On Sunday night the Memphis Grizzlies fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in a 121-118 thriller where Ja Morant missed the game tying free throw with 2.5 seconds left in the game. Despite this blunder, Morant became the first player in Grizzlies franchise history to put up 40 points and 10 assists in a single game. Regardless of the outcome, Morant was the best player on the floor while facing LeBron James and Anthony Davis in what could go down as his breakout performance.
Morant has had a fantastic start to his third season in the league, only building upon his great postseason debut back in May. Throughout last season’s play-in tournament and first-round Ja averaged 29.4 points and 7.6 assists on 56.3% true shooting. So far he’s upped those numbers to 35 points and 8 assists on 67.1% true shooting through the first three games of the season.
It’s clear to see that Morant’s taken a sizeable leap as an overall player but more specifically as an offensive threat. The most impressive part of Morant’s offensive game has always been his playmaking ability ever since he was drafted back in 2019, but over time he’s developed a stronger feel for the game at the top level. At just 22 years old he’s already one of the top-tier playmakers in the league due to his great vision, pinpoint accurate passes, and most importantly his ability to draw attention at the rim and create easy opportunities for his teammates on the perimeter.
Ja’s playmaking has never been questioned but his ability to score the ball has been criticized in the past. The part of his scoring that has always been a positive however is his finishing around the rim. His unreal athleticism lead to constant highlight-reel dunks and layups as soon as he entered the league. He was one of the better guards in terms of finishing around the rim as a rookie but he’s now climbed into the upper echelon of rim finishers among guards as he is shooting a ridiculous 77.8% at the rim. This number is not sustainable for a player of his size but you can still expect a significant jump from last year’s 63.2%.
The criticism of Morant’s scoring ability I mentioned earlier was heavily based on his jump shot. Last season Ja saw a drop off in field goal percentage from everywhere on the court aside from the rim and it didn’t help his case that he was already a notoriously poor shooter. These struggles were the main victim of his sophomore struggles which so many players suffer through. In the small sample size that we have so far, Ja has focused on getting as many shots in the paint and at the three-point line and cutting out the midrange shots. What’s been great is that he’s shown an improved feel of maneuvering in the paint as well as a smoother three-point shot as he’s currently shooting 8/18 from deep for the season. Whether that jumper is here to stay or not is still up in the air but his overall scoring game has improved.
Defensively Ja has always been a negative and so far this season it doesn’t look as though much has changed. Although he can use his explosiveness to connect on some thrilling blocks coming from the weak side or on a chase down, his small frame is very limiting to how much value he can provide on that end. He shows effort on the ball but tends to be a step late and can get beat off the dribble almost at ease at times. Off the ball, he’s almost always guarding the weakest perimeter player who doesn’t pose a clear size advantage and he does keep up with his man most times. Morant likes to take some risks off the ball as he tries to jump the ball or poke the ball free from the weak side. These risks don’t always pay off but he does seem to be getting better at understanding when to take these risks.
Morant possesses a very rare blend of explosive athleticism, fantastic playmaking, and a very natural feel for the game. He’s used those gifts as the foundation of his game and is slowly adding to them with complementary skills. It is still very early in Ja’s career but it is very clear to anyone that watches him play that he is destined for superstardom. He is one of the best young talents in the league and has shown a commitment to improving. He has constantly stepped up on the biggest stages and elevated his game and it looks as though that elevated game may be here to stay throughout the regular season.