the course of an entire season as the leader of a playoff franchise.

At His Worst

Memphis Grizzlies v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the “worst” performance of Ja Morant’s rookie season came in his eighth game as a Grizzly, and arguably one of the Grizzlies worst games of the season, a 32-point loss on the road to the Orlando Magic. This was a game in which the Orlando Magic could not miss, shooting 47% from the field, while the Grizzlies struggled from the field. Ja Morant scored 8 points on 23% shooting and contributed 6 turnovers in 25 minutes of action.

While this game was a story of a young team’s early struggles, it tells a larger story of the Grizzlies season. The turnovers are something that come with being a rookie point guard and accompany someone with Morant’s style of play. Those numbers can improve as he becomes more experienced. The story is the correlation between Ja Morant’s scoring and the team’s success. As a primary scorer for the Grizzlies, it was imperative for Ja Morant to score if the Grizzlies wanted to win basketball games. The Grizzlies were 7-15 on the season when Ja Morant shot 40% or below.

These games happened for a variety of reasons —whether it be an elite defender being on him, defensive schemes changing as the NBA adjusted to him, trying to will the team to a come from behind victory, or he simply couldn’t find a rhythm. These are all a part of the growing pains of being a rookie in the NBA and will improve as time goes on.

What’s Next?

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Sadly, the Grizzlies fell just short of making the playoffs in Ja Morant’s rookie season, but the future is still bright for this young Grizzlies team led by the self-proclaimed “head of the snake” Ja Morant. Morant should be voted NBA All-Rookie First Team as well as the NBA Rookie of the Year, becoming only the second Grizzly to receive the honor after Pau Gasol (2001), to cap a stellar rookie season with the Grizzlies.

This season Ja Morant put the league on notice, and in year two, he will have something to prove after his small taste of an NBA Playoff atmosphere in Orlando. In order to continue his ascension in the NBA hierarchy, it will be important to continue to work on his jump shot. While everyone has come to respect Morant’s ability to get to the rim, the polar opposite can be said about his perimeter jumper, as defenders continue to be content giving him jump shots over a floater, poster or passer. This season, Morant averaged 2.7 three-pointers per game making 33.5% of them.

If he 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%), it 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 gameplan for him throughout the season. It would allow more opportunities for lobs, dunks and his patented floater. If this happens, good luck to the rest of the NBA.

He also needs to continue to improve his on-ball defense. There was a jump from regular season to the bubble, and there is reason to believe that it will only continue to improve with more NBA experience. The bubble was a welcome gift, not only because there was more opportunities to watch Ja Morant play basketball, but for him to gain NBA experience on both sides of the floor against the best coaches and a number of elite guards. That experience should fuel improvement in his game entering what could be an equally as impressive sophomore season.

Ja Morant has established himself as one of the leagues next great guards, but this is not enough for him, who has an ever-present chip on his shoulders. Morant’s drive to be great will help take him and this team to new heights. In what is effectively his second offseason, he will return to the lab to hone his craft, eliminate the mistakes of his rookie season. and somehow come back better than before.

This year, Ja Morant missed the playoffs. 2021 it’s his turn. Ja Morant will return for the 2020-21 season hungrier than ever, and the legend of “Big 12” will continue to grow as one of the NBA’s rising stars and a leader of the “Next Gen” Grizzlies.

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