On February 19th of last year, Ja Morant was spectacular as he totaled 27 points and a career-high 14 assists as the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies somehow managed to beat the eventual-champion Los Angeles Lakers 105-88. Yet what made the game so memorable isn’t what Morant did on the court, but rather what he said immediately after the fact.
“The losing streak — I felt like I could have been better in a lot of places, and I’m thankful for this guy that tweeted, that said I don’t have that fire in my eye no more,” Morant said to the Fox Sports team. “That game right there was for him. That’s what I do. I prove people wrong each and every night.”
After that fateful game, a random guy on Grizzlies Twitter learned an important lesson: Ja Morant is a bear that does not like to be poked. And when he is poked, he sets out with a fury to prove the proverbial poker wrong each and every night, in his own words. I’m counting on that to be true. Because I unfortunately have to poke the bear for my purposes.
Ja Morant cannot shoot. As Dr. Seuss would say, he cannot shoot here, he cannot shoot there, he cannot shoot anywhere. To put it bluntly, he has been a historically bad three-point shooter so far this season. He is currently shooting 22% from three on 3.3 attempts; no player in NBA history outside of Kevin Love in an injury-shortened season back in 2012-2013 has ever shot that poorly on at least that many attempts. There are currently 66 players in the league averaging 1.7 or more pull-up threes per game, and Ja ranks dead last in accuracy among them, shooting just 20% on such shots.
Now to be fair, Ja’s shooting will start to at least somewhat progress to the mean soon. He shot 35% from three at Murray State, and he shot 33% on a limited number of attempts last year as a rookie. He’s inevitably going to have a night where he finally breaks out of his slump and shoots 5-7 from three. To be sure, the law of averages is very much on his side.
However, it’s clearly no understatement to say that he's the worst shooter at his position among starters in the NBA. And yet it’s that fact that makes it all the more fascinating how he is able to still be so impactful offensively in the modern NBA where spacing and shooting are essential foundations to success (I’m done with poking the bear now). His averages of 18.9 points and 7.8 assists aren’t exactly MVP-caliber, but his importance goes beyond the box score.
His impact is felt in so many different facets offensively. He’s a preternatural playmaker who seems to only grow more cerebral every game no matter what opposing defenses throw at him, as his current assist percentage (40.1) is one of the 10 highest for a single season in NBA history (shout-out to Brevin Knight for having the 9th-highest career mark in that category!). Even as his outside shot has failed him, he has improved as a finisher, converting 65% of his shots at the rim as compared to an already-excellent 60% as a rookie.
Outside of blitzing him in pick-and-rolls to just get the ball out of his hands—which opposing defenses have started to do more and more with relative degrees of success—there really does appear to be no way to truly stop Ja Morant, even as his jumper fails him.
For teams that are studying film on how to effectively slow Morant down, conventional wisdom is not going to be of much help. In a vacuum, it would be surprising to learn that Morant is improving as a finisher and converting two-point shots at a higher clip than he did as a rookie. Because typically when an athletic pick-and-roll ball-handler is a bad shooter, defenders usually scheme to go under the ball screen, which cuts off driving lanes and generally just makes it harder for the ball-handler to get to the rim. Obviously, bad shooters tend to not make defenders pay from distance in these situations.
Yet for whatever reason, defenders are not willing to give Morant extra space by going under the screen most of the time. Instead, they subvert expectations by usually fighting to get over.
In this clip, Dejounte Murray initially tries to fight over Kyle Anderson’s screen, but by the time he gets any separation Morant has already left him in the dust.
Another clip: Like Murray, Kira Lewis Jr. tries to get over...well, not really a Valanciunas screen, but really just Valanciunas standing there. Morant’s explosiveness and craftiness allows him to get an easy driving lane before Valanciunas can even set a proper ball screen.
So all of this raises a fascinating question: why do defenders mainly fight to get over ball screens against Ja Morant, who has been a historically bad shooter? The answer is simple: he’s special. Specifically, his special combination of crafty ball-handling and overwhelming explosiveness makes him absolutely lethal when given space. Sure, it may seem like a good idea to tempt him to shoot by giving him space, but that extra space is only allowing a superbly athletic ball-handler to pick up a full-head of steam as he attacks the basket. And we know what happens when he’s allowed a full head of steam to the basket. So with no easy solution available, opposing defenses are picking the lesser of two evils to slow him down.
And slowing Ja Morant down is really all that opposing defenses can hope to do. Even blitzing him and sending multiple defenders to get the ball out of his hands will not be able to work much longer. Adding the gravity of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shooting as well as continuing to acclimate Justise Winslow as an athletic playmaker will make such a defensive approach untenable; we’ll see how many times Morant gets trapped by Jaren’s defender in a pick-and-roll when Jaren starts flashing to the three-point line for open looks. A fully healthy roster will allow Morant to be himself in even greater ways than before.
But even on a short-handed roster that is having to rely too heavily on him, Ja Morant’s spectacular strengths are more than enough to mitigate his greatest weakness and even render it irrelevant. And in time, he will more than likely find a way to even turn that weakness into a strength.
He may just remind me to not poke the bear once he does.