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Ja Morant is a student of the game

His time away from the Grizzlies was well spent.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant is a film connoisseur, and during his time in the house with “health and safety protocols,” he dove into some film to identify how the team is gelling and how he can help the team stay in rhythm upon his return.

“He’s super smart,” head coach Taylor Jenkins said of Morant and their communication during his time away from the team. “He’s watching the game and he was saying things before I could say it on the phone.”

Ja Morant is a brilliant basketball mind. You can tell with how he talks about the game, and also how he processes it while on the floor. He’s a quick decision-maker that’s capable of navigating downhill through the tightest windows, slinging passes at the last millisecond, and needling dimes or layups through defenders.

One of the areas Jenkins and Morant emphasized was defensively. Jenkins mentioned they talked what things that they’re “not doing differently but doing better defensively and offensively.”

Though people will (hopefully, satirically) bring up how the defense flipped a switch when Ja went off down, there are numerous other factors that could’ve gone into their success. People point to the omission of Ziaire Williams from the lineup, as he’s been replaced with a more defensive-minded John Konchar. Desmond Bane pointed to how they won games with other guys — and yes, it’s fair to say, “well Memphis didn’t have Ja Morant!” — but that is a factor too.

Ultimately, it’s closer to the return of Dillon Brooks into the lineup, and the team being juiced up to step up in Morant’s absence.

There are ways the defense could continue humming with Morant in the lineup — after all, they had the 7th-best defense last season. Will they continue having a Defensive Rating of 98.1? No, probably not. Will it revert back to the 115.9 mark it was prior to Morant’s injury? No, probably not. However, is there a happy medium of 107, the median of the two numbers? Sure. Most of the games in that prior stretch were without Brooks, and thus far this season, the Grizzlies have only given up 104.8 points per 100 possessions with both Morant and Brooks on the floor — per Cleaning the Glass. So, there’s reason to believe the defense can remain rock-solid with Morant back in the fold.

The Grizzlies rely on generating turnovers and getting out into transition offense. They can continue to do so with Morant, despite his defensive reputation. Right now, Morant is 3rd in the league in loose balls recovered (36), and he’s also 17th in steals per game (1.6). Those numbers indicate his nose for the ball and how well he jumps into passing lanes. And that’s beneficial for a team that prides itself on this aggressive mentality on defense, and one that wants to win every 50/50 ball. So even in his struggles as a defender, his ability to fit into coverages and telegraph passes should aid keeping this defense closer to the top than the bottom of the league rankings.

The biggest transition here will be offensively.

Charlotte Hornets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Obviously, when a 24-PPG scorer that shot the ball 18 times a game is out of the lineup, that means there are shots and points to go around. Some will rise to the occasion, and others won’t do so. It’s just the ebbs and flows of basketball, and a common understanding of what happens during injuries to your star players.

So now, there’s this balance of getting your star back into the mix while maintaining the flow from the players around him. And he’s been studying this as the point guard.

“We have a lot of pieces and a lot of guys who can score the basketball,” Morant said. “The energy was good on both ends of the floor and ways to get guys easier shots.”

Jaren Jackson Jr. is obviously the biggest factor into this, as he was paid to be Morant’s co-star. Prior to the injury, he was still finding his footing, which led to a rough start shooting the ball. He started to find his stride, as he was taking up more leadership during this time, and shot 47.7% from the field — more promising though, 57.6% on 2’s. So in this time, Morant could study at which spots Jackson is most efficient getting the ball. And that’s pretty important for their growth as a duo.

Probably the biggest adjustment and study point is Dillon Brooks. Essentially replacing Williams with Brooks yields 10 more shot attempts. Keeping him in this attack mode is pretty important for this team’s psyche.

“Dillon Brooks has been big time for us since he’s got back,” Morant said. “He was the leading scorer during that stretch, I feel like he’s the head of the snake for us and he just brings a lot of energy to the team. It’s just making sure he’s locked in and staying in rhythm.”

These two haven’t gotten much time together this season, which probably contributed to the team’s rollercoaster start, but these two will get back to gelling in no time. Last season, the “Ja Morant assist to Dillon Brooks” sequence was the team’s highest assist combo last year at 102 assists last year, per PBPStats.

These two playing off of each other will bode well for this team’s offense, as they are the best two attackers on the team, and they could create different looks for the offense that haven’t really existed for either player in this first stretch of the season.

The Grizzlies should be able to achieve that offensive balance of Ja Morant in that All-NBA mode, while also making sure everyone else stays in a rhythm. One of those things will be the confidence and rhythm these guys found in that stretch. Even in slightly smaller roles, their swagger should still remain. The biggest factor though will be Morant’s ability to get to — and score — from just about anywhere on the court, which attracts defenders’ attention towards him and frees his teammates up for clean looks.

Perks of having a point guard that’s elite at scoring and passing.

Toronto Raptors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

“And as for me I don’t need to score the ball, I don’t have to as long as we win,” Morant said. “I’m just a type of guy that does what I’m asked. If it’s score 30… okay if it’s 15 assists, I’m with that too.”

No matter how he does it, the fascinating thing with his mentality is that it all comes from an attack mindset from Morant. As he’s getting back into game shape from a knee sprain and COVID, while re-trusting his knee once again (that he admitted to after Monday’s game), we should see that attack, killer mindset fairly soon.

Now we see how it all blends. Ja Morant was playing at an All-NBA, MVP level, and his teammates stepped up to the plate when he was out. While the whole egalitarian offense deal seems nice and all, NBA teams are at their best with that level of player at the helm. Rarely ever does a team achieve glory without a superstar at the forefront.

The Memphis Grizzlies are better and have a chance to go as far as they want to go with Ja Morant at his best. There are too many examples of that fact — last year’s play-in game against Golden State, game 1 against Utah, or this year against the Cavaliers, the Warriors, the Clippers, or the Nuggets.

It’s factual.

This stretch is going to be beneficial. The team had a chance to gain some urgency and some confidence from those past 12 games to be ready to ride with their superstar point guard through the playoff picture out West. And with Ja Morant back in the helm, it gives them that superstar and that leader to lean on in those big moments towards their ultimate goal.

It’ll be a matter of time before those film questions of how Ja Morant could come in and keep the momentum rolling have an answer, and there’s plenty of reason to believe that answer will be a good one.

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