While the first day of play-in games did not provide crunch-time entertainment, Wednesday’s Western Conference slate repented for the Eastern Conference’s transgressions. As the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs gritted through a delightful defensive battle, I constantly found myself studying Ja Morant and his scoring approach.
By the game’s end, I considered it to be a fairly accurate synopsis of where he currently excels as a scorer and where he must improve to take the genuine star leap. He missed a couple more floaters than is typical of him, but generally speaking, his performance was a clear outline of his abilities and the steps ahead.
So, that is today’s agenda: breaking down what I saw, why it matters, and how I interpret it with regard to Morant’s future development.
The best component of Morant’s scoring arsenal at this stage is anywhere from around 10 feet and in. His explosiveness and poised cadence in ball-screens affords him consistent paint touches, he’s one of the most spry and flexible players in the league, and he’s bouncy with a head of steam. His craft and footwork to organize rim finishes or floaters belies his second-year status.
According to Cleaning The Glass, he shot 58 percent at the rim (51st percentile among point guards) as a rookie. This season, that ticked up to 61 percent (57th percentile). For a slender 20- and 21-year-old who self-creates most more than half of his looks at the bucket, those marks are quite good.
Against the Spurs, he shot 4-of-6 inside the restricted area. On a pair of finishes, he showcased his midair contortion, which allows him to audible based on how rim protectors react to his presence, as well as his feinting of body angles and footwork to bait defenders into assuming he’ll drive one way before zipping another direction.
Here’s an early example where his contortion and improvisational tendencies as a finisher are evident:
Midway through the first quarter, he bolts around a screen from Jonas Valanciunas. Although Patty Mills aptly fights over the top, Morant uses his off-hand to keep Mills at bay and establish a small but valuable advantage (a sneaky smart trick many guys employ, albeit not often at his age). DeMar DeRozan aggressively stunts at the nail, so Morant kills his dribble and prepares for a clash with Drew Eubanks.
Except, Eubanks never jumps to meet Morant at the tin. Morant expected it, which is partly why he lifts off from so far out. For most guards, that sly move from Eubanks would best them. You can even kind of see the gears turning internally for Morant. He’s been had, but it doesn’t matter, because he promptly reroutes himself, flips the ball into his left hand and scores, making this a prime example of his practical and distinguished midair contortion.
This next one, late in the fourth quarter of a close game, is special.
Been fixated on this Ja Morant play from yesterday. The ability to position his body perpendicular to the rim to fake a pass and then jump to the basket like that is ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/D4k3cGgOgC
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 20, 2021
Oooooh, baby. This is splendid and conveys Morant’s wizardry in screening actions. Dejounte Murray does pretty well to wiggle over the pick. But Morant senses he’s still a step behind and hoodwinks the Spurs guard with wicked right-left crossover. Both defenders, Murray and DeRozan, anticipate that moment of hesitation may signal a pass to Dillon Brooks and open a lane to the paint.
However, Jakob Poeltl, a borderline elite rim protector, awaits Morant inside, and this is when the magic really unfolds. To disrupt Poeltl’s timing and rhythm, Morant angles himself perpendicular to the diving Valanciunas, suggesting a pass might be imminent. Look at him halfway through the drive. He is locked onto the big fella and has picked up his dribble with Poeltl directly in front of him. A shot seems almost improbable. And then, a second later, he’s glided past Poeltl and has a finish, albeit a tough one, available to him. His body is perpendicular to the basket and he’s staring down a passing outlet. Then, while still somewhat perpendicular, he turns his head, generates enough torque to slip beyond Poeltl and convert the basket in one fluid motion. It’s a bonkers exhibition of athleticism.
Intelligence — the setup and crossover two-piece, the body fake — and atypical athleticism coalesce for an absurd sequence. These sorts of plays are what make Morant so tantalizing, both in the interim and for the future. Appreciate this stuff from him.
When he cannot get all the way to the cup, he leans on a burgeoning floater. After taking just 32 floaters (eight percent of his shots in the half-court, per Synergy) and making 10 of them as a sophomore at Murray State, he entered the NBA equipped to torch deep drop pick-and-roll defense or stop short to rapidly rise for open runners.
Last year, floaters composed 26.1 percent of his half-court shot profile and his 50 percent clip ranked in the 81st percentile. This year, they composed 26.4 percent of his profile and he ranked in the 55th percentile (43.6 percent shooting). Only Trae Young has taken more floaters each season. It’s gone from a scarcely used, inefficient tool to a viable and preferred weapon for him.
Similar to some of his rim attempts, Morant is exceptional at the build-up to these shots. When necessary, he uses footwork and body fakes to create space in the paint. Look how he bluffs a drive to the right and rocks Poeltl onto his heels, drifting toward the baseline, before darting to the middle for a moderately open floater:
Poeltl is well-positioned in drop coverage… and then, boom, he’s been shook to another dimension:
How it started vs. How it's going pic.twitter.com/XufU9C03Hw
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) May 21, 2021
This is advantage creation at its finest, right here. Poeltl has the upper hand, right up until he doesn’t. These still-shots perfectly encapsulate that evolution. Morant pairs budding comfort in his runner with unique lower body flexibility and change of direction to spark a good shot for himself. He is a remarkable downhill athlete, capable of elite acceleration/deceleration, change of direction and transitioning from the horizontal to vertical plane or vice versa.
While Morant is a good guard finisher and has developed a nifty floater since college, those are really the extent of his consistent scoring options. As such, it can lead to an over-reliance on the latter, a rather challenging place from which to craft efficiency.
Shooting 50 percent on runners, like he did in year one, is operable. Shooting 43.6 percent, like he did this year, is much less sustainable. Because of his spindly frame, confronting rim protectors in tight spaces can be difficult and he’ll opt for floaters instead, some of which are suboptimal decisions.
Consider a pair of shots from Wednesday’s game:
Morant is Memphis’ best perimeter creator, so he adopts a larger scoring burden than is ideal for him. But this shot, an off-balance floater with a defender attached at the hip and 14 seconds left on the possession, is avoidable. Not so much in that specific situation, but the drive itself did not have to result in a shot. Enough time remained on the clock to keep searching for something better. He could not get all the way to the rim and settled for a laborious floater. Expanding his off-the-bounce repertoire is paramount for his — and Memphis’ — future success.
On another possession, he attempted a rather audacious runner from just inside the foul line. It was not a prudent decision, largely because Desmond Bane, a 43.2 percent 3-point shooter, is unguarded on the wing.
Yet it’s also not a wise decision because of the degree of difficulty. A contested floater over Murray’s outstretched arm will almost always be achievable during a given possession. With 11 seconds left on the shot clock, at the very least, something better can be pursued. If nothing surfaces from dribbling out or kicking out to a teammate, you can fall back on this look late in the clock.
Note how Murray navigates that screen by immediately ducking under. An open pull-up, maybe even a couple of them, is there for Morant if he wants it. The problem, though, is he lacks comfort shooting off the bounce, particularly with forward momentum.
Through two regular seasons, he’s 127 of 311 (40.8 percent) on pull-up 2s and 73 of 238 on pull-up 3s (30.7 percent). Many of these reps are open. Opponents want him to take them, instinctively scooting under screens and offering him space. He is not equipped to exploit that tactic yet because of choppy footwork and underdeveloped core strength. A play from Wednesday illuminates these shortcomings.
This is the correct process from Morant. Mills, bracing for the screen, lends him a driving lane. Poeltl retreats toward the rim. The midrange pull-up is the proper scoring read (Jaren Jackson Jr. is open up top for 3, too).
But everything appears disorderly. His body doesn’t seem synchronized, as if his lower half is still trying to collect itself after decelerating while the upper half is ready to shoot. His feet are apart, though usually, he has a narrow base. His insufficient core strength prevents him from quickly stabilizing himself to ensure the entire body is aligned. This happens too frequently when he must shoot briskly. His best off-the-dribble clips come when he’s granted time to gather himself, like this pull-up 3 from late in the first half.
Juxtapose that with another pull-up 2 demanding a hasty delivery and check his feet (spoiler, it’s a wider base again).
Mechanical inconsistencies are not the lone factor in his struggles. He misses plenty of shots with routine footwork and a relatively stabilized core. But addressing the core strength deficiencies should alleviate some of the problems; repetition and a regimented process are pillars for successful shooters.
He is a brilliant ball-screen maestro and slasher. Teams will dash under most picks and give him the appropriate time to launch. Growing more adept as a pull-up shooter off of downhill drives, sharpening his intermediate game, and broadening his scoring avenues is vital as Memphis continues to ascend the West hierarchy with its youthful foundation.
The abbreviated offseason should also be baked into assessing Morant’s development curve. He drastically improved from high school to college, year one to year two of college, and between college and his rookie NBA season. Progress is not always linear, though, and a year three breakout is certainly possible.
Stretching the range of his steady scoring attack from that 10 foot range to 18 feet would do wonders. To see a recent example of a player who’s made such an addition and taken a leap, you just need to look across the Western Conference to De’Aaron Fox. Morant has displayed the baseline development of an elite floater and finishing combo, propelled by pick-and-roll sorcery, physical gifts, and auspicious feel for the game. Opponents know this. Now, comes incorporating counters, learning from his early career successes and hurdles, all of which were portrayed throughout Wednesday’s play-in duel. That’s life as a star in the NBA, constantly having to adjust and grow as teams take away strengths and force you to your weaknesses. There’s little reason to believe Morant won’t put the work in to do just that, and he’ll have plenty of examples to work of off from Memphis’ play-in run.