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Ja Morant’s pick-and-roll upside

Ja Morant runs the pick-and-roll at one of the highest frequencies in basketball. He has a strong foundation in that area, and there’s even more room for growth

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Ja Morant has been given the keys of the offense since the beginning. He’s been allowed to make plays for himself and for others, without having to worry about mistakes yanking him out the game. In the process, he’s become one of the most dynamic playmakers we’ve seen in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform. He has a knack for getting into the teeth of a defense, regardless of who’s in front of him. He also makes some passes where you question how he even saw that look, as he’ll whip out his Ja-ggles right after the assist.

One area in which we’ve seen Morant gain a lot of trust, and get a lot of reps in, is in the pick-and-roll. This season, he’s in the top 5 in the NBA in pick-and-roll possessions per game (11.0), and he’s also 6th in PNR frequency — the only player ahead of him with a substantial sample size is Trae Young. It’s easy to say that a primary design of the Grizzlies’ offense is to let Morant make plays out of the pick-and-roll, and it’s also an area the coaching staff wants to see more growth in.

“We love playing out of the pick-and-roll,” Coach Jenkins said. “Obviously using pick-and-rolls has been something that we’ve put in his hands day one to create a lot of offense for us. Whether that’s him getting downhill and scoring or shooting a three, or coming off and finding his teammates and collapsing the defense, whether it’s him or the roller. So, it’s just stuff that we want him to continue to explore and continue to see.”

It’s paid off for the Grizzlies, as the second-year guard has quickly emerged as one of the 10-12 best playmakers in basketball — a hard feat for most young point guards. He’s getting more comfortable each and every game with the ball in his hands, picking up different veteran nuances over time.

More importantly, the team is winning.

Is there improvement for him in this area? Of course. He ranks in the 44th percentile in points per PNR possession (0.85). There are a number of causes for this. A lot of the high-percentile players are volume 3-point shooters who take a lot of pull-up 3’s out of the pick-and-roll — Steph Curry, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Damian Lillardand that’s not Ja’s game. It also doesn’t take assists into account, and Morant has some of the best assist numbers off drives (5th, 2.4 per game). He plays with some cluttered spacing at times as well, negating his efficiency. Aside from any of the elite-shooting 2-guards, he’s usually on the floor with a paint-oriented big (Jonas Valanciunas), a 30-percent 3-point shooter (Dillon Brooks), and an improved shooter working to build more of a reputation there (Kyle Anderson).

This isn’t the final form of the Ja Morant or the Memphis Grizzlies, but the framework is there for him to become one of the most potent pick-and-roll weapons in basketball.

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There are clear ways that Ja Morant has grown as a lead guard, as he could easily be mistaken for a 10-year veteran with how he orchestrates the pick-and-roll.

“I think the biggest growth is just the ability to read the defenses a lot quicker,” Coach Jenkins said of Morant’s pick-and-roll improvements. “I see him playing with a lot more confidence, a lot more poise and patience when he’s coming off screens. But also know the ability and when to attack downhill and come off really fast, but also when to slow it down and manipulate coverages that he’s seen. But when teams are back on him or up, or when they’re switching against him, I think he’s shown a really good ability to adapt a lot quicker in the game and make the right reads.”

There are two key words here: poise and manipulate.

Let’s start with manipulation. There's this little sequence some of the league’s great point guards do where they navigate the pick-and-roll. As they’re doing that, they have their primary defender sitting on their back. It’s a perfect form of manipulation, as they have the defenses right where they want them — out of their way. Ja Morant has adopted that tactic more and more this season.

It’s a small tactic, but with the defender out of his way, he has a clear view of his different options. If the big man commits to dropping, he can get off a floater or mid-range jumper off. If the defender steps out for a higher switch, he can slip a pass to the roller for an easier finish, or find another window to get all the way in the paint. Regardless, this misdirection tactic has helped create offense for the Grizzlies.

He’s also deceived the defense out of the pick-and-roll through ball fakes that result in either a bucket or an assist.

Morant’s poise and patience is also beyond his years as a pick-and-roll creator as both a passer and scorer. He has a knack for making quick decisions with the ball in his hands that result in opportunities for himself and his teammates. He’s also used that same steadiness and patience to lure defenses into where he wants them to draw fouls. Of players with more than 200 pick-and-roll possessions, he’s 6th in free throw frequency (14.2%). In addition, he’s also 17th in free throw attempts per game (6.0), and he’s on track to join Pau Gasol as the only Grizzlies to average 6+ FTAs in a single season — per Stathead.

While Morant isn’t a Dame-level pick-and-roll weapon, he has a strong foundation to become one of the league’s elite at that play.

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There are more ways to go in enhancing Morant’s pick-and-roll game. He shoots 41.2% from the field out of pick-and-rolls, 11th-lowest among players with at least 150 PNR possessions. It’s not the end-all-be-all, as players like Jimmy Butler and Fred VanVleet have a lower percentage, and Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell are decimal points higher. However, there is always room for improvement, and getting Ja closer to the 44-47% ballpark would be a boost for the offense.

There are a few simple things that could elevate his game in PNR spots. An improvement in his 3-point range, specifically as a pull-up shooter, will take his game to a whole other stratosphere. With this percentages last season and from Murray State (33.5 and 34.3), the foundation is there — he just needs to rediscover his touch. In addition, I’d be interested to see with a mid-range game will do. He likes the “short-mid” spot — floater zone — a lot, as he ranks in the 95th percentile in shot frequency (36%) in that region. If he started to diversify his shot portfolio to include some foul line jumpers, he could use that to attack drop coverage.

A big part, as alluded to above, will be more spacing. They will be set at the 2-guard spot for the time being with Grayson Allen, De’Anthony Melton, or Desmond Bane. In addition, getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back will do wonders for spacing as well. There should also be one strong roller next to him, whether it’s Brandon Clarke or Jonas Valanciunas, for vertical spacing purposes. For that last spot, you’d like to see improvement from Dillon Brooks, Justise Winslow, and (recently) Kyle Anderson as spot-up shooters.

Ja Morant is not a finished product. He’ll round out his offensive game to up his efficiency and continue to enhance skills in his bags. An even bigger key is lineup construction to make sure he has the proper spacing and resources to carve defenses off pick-and-roll’s and drives.

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Ja Morant will continue to be one of the premier pick-and-roll talents in the league, as he continues to add to his bag. The sky is the limit though when you take the potential frontcourt of the future into account.

Brandon Clarke is a bouncy big that can be an explosive roller. His pick-and-roll efficiency has dropped a bit from last year — 1.51 to 1.15 points per possession — but his deft floater and his pogo-stick hops make him a lethal threat on the roll inside. His ability to read coverages off rolls and time lobs are valuable for a pick-and-roll centric point guard like Morant. As time goes on, and Clarke gets more minutes, you’ll see that they’re a match-made in pick-and-roll heaven.

If Brandon Clarke is the dynamite roller, then Jaren Jackson Jr. is the flame-thrower. Getting Jackson back this month will alleviate a lot for the Grizzlies’ offense — as most players that shoot 40% from 3 on high volume typically do. It should add more spacing for Morant, and while Jackson can roll as well, the pick-and-pop would unlock another gear or 2 for this Grizzlies offense.

More Clarke-Jackson minutes together give Morant a plethora of options out of the pick-and-roll, whether it’s Jackson for the pop, Clarke for the roll, a finish for Ja, or a kick to an extra shooter or cutter. Through that, they could even explore sets that utilize all 3 players’ strengths.

For example:

Replace Grayson Allen with Jaren Jackson Jr. here, and the defense would have to pay mind to a Morant drive, a Clarke lob, or a kick-out to Jaren (or a shooter like Desmond Bane in the corner) for an open 3.

One thing I looked at prior to this piece is how Portland uses Damian Lillard in high pick-and-roll sets, and how the Grizzlies could explore those to maximize Ja Morant’s game. It works for Portland, because Lillard has unfathomable shooting range. Morant doesn’t have that, but those situations could be utilized to give him more room to get downhill for more of a launching pad to the rim. However, it’s also possible, because they have a 7-footer with insane shooting range and pull-up mobility, as well as a bouncy big that can play above the rim.

Whichever way they go about it, a Ja Morant pick-and-roll becomes more deadly when Brandon Clarke or Jaren Jackson Jr. are utilized. As the game slows down for them, it could be the driving force of a great playoff offense.

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Ja Morant has all the tools to be one of the league’s premier players for a long time. A lot of it starts with the pick-and-roll.

It opens up avenues for him to attack — whether it’s at the rim, in the floater zone, or from 3. It also gives him chances to find the right mismatches to get a window to attack in these ways. More importantly though, it gets Ja Morant in position to do what he wants to do the most: maximize his teammates.

Defenses will collapse on Morant’s drives, opening up easier catch-and-shoot opportunities for the team’s perimeter shooters. In addition, his prowess in the pick-and-roll also enhances the strengths of the Grizzlies’ 3 main big men — Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke.

Ja Morant already has a great foundation, and as experience adds up, and the tools in his bag sharpen, we’ll see his pick-and-roll game become one of the best in the league.

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