NBA Draft Prospects: Ja Morant

Ja Morant caught the nation's attention with his dismantling of Marquette in the NCAA tournament, but the Murray State point guard has played like a top draft pick all season.

Coming into the NCAA Tournament casual basketball fans had no idea that Murray State was fostering one of the most exciting prospects in this year’s draft. That all changed when Ja Morant exploded for 17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds in an abusive deconstruction of Marquette. Morant then proceeded to score 28 points with 5 rebounds and 4 assists against a Florida State team with NBA level defenders. While these performances were captivating, they weren’t entirely surprising. Instead of these games acting as a coming out party, they were confirmation that Morant is able to utilize his full skill set against any level of competition.

Morant has played at a high level all season but seeing him play at a consistently high level against better opponents in the tournament was very reassuring and cemented him as the second-best prospect in this draft. On the season, Morant averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists, and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 49.9 percent from the floor. He was able to score in a variety of ways while also showing off his telekinetic-like passing ability. Morant still has some glaring concerns with his game but he has established his place as the second-best prospect in a tier of his own.

Passing

Determining a player’s true passing ability is more difficult than just looking at assist numbers. Players can easily hunt for stats, get lucky as their teammates make tough shots, or just make simplistic plays (not always a bad thing) that do little to elevate the offense. In Morant’s case, his assist numbers are a product of his elite passing ability.

Morant is always hungry to connect on passes most would deem inconceivable. While this led to a well-stocked highlight reel and a country-leading 10 assists per game, it also led to an abominable 5.2 turnovers per game. Some of these turnovers can be attributed to Morant’s 33.3 usage rate, but his nerve and imagination bear a similar burden. When Morant stays in control his passing suggests that he has already played the game. He seems to know exactly where everyone will be and what will happen. The issues emerge once he starts to force the issue and play outside of himself. He transforms from conducting a symphony to a bad street performer banging on an empty barrel. Instead of making the smart play, he tries to make the impossible play; his passes sail, and his ball handling falters. My hope (and expectation) is that this is something that can be tamed once he is surrounded by more talent. Morant is too special of a passer to continue that type of carelessness.

Now that the concerns with his ball security are out of the way, let's get to the fun part: Morant’s vision and accuracy are second to none in this draft class. He makes his teammates better by creating easy opportunities for them based purely on where he can put the ball. He dissects defenses and sees lanes that are invisible to the average eye. Whether it is a half court lob, passing out of a drive, or finding a cutter, Morant is eager to set up his teammates.

Below we see Morant’s ability to stay calm and deliver a perfect lob. Auburn rushes out to double Morant near center court. Instead of panicking or rushing the play, Morant stays calm and discards both defenders with a crisp crossover. He then looks to attack as his team has a numbers advantage. As Morant attacks, he recognizes that the remaining Auburn defenders are way out of position and he has numerous options to exploit. The closest wing defender hesitantly switches which leaves Morant’s teammate wide open in the corner, but Morant knows they can get a better shot. Auburn’s center is in no man’s land in the middle of the lane, leaving the rim wide open. Morant could have attacked him and then laid the ball off to his center under the rim but the defense may have recovered by then. Instead, Morant notices that number 4 on Auburn is ball watching and that his cutting teammate will be wide open for a lob. After processing all of this information, Morant delivers a perfectly placed lob from behind the arc on the run. The ability to process the defensive positioning and then deliver a perfect pass from distance while moving at full speed is incredibly impressive and a skill that is scarce among college players.

 

Being able to read and react at a high pace is vital to succeed in the NBA. The one-handed pass is often thought of as sloppy and inaccurate, but that is a fallacious argument. Being able to pass with one hand grants the ball handler the ability to quickly fire a pass before the defense can react or recover. When this is done properly, the player’s dribbling motion is barely interrupted, and the defense is beat before they realize where the ball went. Morant has shown off this skill all season as you can see in the below clip. Morant yet again calmly dribbles out of a sloppy double team. Knowing that he has an open teammate he immediately starts scanning the floor like the Predator looking for a heat signature. Morant quickly identifies his open teammate under the rim. Instead of waiting for him to get to the spot, Morant fires in a rocket of a one-handed pass around the defense that arrives right as his teammate does. By not waiting for his teammate to get to his spot, Morant eliminated any possibility of the defense being able to recover to disrupt the easy scoring chance. This display of vision, anticipation, and accuracy is another example on a long list of plays that make Morant so intriguing.

 

Even when Morant is looking to score, he still knows exactly where everyone is on the floor. This allows him to always have multiple options on the play. When looking to score, Morant is most dangerous when he attacks the rim. His athleticism and creativity around the rim force defenses to devote a lot of attention to him like they do below. Morant drives hard to the rim and as he approaches the lane, he is surrounded by every single Marquette defender. As he takes off, four opponents rise to try and block his shot. Instead of forcing a shot that would almost certainly get rejected, Morant hangs in the air and fires a cross-court pass to his wide-open teammate in the corner. It is impressive that Morant had the wherewithal to make the pass, but even more impressive is the accuracy of the pass. Morant’s teammate barely had to move for it and he received it at a level that allowed him to easily get into his shooting motion.

 

Morant’s high assist numbers come from his incredible vision and sniper-like accuracy. He enjoys setting up his teammates for success and he will find them if they are open, regardless of where they are. He has an inherent sense of touch on his passes and isn’t intimidated by narrow passing lanes. Morant will need to reign in the recklessness but as he continues to grow and be surrounded by more talent, I have little concern in his ability to be one of the league’s best passers.

Scoring Versatility

The scoring role and responsibility of the point guard continue to grow as teams run more isolations and pick-and-rolls. We continue to see point guards that struggle to score getting played off the floor as teams can ignore them defensively. Morant showed that he has a myriad of ways in which he can put the ball through the hoop. This season, per Synergy, Morant scored .974 points per possession (76th percentile).

Morant is at his best when he uses his athleticism to get to the rim. He uses his quick first step to blow by opponents and his elite leaping ability to finish strong at the rim. Since Morant is a strong rebounder, he has no issues starting the fast break himself. When Morant can get out and run in transition he scores 1.197 points per possession, per Synergy. The below clip shows how devastating he can be. The second Morant crosses half-court he only has eyes to score. He uses his speed to split the initial two defenders, creating a runway for him to take off and shame the center’s feeble block attempt. We rarely see this type of pure athleticism and ferociousness at the rim from point guards but Morant provides it on a routine basis.

 

Negating opponents' transition offense is an easier feat than locking down a good isolation scorer. By improving his ball handling and patience from last year, Morant has improved tremendously as an isolation scorer. Last season Morant scored a measly .615 points per possession in isolation situations, but this year that number has jumped to .913 points per possession. There is clearly still room for improvement in this area but that is mostly due to his struggles shooting off the dribble. The big improvement this year has been his patience and creativity in getting to the rim. Below we see how Morant picks his way to the rim instead of relying on just his athleticism. Morant starts by getting the defender to think he is going to drive right by taking a few dribbles that direction. Once the defender makes a slight misstep, Morant crosses back towards the paint where he avoids the help defense, utilizes the screen, and finishes with his left hand.

 

In the NBA, Morant will likely have the ball in his hands a lot, but pairing him with another ball dominant guard isn’t a horrible idea. Most point guards struggle when they don’t have the ball but that isn’t the case with Morant. In cutting situations, Morant scored 1.406 points per possession (87th percentile) according to Synergy. In the below clip we see how Morant times his cut perfectly. After he gives up the ball, he just lingers and lulls his defender to sleep. Once the pass is made to the rotating center, Morant explodes towards the rim, leaving his defender in the dust for an emphatic dunk.

 

This off-ball movement is essential for Morant because he struggles to shoot off the dribble. He has shown the ability to knock down open catch-and-shoot opportunities (1.385 points per possession) but shooting off the dribble remains a hurdle. Morant’s form in general needs a lot of work. When starting his release, he brings the ball to his chin. This results in a push shot from a low release point. This form alone makes it incredibly difficult to shoot off the dribble as defenders can easily block this kind of shot. Morant also has issues keeping his shooting elbow tucked in. It frequently flares out which creates an inconsistent flight path of the ball. Morant will still make an offensive impact without a great jump shot, but if he can revamp his form (easier said than done) his game will grow immensely.

Defense

The biggest concern in Morant’s game is his defense. He is a competent defender in one-on-one situations but there are a lot of issues overall. The biggest issue is his lack of awareness and interest off-ball. He will commonly get caught sleeping on back door cuts and loses his man when they relocate on the perimeter.

It isn’t uncommon for Morant to make a highlight block or jump a passing lane, but those plays are him relying on his athleticism, not playing solid defense. While his physical attributes can bail him out, they also are a big defensive liability. His slender frame limits his ability to switch onto almost any other position. His lack of muscle and effort also lead to him easily getting screened and being unable to fight through. Some of these issues may be due to his high offensive responsibility, but there is serious concern that he is just disinterested with defense in general.

Going Forward

Ja Morant has established himself has a top three pick at worst. Overall his game will translate nicely to the NBA and he fits a common mold of offensive-minded point guards. His passing ability will be elite from the start and it won’t be long until he is considered one of the best passers in the league. He sees the floor better than any other prospect and has the gall to attempt any pass. Once he reigns in his reckless passes, he will be a devastating playmaker.

The concerns will arise with his poor defense and inefficient scoring. I don’t expect him to ever be a great defender but that’s not why teams will target him. Scoring early in his career will likely be frustrating though. His shot form needs to be revamped if he wants to ever be a threat as a shooter. The NBA is full of great athletes and great defenders so his ability to score at the rim will be impeded at first. With that said, I fully expect Morant to be a really, really good player. Don’t lose faith early on; he will figure out ways to score. His talent, work ethic, and basketball IQ are too high for him to not be a good pro. Whoever has the number two pick should be thrilled to draft Ja Morant.

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