In case you have not heard (and if you haven’t, I have questions), Ja Morant won the 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year award. It was historically significant on many levels. He is the just the second Grizzlies player to win the award, since Pau Gasol earned the honor in the 2001-2002 season. He is the sixth winner to earn all or all but one of the available first place votes over the past 20 years. He also became the first traditional point guard to win the award since Michael Carter-Williams won in the 2013-2014 season, the third straight year in which a point guard took home the award.
In fact, since the 1996-1997 season, a point guard has earned the award seven times (not counting Steve Francis’s tie or point fowards like Ben Simmons or LeBron James.) Five of these players would have or are in the midst of careers that include MVP Awards, NBA Titles, and Hall Of Fame Resumes. The other is Carter-Williams. The significance of these award winners in relation to Morant is that he has been compared to several of these names at times this year for various reasons: Allen Iverson, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Derrick Rose. Overall, Morant’s playing style is much more similar to a few of these players than it is others. However, the mere fact that Morant is now apart of this exclusive and elite group is eye opening.
Obviously, it is still far too early to tell if Morant will have the impact or level of career the aforementioned names have had. However, comparing his debut season to the rookie years of each of these players could provide further evidence as to how special of a talent Morant is and could become. As a result, let’s have fun and see just how close Morant compares to these past and present stars.
PER GAME MEASURES
As can be expected, when evaluating six individual seasons from different eras in recent NBA history, there are various amounts of playing time, both overall and per game, to be considered. Both Morant and Irving played fewer games and significantly less minutes per game than the other four players in this comparison. However, that simply makes their production even more impressive.
For Morant, the two areas that likely stand out immediately are his assists per game and field goal percentage. Many have pointed out that the two biggest strengths of Morant’s game are his ability to pass and finish. The fact that Morant’s numbers in these categories standout among this group of talent further validates how special he is in these areas of his game.
Another aspect of Morant’s skill set that the numbers above seem to highlight is the advanced intelligence of Morant as a scorer. Though Morant was in the bottom half of the group in terms of production beyond the arc, he also was in the top two in FG%, 2P%, and eFG%. Not only did Morant know how to put himself in highly successful scoring situations, he did it both efficiently and consistently. This allowed Morant to emerge as one of the rookie finishers and closers in NBA history, as only Iverson was comparable to Morant in terms of fourth quarter production.
PER MINUTE AND PER POSSESSION MEASURES
Due to the different numbers of games and minutes among the six players in this group, a more accurate understanding of their offensive rates may be found by looking at per possession and per minute statistical queries. From this perspective, Morant’s production becomes even more impressive. He is the only player to be among the top three in both scoring and assist rates. This shows that not only is Morant advanced in terms of knowing when and how to score, but also in creating opportunities for his teammates to score as well.
This context also provides insight into areas of Morant’s game that continue to be a work in progress. He has the third highest turnover rate in the group, but the second lowest foul rate. Though Morant’s decision-making is obviously still developing, neither his turnovers nor fouls are a worrisome detriment to the Grizzlies. While Morant’s defense will likely never be elite, his rebounding and steal rates are right in line with the rest of the group. Considering Morant’s significant increase in rebounding production in the bubble, there is significant room for growth in terms of how many different ways Morant will significantly be able to contribute from in time.
In terms of overall impact, Morant remains highly productive and comparable to his fellow Rookie of the Year winners. Though others do show higher levels of productivity in stats such as PER and WS/48, that is mainly due to Morant’s current limitations when it comes to shooting from distance and defense. However, he is tied for the second highest amount of defensive win shares despite playing the second lowest amount of minutes. Morant’s defense cotinued to improve as the season when along, especially in the bubble.
Morant tied Irving for the highest TS% mark of the group, further proof of his elite level of knowledge of his offensive game at such a young age. The fact that Morant displayed that level of scoring prowess and an elite assist percentage to make the Grizzlies offense overall better as whole is quite impressive. Even more impressive is the fact that he arguably got better as the season went along, despite alot being asked of him from a rookie head coach on one of the youngest teams in the league.
As mentioned above, the fact that Morant is among this group of players is incredibly impressive on its own. Morant’s ability to shoot from distance is still a work in progress, and it may never reach the level of Lillard or Irving. However, Morant’s abilities to finish at the rim, create for his teammates, and close out games are arguably among the best of any rookie in NBA history. The knowledge that Morant has of his game and how to consistently feature his strengths may be the best reason to believe he will one day reach the level of startdom the other players above have.
Only time will tell what type of player Ja Morant will become; however, how he compares to the group above is a clear indicator of just how special of a player he is in the present. The best proof of that can be found from the embraces, respect, and comments the players in this group have shared with and about Morant as his rookie season has progressed.