The bubble has generated some great basketball, and the wild explosions have sent analysts and causal fans into a “real or fake?” frenzy. Is Jamal Murray becoming a superstar? Is Jeff Green finally putting it together? Does the title of “best team in the league” belong to the Miami Heat?
While it’s tough to decipher the long-term legitimacy of the performances in the bubble, there is one I’m leaning into: Ja Morant’s rebounding.
In 9 bubble games, Morant averaged 6.1 rebounds, third on the team behind Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke. There are potential factors that could make this an outlier. Though Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t a prolific rebounder, there were about 5 more open rebounds up for grabs. In addition, with the loss of Justise Winslow (who projects to be a similar rebounder to Jae Crowder, who averaged 5.9 rebounds in Memphis), there were about 6 more open rebounds available. And Morant was a beneficiary of these live rebounds.
Some may see it as a 9-game outlier, but this area of Ja’s game is important for his trajectory. There’s historical evidence, given the outcomes of players he’s projected to become at his peak, that he could become one of the best rebounders at the 1 spot. If that’s the case, then the Memphis Grizzlies system could become stronger and more potent.
Ja Morant is on an excellent development path, not just as a passer and scorer, but also a rebounder for his position. He finished the season averaging 3.9 rebounds, which is tied for 12th all-time among rookies 6’3 and shorter. That number is higher than, or the same as, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Donovan Mitchell. His 6.1 mark is the bubble is better than bigger guards that are also great rebounders such as Lonzo Ball, Jimmy Butler, and Ricky Rubio.
The biggest key going forward is building on that number and became a factor on the glass.
In terms of his rebounding potential, Russell Westbrook seems like the best-case scenario as he’s become a double-digit rebounder in the last 3 seasons (2016-2019). However, a nice baseline to project what Ja Morant could become on the glass could be Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Rajon Rondo. This is how they rebounded at their 5-year peaks:
That mark may seem low, but it’d be a big boost for the Memphis Grizzlies system and Ja Morant’s trajectory towards becoming an elite NBA player. If he could average roughly 5-6 rebounds a game, it opens up more opportunities in the open floor for the Grizzlies. And if he could add that rebounding average to a statline that includes 20+ points and 8-10 assists, he’d launch himself into an All-NBA stratosphere.
Ja Morant becoming a factor on the glass would open up more opportunities for the Grizzlies’ pace-and-space system. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies are 4th in transition frequency off live rebounds (31.7%), but they’re hovering around the middle in points per 100 plays off them (115.7 points, 18th in the league).
With Morant becoming a rebounding threat, there’s an opportunity for more efficient transition offense. Upon retrieving the ball, it gives Morant a head-start to catch the defense off guard and to gain a full steam towards the basket. If he’s not finishing the break himself, then he could hit the wings that are leaking out and running the lanes off the rebound. If the wings aren’t running towards the basket they have more time to spot up in the corner 3, being ready to fire in case Morant kicks the ball out.
If Ja Morant becomes more of a threat on the defensive rebounds, it shores up Jaren Jackson Jr.’s deficiencies on the boards. It’s no secret that the Grizzlies dominated whenever Brandon Clarke and Jackson took the 4 and the 5 spots. In order to offset the rebounding struggles from both players, they rely on creating turnovers and using a group mentality on the glass.
If Morant is the rebounder in this scenario, it also puts those 2 in prime position offensively. Clarke is allowed to run the floor and finish above the rim. Jackson can trail to either blast a transition 3, or catch a mismatch off guard to get to the basket.
Memphis’ system will go as far as Ja goes, and if he can create offense off missed shots, the next-Gen Grizzlies can become one of the league’s most frightening transition teams.
The ceiling of Ja Morant is limitless.
Up until his peak, how he evolves as a scorer and playmaker will catch the eye, and those will serve as primary developmental factors people focus on. However, he showed in the bubble that he could be an excellent rebounder. The upside in your lead guard becoming a great rebounder is extraordinary, because it opens up the offense, especially with a dynamic playmaker such as Ja Morant.
He’s must-watch when he hits the open floor, as he can finish with a thunderous dunk, a sweet fake and finger roll, an alley oop, or with a saucy dish to a trailing teammate. And all that starts with him crashing the glass and seeking transition opportunities.
If his production on the glass in the bubble is legitimate, he could catapult himself into the party among the league’s elite.