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A big year ahead for Ja Morant, Big Memphis

Breaking down 12 by 3 in year 4

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Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

In the words of Memphis’ own Glorilla “Let’s GOOOOOO!” As we begin another season of hoops, Ja Morant is coming off of a highly successful third season, one that witnessed “12” reach his first all-star appearance, as he was also voted a starter. It was also the first season Memphis won a playoff series with Ja Morant at the helm, as they defeated The Minnesota Timberwolves in an extremely dramatic, but just as entertaining, six-game series. It was also the first season ever that a guard led the league in points in the paint, where Ja damn near averaged 20 points per game there alone — 16 points per game there.

We all were heart broken when Ja grabbed that knee for the final time and was forced out for good with injuries in game four of the Golden State series. Memphis was able to will a blow-out victory the following game. However with Morant unable to return, the battle for Memphis proved to be a hill too high to climb and thus, the rest was history. Memphis would lose to the eventual world champs in the Golden State Warriors.

Ja Morant is expected to return with vengeance, and he has exceeded expectations every time out thus far. Starting this season without co-star Jaren Jackson Jr. will be one of his biggest tests yet. Now he will be tasked with being even more productive on the defensive end. The Grizzlies won’t have one of the league’s top 5 defenders there to clean up defensive lapses at season’s start. Without further due, Let’s dig in for a quick three-part breakdown of expectations for Ja Morant.

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Five Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

HEALTH

The greatest ability is availability. Ironically, Ja Morant’s biggest opposition thus far has been his availability due to injuries. In his third season, things were no different as Ja was forced to sit out chunks of the season at a time due to injuries. He played only 57 of 82 possible games in 2021-22 as a result, and that’s in addition to going down for good in game four of Memphis post season exit round in May.

In the regular season, the Memphis Grizzlies we’re 21-5 without Ja Morant playing. The Grizzlies were also able to accomplish the greatest margin of victory in NBA history, as they beat OKC by 73 points in one game. The defense was top-10 in that time span. However, that was largely in part to the phenomenal defensive play of Jaren Jackson Jr. “Trip” won’t be there, if Ja is forced to miss time early on (God forbid) before Jaren gets back.

Now this is speculation but certainly without observation. Memphis investing $14.5M per year in a super sub back up point guard like Tyus Jones is an admission Memphis brass doesn’t expect Ja to be an “82-game per season” player, or maybe even a “70-games per season” guy. Tyus is the ultimate form of insurance in those instances, and after he last season, he likely doesn’t come back without indications of the same work load being all but likely.

If Ja wants to remain able to be available, then he has to avoid so many physical possessions. This is especially so when he’s attacking the paint in the thunderous fashion he has been known for thus far.

One way of doing so, is Ja Morant grinding out that NBA2K23 “Middy Magician” badge. A more improved mid range game allows Ja to stop and pop before reaching the rim when defenses collapse or scheme on him inside. This will force defenses to step out more to defend him in the mid range, and thus open up the paint more, allowing for baseline cutters like newly extended John Konchar to help force defenses into picking their own poison.

Chris Paul is the ultimate example of how to extend one’s career and stretch the defense simultaneously by simply mastering the mid-range game. His ability to pull up consistently mid range has saved him from so many physically abusive possessions inside. Possessions that likely would’ve ended his career earlier if he was forced to endure by fully attacking inside.

Another element of increasing his availability comes from his strength and conditioning. The more additional muscle and weight he’s able to successfully sustain with, gives him more leverage to attack and play inside. This helps prevent the physical contact he’ll endure inside from being so costly on his body in the long run. He seems to be gradually adding the muscle needed, so I’m confident he’ll max his frame out in due time.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

FLOOR GENERAL

“Floor General” is a term we often associate with the offensive end of the court. However, this term applies to one who is a leader and coach on the floor regardless of the position or who has possession. Ja will have to be an example of such this season, as the team is younger and short-handed. Ja will need to lead by example defensively. He will also have to be the vocal leader defensively, a guy who lets his teammates know where they should be and exactly how they will scheme every possession.

Last season Ja Morant increased his scoring by over eight points per game, while only seeing his assists per game dip by 0.7 assists per game. We also witnessed an outbreak season from Desmond Bane and an offensive production surge from “Trip” as well. This season will be even more tasking, as they’re will be several more young players relied on, especially early on with Jaren out. Young guys like Jake LaRavia have shown they may likely be heavily reliant on the playmaking of Memphis point guards to create the opportunities they need to score efficiently.

Going back to Chris Paul as a great example, this time of how to get guys going. The “OG Point God” often uses the first three quarters to get his teammates going. This also forces the defenses to be honest defending other players and thus set up CP3 to takeover the final period and lead to strategic wins.

To a lesser degree, Dillon Brooks and Desmond Bane will need the facilitators to assure those two get going consistently. They’re gonna need Ja to look for them more to help with the scoring load. This will also prevent Ja from having to do so much himself as a scorer which should help keep him on the court more.

Also when teams scheme hard on Ja as a scorer, other guys need to be in rhythm and ready to deliver as needed to get victories. Guys like Bane finally cracking the 20ppg mark for the season, and Dillon Brooks maintaining his production from last season but doing so far more efficiently with easier baskets, will help here. Santi Aldama is another young guy who will need to be especially productive offensively to offset his defensive shortcomings in comparison to a defensive wizard like Jaren.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

THREE and D

We’ve already alluded to the importance of Ja Morant improving defensively to give Memphis a legit chance to contend, especially with “Trip” out early on. Simply put, Memphis won’t be able to afford defensive lapses on the perimeter without their xefensive anchor. With the margin of error being much slimmer, Ja will be forced to have another MVP-caliber campaign, but this one being better if he’s healthy and much more improved on defense.

Another aspect of this is his three-point shooting on or off ball. If Ja unlocks his burner consistently, he will be flat-out unstoppable. The three-ball will also supplement any lack of scoring elsewhere, while also maximizing possessions and stretching the defense. Also lastly, it will help prevent Ja from attacking the basket as often and thus limiting the physical pounding that eventually forced him out for stretches of games at a time. Ja being a deep ball threat also opens up more scoring for guys like Clarke and Adams, who aren’t known to score much outside of the restricted area.

“Big 12” Ja Morant made major strides in his game last season, and his availability will be the greatest factor in a big year for Big Memphis.

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