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The defensive development of Ja Morant

Ja Morant’s growing on both sides of the floor in ways that pop off and fly under the radar

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Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant has grown a lot this season on his way to his first All-Star appearance. He’s become more potent getting downhill, sifting his way through the defense and leaving them with virtually no answers to stop him. He’s developed a mid-range jumper to punish defenders that decide to drop too much on him, and he’s also expanded his range from last season as well. He’s become a dynamic offensive weapon that’s been a primary reason for the Memphis Grizzlies rise in offensive efficiency.

Through the explosion and pizzazz of his offensive outburst, Morant’s defensive improvements are flying under the radar.

Coming into this season, if anyone wanted to poke holes at his game, it’d likely come on the defensive end. He never really made any plays defensively, and he was often targeted in switching spots. While there’s still room for growth, he’s surely taking a step in the right direction and finding a way to play a role for one of the league’s top defenses.

“You see that, but even defensively where he can make marginal gains that are going to impact our team’s success on the defensive end,” head coach Taylor Jenkins said. “The fact that he’s taken that on, that ownership there, that’s led to team success.”

Where Morant’s most notable defensive leap has occurred is through his defensive playmaking. Everyone has seen his blocks that show off his pogo-stick leaping abilities. You know exactly which ones I’m talking about.

Right?

RIGHT?

Yes, those stand out in his jump as a defender, but he’s also been a factor in generating deflections and steals. This season, he’s 8th in defensive loose balls recovered (31), and he gets 2.0 deflections per game. That activity in the passing lanes has also led to a higher steal rate, as he’s generating 1.2 steals per game — first season with a steal average higher than 1. He’s also climbed from the 20th percentile (1.2%) to the 49th percentile in steal percentage (1.5%) since last season, per Cleaning the Glass.

His defensive activity is big for the team’s opportunistic defense, and that’s something that’s he’s embodied as well.

“Just locked in,” Ja Morant said of his attention to defensive improvement. “I feel like I have just been way more active on that end of the floor.”

Whether it’s deflecting the pass away to force a turnover, or it’s an interception to ignite the break himself, Morant’s activity on that end has been more evident through his ability to read and jump into passing lanes.

One of my favorite things is when he transforms into a NFL defensive back to track down an outlet pass from his opponents to come away with a pick.

Morant has also improved as an on-ball defender when it comes to altering shots. Last season, opponents shot 2.9% better from the field with Morant as the primary defender, and that was primarily because of his 2-point defense (5.5% better). This season, he’s improved in this regard, especially as a 2-point defender. This season, opponents are shooting 2.3 worse, and 5.7% worse on 2’s, with him as the primary defender. Those are nearly 5% and 10% swings. That’s more than solid.

Where is that leap coming? Surely, he’s benefitting from a better backline of defense with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams. He’s also improving as a pick-and-roll defender, as he’s not dying on as many screens, and he’s figured out ways to recover to not be out of the picture defensively.

This area of improvement is going to be pivotal going forward. It’s going to dictate how often he’s targeted in switch situations in halfcourt offense in the postseason. It also decides where he’s going to draw assignments. He may not draw the primary responsibility; that's for Dillon Brooks — and maybe Ziaire Williams down the road. However, in a situation that they’re facing a team with a potent backcourt like Phoenix, can he take on someone like Chris Paul, or would he have to switch a low-usage player like Mikal Bridges?

His trajectory as a stopper, at least in terms of defensive field goal percentages like these, will revolve around these trending more in line with this season’s numbers rather than last year’s.

One of the biggest areas Taylor Jenkins harped on was his defensive rebounding.

“I think his rebounding numbers, seeing him get in there and finish possessions, but also lead our break is a great thing for him to latch onto,” he said.

This year, Morant is hauling in 13.5% of available defensive rebounds off missed field goals, per Cleaning the Glass, which falls in the 84th percentile among guards. He’s also averaging 4.5 defensive rebounds per game, up from 3.1 last season. He’s taken a larger responsibility grabbing rebounds, likely a beneficiary of the Steven Adams effect — Adams boxes out to clear rebounding lanes for guards to grab and go.

While these leaps have been pretty impressive, a number that people are going to point to — and one that is quite glaring — is his defensive on/off numbers. This year, the Grizzlies are giving up 6.6 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, an increase from 4.5 last season. That number is likely a product of the Grizzlies’ defensive woes in the first 20 games of the season, and of their standout defensive performance in those 12 outings without him as well.

Since Christmas, the discrepancy isn’t as wide. Per Addmorefunds.com, the Grizzlies are giving up 108.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, while surrendering 107.6 without him on the court — which is only a 0.6 difference. Both marks fall within top-10 defensive paces.

It’s like playing in a system around good defenders creates contagious defensive urgency. Morant mentioned in a recent postgame that having great defenders around him pushes him to be better as well.

While having a negative differential is less than ideal, trending towards neutral in this level is good, which falls in line with his career-best DBPM of -0.2. As he’s still growing in his improvement areas — individual defense and pick-and-roll coverages being the main ones — the fact the coaching staff can build a good defense around Morant, and with him playing a key role in that, is important for their championship aspirations in the future.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

These leaps are also important for Morant and this team, because it amplifies their strengths. The Grizzlies thrive in transition, ranking 5th in efficiency (114.5 points per 100 plays) and in frequency (19.0%), per Cleaning the Glass. Morant is the key to these efforts. Once he’s either leading the break or flying down transition lanes, must-see TV is on the way. You know how they saying goes, good defense leads to good offense. It’s how this Grizzlies team thrives, and it’s a big momentum swinger as well.

Now when he’s in the efforts of creating defense havoc with his activity and quick hands, it makes the Grizzlies more potent on that side of the floor.

While the growth flies under the radar, and though he’s not approaching All-Defense levels by any definition, his growth as a player and his hunger to get better should only signal that there’s more room for improvement from here. That challenge will be there for him in communication with his coaching staff as well.

“There’s going to be things I’m always going to hit him with and say, ‘Hey, let’s get upticks in these areas.’” Taylor Jenkins said of Morant. “It’s something that’s very valuable for him, for us, moving forward, and it’s going to allow me to challenge him even more coming out of the break.”

Ja Morant’s growth as a player has been so damn fun this season. He’s evolved into an offensive superstar that Memphis has never seen before on a professional level. He’s going to continue to dazzle offensively as one of the league’s elite on that end of the floor. His growth as a defender may continue to fly under the radar, but it could also be pivotal in the Grizzlies ultimate team goals of competing for titles.

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