The thing about being different is that almost everyone wants you to be the same.
Or, at least they want to make you less special.
This is especially true in sports. A new, young pitcher in baseball, for example, can give batters fits with his “stuff” if they have never seen him throw before. But nowhere is it usually more evident than in football. Over the past decade, there have been several quarterbacks that have had their hand in moving along the game - seemingly changing it’s DNA with how they play the position. Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, Lamar Jackson...those are just a few of the names whose athleticism and explosiveness gave opposing defense fits.
Until, that is, they didn’t. Because as these types of players played games and built up film libraries, the brightest minds in football learned and schemed ways to slow them down. And to varying degrees - Jackson is still elite but had a lesser season than his MVP campaign, Griffin and Kaepernick are our of the league (insert fair Kaepernick context regarding his being blackballed after his pursuit of racial justice here) - they were successful. They devised ways to limit what they did best, and force them to be something they weren’t fully comfortable being. It’s referred to as “the book being out” on a player, and it means that coaches now know how to slow the special gifts of the truly elite in some ways, but still developing in others.
This situation occurs in basketball as well. And it is currently happening to Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies. The NBA has a sizeable book of the work of the reigning Rookie of the Year, and it is resulting in less production in a variety of ways.
That’s not to say that the current All-Star campaign for Ja isn’t justified. Per 100 possessions Morant is outperforming his rookie campaign in terms of assists (12.9) while turning the ball over less (4.8). His free throw rate is up (35.6%), his assist percentage is an insane 40.6%, and his usage rate is nearly 29%. Considering the reality of the injury issues for both Ja and the Grizzlies roster as a whole, those are all impressive numbers (all from basketball-reference.com). However, Morant is having issues in other areas.
- His shooting percentages from the field (44.7%) and from three (26.1%) are both down from last year, meaning he is shooting less efficiently as he scores almost three more points per 100 possessions compared to last year.
- He is especially struggling with his floater and other types of shots he would take from 3-10 feet out. His current 34.5% conversion rate on shots in such a range is over 6% worse from what he did in his rookie campaign.
- Defensively, Ja has been surprisingly bad. Opponents shoot 8% better with Morant on the floor than when he is off of it, per Cleaning the Glass. That is worst in the entire NBA among all players that have played at least 400 minutes this season. He’s in the 81st percentile in foul rate and 70th percentile in block percentage, so it isn’t as if he is completely hopeless S a defender. But with only being in the 41st percentile in steal percentage, and considering the Grizzlies are at the top of the NBA in steals and deflections while Ja only averages a little more than one deflection per game, Morant’s ability to fit the Memphis defensive mold isn’t fully shining through.
No player has the offensive burden for the Grizzlies that Ja does. No one is asking Morant to be a defensive stopper, or to be uber-efficient from three. The apparent regression to this point as a defender for Ja, in addition to his declining percentages not at the rim (he’s at 61.9% there - better than last year) but just beyond it, is evidence of that book being out on him. Teams know what buttons to push against him.
It is especially evident defensively. He’s struggling to keep opponents in front of him on pick and roll sets and off screens, and they’re feasting - Morant is allowing a team worst 56.4% defended field goal percentage, over 10% “better” for Grizzlies opponents than what they shoot when other teammates are being tested.
There is evidence of this in the following screenshots of how Ja did against De’Aaron Fox on a particular pick and roll set.
Here Ja is already struggling against the speedy Fox as he not only loses a step off the dribble, he also loses the angle to best scrape over the top of the Richaun Holmes pick. Considering how explosive Fox is offensively, going under and forcing him to beat the Grizzlies from range - as teams do to Ja at times - would make sense, even with Fox’s improved 36% three point shooting (a sign of hope for the two seasons younger in the NBA Ja). But whether it’s gameplan or a mental lapse, Morant has already lost position and is about to put Jonas Valanciunas in a stress position.
Fox has completely left Morant behind the Holmes pick. Now, Jonas is in a tough spot. If he steps up at Fox, Holmes (an efficient/aggressive finisher at the rim) will have an easy dunk. If he sinks back, he allows an open floater for Fox - or even a chance for him to put Morant in an less than ideal spot to pick up a foul as he attempts to get back in to Fox’s hip.
Jonas decides to sink, and Fox has an easy view of the rim. It’s a bucket. But the fault for this easy look for one of the NBA’s young point guards isn’t on Valanciunas. Ja has to do a better job reading screens and keeping ball handlers in front of him. When any NBA point guard, much less one of the best young ones in the league, has that much space to work with they will make you pay more often than not.
So, the league has - in ways - caught up with Ja Morant. Ja is still an elite passer. Morant is still an impactful offensive force that must be respected for his growing skill set while finishing right at the rim. But whether it is in blitz coverages trying to get the ball out of Ja’s hands, as our Parker Fleming wrote about last week, or in defensive sets that stress scheme because of Morant’s inability to keep his body between the ball handler and the rim, it is clear that Ja is being gameplanned for.
The good thing about books on careers is they can be added to. And for Memphis, Morant’s story has just begun. So how can he see his legend grow from these short-term setbacks?
Offensively, some of the issue will be rectified as Ja gets his rotation mates back. Jonas Valanciunas is a great example of this - his ability to finish at the basket and set strong screens gives Ja so much more opportunity in terms of space to deal with. He can get better looks at angles at the basket or in terms of passes to perimeter shooters in the drive and kick system Memphis implements thanks to the fact that the skill of Jonas must be respected by opposing defenses more than other Grizzlies bigs.
This clip is a good example of that. Holmes has to lose a step to hang back with Jonas to prevent a Morant lob opportunity. For an athlete as quick as Ja, that step is all he needs. A lane to the rim becomes clearer, and Valanciunas’ presence creates space for Morant to close. That window of vision is more muddy when he’s two-man gaming with less effective offensive weapons.
Apply that same concept of respect - or “gravity” - to the shooting prowess of Jaren Jackson Jr., or the skill of De’Anthony Melton to get our on the run in transition after defensive stops where Morant thrives. No disrespect to Xavier Tillman Sr. or John Konchar, but their games do not boast the same level of consistent impact. The same can be said of the eventual debut of Justise Winslow - when Ja has been able to get some things going offensively beyond pick and roll sets, it has often been when he hasn’t had to be the main offensive creator/facilitator all the time.
Alongside the likes of Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones, Morant can find new ways to get at the rim and create room between himself and his defender. And those two are more than capable helping him aggressively attack with a bucket, be it on the run or in a half-court set.
Ja Morant slams home the fast break alley oop in his first game back from a sprained ankle pic.twitter.com/y4BdSpZ68r— Main Team (@MainTeamSports) January 17, 2021
Justise Winslow will be an added layer to that, as he can be a passer of the same level of Anderson and Jones. A Ja/Tyus/Kyle/Justise/Jaren lineup has all the potential in the world for Ja to have lanes to the rim to attack. But for these types of fantasy lineups to be deployed, health is needed - health that isn’t currently reality. In the meantime, Ja alongside Jonas/Kyle/Dillon Brooks and another shooter (Grayson Allen or Desmond Bane) make it possible for that on a less grand scale - and if you take the performance of the starters early in games the last two contests in to consideration, evidence is growing that Ja’s scoring improvements will come as health and consistency returns to Memphis - and may even arrive sooner than that.
Defensively, while the cavalry eventually coming will also help there, more needs to be done to help Morant not have to deal with the screen contact alone. Blitzing ball handlers like Fox, as opposing teams do to Ja, could be a good counter to the attempts to get Ja behind screens and out of phase with ball handlers. If not a full blown blitz, better hedging instead of drop coverage would also lighten Ja’s load and slow dribble penetration. Even a helping wing taking one step toward a drive and kick guard could help - make it possible for Morant to recover the ground he loses if he’s caught in a pick.
He is asked to be so much offensively, to expect comparable output on defense is unrealistic. Still, where Morant can show growth individually beyond scheme is in continued film study and a better understanding of what opponents want to do to him. The shots above against the Kings are a great example, of which you could find many more - as the numbers suggest. Better angles taking on the screen, reading passing lanes and attacking those more consistently, going under screens where appropriate, and communicating/better feeling the help from his bigs and wings depending on his place on the floor would all make his life easier. That comes with what he is surely already doing - watching tape defensively - and applying it on the floor. This is a tough task given the lack of practice, but it is a necessary one for Ja’s evolution as a player.
Getting back to essentially a net-neutral defensive player will make Morant that much more dangerous. But the team cannot bank on a healthy squad around him getting him there. Ja knows this - he gets that his role is most influential offensively, but there has to be a progression to the mean defensively. And in the current environment, being a student of the game and watching/learning the opposition’s attack approaches, angles, and schemes is the best route forward.
Ja Morant did things as a rookie that few - if any - guards before him have ever done. Yet the NBA has caught up in ways - enough data and film of Ja exists now to take away what he wants to do to be comfortable on a consistent basis. This isn’t exclusive to basketball- from athletic quarterbacks to hot throwing pitchers, the likes of defenses and batters across football and baseball have been able to catch up to talents that they hadn’t seen before. What separates the good from the great - the one-hit wonders from the all-timers - is the counter to the counter punch that special player comes up with.
Morant, for all his physical gifts, has perhaps even more impressive mental ones. He is tough, pushing through pain and being there for his teammates when he is needed most. He is engaged, taking an interest in the team and their goals and not just his own. He wants to take on the responsibility that comes with being the face of the franchise, and even when not playing his best he wants to find areas of improvement to get him - and therefore his team - to the next level.
The book may be out on Ja Morant in some ways. But in others, the league is about to find out just how dynamic this legend in the making’s motivation and desire to be better is. And then, they’ll find themselves back at chapter one.
For as the NBA thinks they have figured out the answers, Ja and the Grizzlies will almost certainly change the questions.