Ja Morant’s play this year was absolutely magnificent, but a lot of times we caught ourselves looking at the road ahead. Whether it’s potential playoff battles, title runs, player comparisons to historically great guards, Morant has actually made it possible to believe in these dreams for the Memphis Grizzlies.
As we wrap up Ja week over at Grizzly Bear Blues, I wanted to look at the road ahead and ask some questions to our staff about Ja Morant and what lies ahead for him and this Grizzlies squad.
1) Ja Morant drew a ton of comparisons in his rookie season. Who would you compare his game to?
Parker Fleming, GBB Associate Editor, @PAKA_FLOCKA: He reminds me a lot of Chris Paul. I know Grizzly fans are going to cringe at me comparing the chosen one to the fanbase’s biggest enemy, but the parallels are there. Like Paul, Morant does a terrific job orchestrating the offense, finding his teammates with flair, and taking over the game when called upon. In addition, they’re both fiery competitors that demonstrate real leadership from the point guard position.
Joe Mullinax, GBB Site Manager, @JoeMullinax: That’s a great question. I think one of the things I like best about Ja is he doesn’t fit neatly in to any particular comparison. He’s not going to be the next Russell Westbrook, or the evolution of Rajon Rondo, or some combination of those and other great layers. He’s going to be the first Ja Morant - he has a bit of Rondo and Westbrook, a dollop of Derrick Rose, some John Wall and some Steve Francis. He isn’t any of them. He’s Ja - and he will make his own mark.
Brandon Abraham, GBB Associate Editor, @bcabraham: Westbrook is likely the most common comparison for Ja, but he reminds me more of a young John Wall or Derrick Rose. Both explosive players with questionable outside shots but insane athleticism. Fingers crossed Ja can avoid the injury issues these two have had, though.
Jesse Cinquini, GBB Staff Writer, @CinquiniJesse: I’m going with a Houston Rockets point guard by the name of Russell Westbrook. Like Westbrook, Morant’s otherworldly quickness allows him to get to the rim at will, and both are dynamite in the open court. The two floor generals also share a killer instinct and are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Additionally, Ja has showcased the capability to stuff the stat sheet in a Westbrook-esque manner, particularly during the bubble when he pulled down 6.1 rebounds per game. And their three-point jumpshot is an aspect of their offensive repertoires that needs refining.
Parish Sharkey, Host of The Starting 5 Podcast, @DaOne_PShark: Derrick Rose. His willingness to take over in the 4th while also being patient enough to get his teammates involved throughout the game along with his athleticism is very reminiscent of MVP Rose
2) Obviously Ja Morant isn’t a finished product. If you can pick an area for improvement in his game, what would it be?
Parker Fleming, GBB Associate Editor: Plenty will point to his 3-point shooting or offensive aggression, but probably his defense. He’s not a bad defender by any means, as he held opponents to 42.9% as the primary defender. He also has a 6’7” wingspan, which is nice for a guard. Improvements with his defensive awareness and pick-and-roll coverage will do wonders for him, as we’ve seen smaller guards get targeted on that end of the floor.
Joe Mullinax, GBB Site Manager: You did a great job covering the improvements he did in the rebounding department. It’s also obvious he could be a better defender and three-point shooter. But for me, considering how his usage rate will always be high as long as he’s running this offense, his decision-making must get better. He can’t force plays and commit too many turnovers, taking scoring chances from his team and giving extra opportunities to the opposition. As the point guard, the game is literally in his hands. He can’t give it away as much as he currently does.
Brandon Abraham, GBB Associate Editor: A better 3-point shot would do Ja wonders. Ja doesn’t need to shoot an insane percentage from deep, but a few percentage points higher than his 33.5% and a couple more attempts than his 2.7 per game would do wonders for the Grizzlies spacing. Ja becoming a legitimate 3-point threat should open up driving and passing lanes for him as defenders won’t sag off of him too much. Ja knocking down 3’s would also make him even more difficult to guard.
Jesse Cinquini, GBB Staff Writer: Like most point guards of Morant’s age, he has room for improvement in terms of taking care of the ball. Ja averaged 3.3 blunders as a rookie, and he turned the rock over in 15 percent of his possessions (24th percentile among positional counterparts according to Cleaning the Glass). Furthermore, his assist to turnover ratio is a very pedestrian 2.2, a mark outclassed by Brad Wanamaker, Will Barton, and Garrett Temple. But Grizzlies fans need not fret about Morant’s turnovers, as in all likelihood his moments of carelessness will become infrequent with time.
Parish Sharkey, Host of The Starting 5 Podcast: His aggression to start games. When you’re the best player, sometimes your team needs you to be aggressive for your shot from the jump instead of pacing until the 4th quarter. I felt like a lot of the games in the bubble he coasted to start and that led to the slow starts.
3) At his peak, Ja Morant will be a top ___ player in the NBA.
Parker Fleming, GBB Associate Editor: Top 5. At peak, it’s going to be hard to top Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, or Giannis Antetokoumpo. However, Morant’s apex could be the best point guard in the league and a mainstay in the MVP conversation. He’s already shown flashes of becoming a go-to scorer and one of the NBA’s best passers.
Joe Mullinax, GBB Site Manager: Top-10 is probably the ceiling. In the era of Luka, Giannis, Jayson, Donovan...and yes, even Zion...top-5 may be too lofty. But with the right pieces around him and a focus on his shooting and facilitation, he could be a top-5 OFFENSIVE player in the league. With that and his defensive potential, being a 2nd Team All-NBA player is realistic to be sure.
Brandon Abraham, GBB Associate Editor: At his peak, Ja Morant will be a top 15 player in the NBA. If he stays healthy, Ja could jump in the top 10. The NBA is in good hands with an insane amount of young talent and Ja is right up there with everybody else.
Jesse Cinquini, GBB Staff Writer: Ja Morant will rank among the top five players in the NBA once he reaches his peak. In a prior roundtable discussion here on GBB, I proclaimed that Morant will win an MVP one day, and I’m sticking by my prediction. He’ll have to reach top-five status to win the elusive award, and I’m confident he will. Right after it was announced that he won Rookie of the Year, the TNT crew asked him what parts of his game he plans to work on. Morant, without hesitation, said he wishes to better himself in all areas. This answer should come as music to Grizzlies fans’ ears, as it emphasizes the fact that Morant is a uniquely motivated individual.
Parish Sharkey, Host of The Starting 5 Podcast: By time he hits his prime I can only put Luka, Tatum, and possibly Zion (if healthy) above him. Maybe Giannis and Anthony Davis won’t be too old by that time either but all other current stars will be.
4) How should the team build around Ja Morant going forward?
Parker Fleming, GBB Associate Editor: There’s already a great start with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, two bigs that embody the modern NBA on both ends of the floor. The next steps will be adding more shooters and finding someone that can alleviate playmaking responsibilities off Morant. The team has the resources to build a potent pace-and-space team around Morant — whether it’s the 2021 draft, contract and asset flexibility to make a splashy trade, cap space, or even Justise Winslow.
Joe Mullinax, GBB Site Manager: Shooting is too obvious, right? The more room Ja has at and around the rim to work, the better. Beyond that, Morant needs positional flexibility alongside him. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a great example of that, being able to play the 4 and the 5. With Ja pretty exclusively a point guard, he needs versatility defensively on the perimeter so he is less able to be picked on in switches. Offensively, while perimeter scoring is a priority he also needs additional facilitators that can allow for him to play off the ball and slash at the rim.
Easy enough to find (somewhere Chris Wallace is shedding a single tear). Thankfully the team has the draft capital and cap flexibility (for now) to take shots and try to acquire these players as Ja approaches his prime in the years ahead.
Brandon Abraham, GBB Associate Editor: The team should build around Ja similar to how Jenkins saw the Bucks build those teams around Giannis with a bunch of shooters. I like having JV as a big man in the post with Ja, especially until JJJ becomes a more efficient rebounder, but with JJJ and Dillon already solid 3-point shooters all they need is another wing with defensive upside and they’re set for the short term. Whether it’s Allen, Winslow or somebody else, the Grizzlies need to prioritize 3-point shooting alongside Ja.
Jesse Cinquini, GBB Staff Writer: Considering Morant’s dribble penetration and facilitating prowess, the Grizzlies would be wise to surround their franchise talent with reliable three-point threats. Jaren Jackson Jr’s long range marksmanship makes him untradeable and the perfect second fiddle to Ja. Memphis could benefit in the long-term from drafting a shooting guard with their first round pick next season who can space the floor and ideally start alongside Morant, if the Grizzlies end up in the lottery. That way, Dillon Brooks can be relegated to a role best suited for him: a sixth man. As far as free agency goes, picking up bargain bin guys who can defend and shoot the three may help solidify a roster that is conducive to winning.
Parish Sharkey, Host of The Starting 5 Podcast: Surround him with shooters and 3-and-D guys. A star/scorer would be nice, but I think both Ja and Jaren have shown themselves capable of burdening the scoring load as they will continue to get better.
Thank you, everyone, for participating in this roundtable. Be sure to follow them on Twitter for excellent Memphis Grizzlies coverage. Want to answer these questions? Comment your thoughts below.