As the NBA Playoffs are in full swing, it is a bit unfortunate that the Memphis Grizzlies are not involved. While their performance in the bubble did not result in the outcome many had hoped, the Grizzlies certainly have plenty to build on from their 2019-2020 season. The excitement and momentum the franchise created in a campaign that exceeded expectations is here to stay.
There are many reasons as to why the Grizzlies had a memorable season. From head coach Taylor Jenkins to the development of players up and down the roster, nearly everyone that represented the Grizzlies on the coaching staff and roster contributed to the team’s success. However, it is hard to deny the main source of anticipation for the future of the franchise centers on Ja Morant. Morant had an extraordinary debut season, one that contained production rarely seen before in NBA history from a rookie. Though Morant displayed many elite characteristics, such as his passing and finishing, the most outstanding quality he showed is his ability to close.
It did not take long for the world to witness Morant’s late game heroics. In just his third career game, Morant scored 17 points in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets to force the game into overtime and an eventual win for Memphis. It was not only Morant’s first true signature performance as an NBA player, but the first glimpse of how special Morant could be down the stretch.
The significance of Morant’s fourth quarter production this season extends to many levels, due to both its quality and historical context. On the season, Morant scored 433 points over 62 games during the fourth quarter, while shooting 54.9% from the field. This production was not only rare when you compare Morant to others in the history of the Grizzlies franchise and other rookies in recent NBA history, it also truly made Morant one of the NBA’s best performers in the present when it mattered most.
Morant proved to be a fourth quarter performer rarely seen before by Grizzlies’ fans. His 433 points is the second most in franchise history, trailing only Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s 436 points during the 1996-1997 season (the first season which tracked play-by-play and fourth quarter stats). However, Morant played only 568 minutes compared to Abdur-Rahim’s 682 minutes. Morant set franchise records for most fourth quarter field goals and two point field goals. He also scored 10 or more points 18 times in the fourth quarter, another franchise record. While Abdur-Rahim, Mike Conley, and others have had memorable seasons in which they truly made a difference at the end of games, Morant may already be the best closer in the history of the Grizzlies’ franchise.
Morant’s fourth quarter success this season was not just rare for a past or present Grizzlies player. It was rare for a rookie in general. Since the 1996-1997 season, only Allen Iverson, Ben Gordon, Donovan Mitchell and Trae Young have scored more fourth quarter points than Morant as rookies. In terms of per game production, only Iverson matched Morant’s 7.0 fourth quarter points per game mark, while Mitchell scored more points in the same number of total minutes played as Morant. However, Morant was the only rookie among this group to shoot 50% or better from the field. Morant produced his numbers in 62 games, at least 10 less than any of the other rookies mentioned above.
When compared to past and present Grizzlies and rookies over the past quarter century, Morant truly stands out. However, Morant also was legitimately one of the best fourth quarter scorers in the entire NBA this season. Morant was 7th in the league in total fourth quarter points and third in total field goals made. His 18 games with 10 or more fourth quarter points was tied for seventh in the league.
Morant’s numbers are clearly based on quality more than quantity. For the season, Morant was sixth in the NBA in fourth quarter eFG% and TS% (among players who played 50 or more games and averaged at least eight fourth quarter minutes per game.) Morant was also one of only two players who scored more than 400 fourth quarter points while shooting 50% or better from the field this season. The other was Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In fact, since the 1996-1997 season, Morant and Antetokounmpo are two of only six players who have scored 430 or more fourth quarter points while shooting 54% or better from the field, a list that also includes LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal.
The best way to show just how special Morant has been is the image above. Since the 1996-1997 season, there have been twenty times in which a player has scored 433 or more points in 568 or less minutes during the fourth quarter in a season. The names that have accomplished that statistical feat are listed above. It is hard to deny that Morant is on his way to stardom. The company that Morant shares above may be one of the best indicators he is already there.
A big takeaway from the numbers above is that not only can Morant be special during the fourth quarter, but he can reach that level consistently. A major reason for that is Morant’s knowledge of his strengths and his ability to know when to feature them at such a young age. Morant attempted 288 fourth quarter field goal attempts this season, 244 of which were two pointers. Of those 244 attempts, 201 were within nine feet of the rim. His 158 attempts within five feet of the basket ranked second in the NBA, while is 43 attempts from 5-9 feet of the basket ranked third. Morant made 62.1% of those shots.
Morant ranked sixth in the NBA in fourth quarter free throw attempts with 130, and he made 80% of them. Those attempts were 42.2% of Morant’s total free throw attempts on the season. The strengths of Morant’s game are his athleticism and ability to finish at the rim. As was seen over his final three games in the bubble, Morant is at his best as a scorer when he gets to the rim and the foul line consistently. As his opponents became fatigued during games, Morant’s strengths became a lethal combination that led to tremendous success.
The fact that Morant consistently displayed the knowledge and ability to feature his strengths at will when the game mattered most is further proof of just how special he can be in the present and future.
Overall, there are many facets of Morant’s game that indicate he could become a true star in the NBA. There are still some areas that need improvement. However, in other areas, such as fourth quarter production, Morant truly is already among the best in the league. Though there are more significant distinctions Grizzlies fans hope Morant will come to be known by in time, Ja the Closer is a highly meaningful label he has rightfully earned as a rookie that will serve him well as his career continues.