Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant may be even better

Ja Morant authoritatively announced his presence in this postseason.

Ja Morant authoritatively announced his presence in this postseason.
Image: fake images

There are one or two players who make the leap to legitimate superstar status in each playoff. This year it was Jason Tatum and Ja Morant. For those who have been watching, Luka Dončić finally got a chance to show what he could do in the second round, which is more or less the same dominance he has exerted over his opponents since his rookie year. But so far, Ja Morant has been a super-athletic downhill guard who is impossible to guard in transition. The compositions were thought to be Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Stephon Marbury.

This year’s playoff race changed all that.

During the first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, rumors returned that the Grizzlies are better off without Ja. That rumor is being spread by reactionaries on Reddit who know little about the NBA before 2010. It’s hard to argue with people like that. Ja has proven to be an exceptional talent since being drafted second in 2019. To think that his teammates, a collection of above-average role players and solid starters like Desmond Bane and Jareen Jackson Jr. Ja, were obsessed with low shooting averages against Patrick Beverley and the two wolves. But still he finished the series with 22 PPG, 9 RPG and 11 APG.

After the Grizzlies beat the TWolves in six games, most pundits brought the up-and-coming Grizz back to reality against the Warriors. But the Grizzlies showed another side of their core: elite defense. The Grizzlies forced the Warriors to shoot viciously from the perimeter as Ja went supernova.

He averaged an astronomical 38 PPG, 7 RPG and 8 APG in the three games he played. Doing this against any team in the playoffs is one thing. But doing it against the three-time champion Warriors put Ja on another level and permanently silenced millennials who think the Grizzlies are better off in Ja’s absence. If anything strangled that rumor, it should have been the Grizzlies’ inability to beat the Warriors after Ja suffered a knee injury in Game 3.

Ja is expected to rest and rehab throughout the summer before returning next summer. Cleverly, the Grizzlies have proclaimed that the young guard will be part of their long-term plans and will continue to develop his skill set. The only question remains, how good can it be? It’s easier to judge Dončić’s ceiling as he plays mostly average or below average role players. Yet Dallas’ entire offense is orchestrated around the Slovenian’s strengths. He dominates in the void as the focal point for trainer Jason Kidd’s schemes.

morant it’s graced with a much better supporting cast. He doesn’t have the No. 2 All-Star kid like Tatum in Jaylen Brown, but the Grizzlies are at least 10 deep. This is one of the reasons they are able to maintain continuity and adapt when Ja is out due to injury. His offense isn’t as strictly based on Ja’s shooting or scoring. He benefits from the double teams he draws, but many Grizzly players can score off the dribble and create their own shot.

Ja can be a giant on offense. His scoring production in the Warriors series confirms that, as does the 27 PPG he scored this season, which earned him the Most Improved Player award. How much better can he be? As long as Memphis surrounds him with complementary talent, he’ll continue to have an easier time than guys who carry heavier loads offensively. At 6-foot-3, Ja is the perfect height for the modern point guard, and his elite athleticism and lightning-quick first step have elevated his dominance in pure physicality alone.

His PER was at an elite level of 24.4 this season, a seven-point jump from his sophomore season. Unlike the aforementioned Francis, Marbury, and BDiddy, Ja can shoot the ball with the best of them. Their 49%/34%/76% splits don’t tell the whole story. All three were personal highs, as was his .53% 2p% and his .53% eFG% this season.

His 3s and free throw line have room for improvement. However, he has shown the ability to improve his perimeter hitting gradually from his first year to his third. Once he becomes a threat from deep, defenders will need to defend him closer to the line, allowing him to use his quickness and verticality to get past defenders and score points at the basket.

Of the last 10 Most Improved Player award winners, only Giannis Antetokounmpo has won an MVP or a championship. It’s not hard to believe that Ja could be next in line for that jump. Typically, MIP winners go on to be All-Stars once or twice while having successful entry-level careers. Ja is built differently, physically and mentally. He has the drive and intelligence to take his game to the next level. He has two areas where he clearly needs to improve. If he focuses on his perimeter shooting and the charity stretch, he could unlock the next part of his game and join Dončić, Giannis, Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the best players in the NBA.

The massive leaps he’s made this season have pushed his makeup higher, into the territory of Dame Lillard and Derrick Rose, multiple-time All-Stars, All-NBAers and MVP candidate/winners. Rose seems to be the best comparison as they were both human highlight reels at the break and possess that DAWG mentality needed to dominate against the best competition.

Rose’s stats and number of shots are quite similar to Ja’s in her third season. In fact, Ja is averaging 27 PPG to Rose’s 25 PPG in his third season. That was the season in which Rose won the MVP award and established himself as the best point guard in the NBA. Ja is playing in the Golden Age of point guards, and he’ll have to put in a Herculean effort to top Rose’s MVP numbers to get noticed for that award.

Also like Rose, Ja has a slim frame, which helped with his knee injury during the Warriors series. Health will play as important a role as shooting improvement in Ja achieving MVP candidacy. Elevating Bane and Jackson’s game next season will also contribute to that rise. But you can’t argue that Ja already has a big head start.

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