Grizzlies

Defying Gravity: An Anatomical Analysis of Ja Morant

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Dazzling. Spectacular. High-flying. Electric.

These words describe Ja Morant, Memphis’s All-NBA lead guard, who took his team last season to the second seed in the west before falling to the eventual champions, Golden State, in the second round. 

Morant has emerged as one of the league’s most dominant athletes, a dynamic force that can’t be contained due to his life above the rim.

How does he do it? What makes Morant such a phenom?

Prime Anatomy

Morant may be one of one, but the mechanics behind a leap are consistent for any player out there.

Skying high for a dunk starts with flexion, a movement of joints that decreases the angle between two limbs. When Morant begins his upward ascent, bending his knees and his ankles decreases the angle between his calves and thighs, an example of this flexion.

Extension is the reverse movement– a joint increasing the angle between two limbs. The second movement in Morant’s jump is extension, removing himself from a crouch to send force downward into the floor in order to fly through the air.

Power begins from the hip, a ball and socket joint between the pelvis and femur, generated from the gluteal muscles.

Force then travels downwards to the knee, a hinge joint, where the femur and tibia are flanked by the quadriceps muscles.

Finally the ankle forms a modified joint, and the tibia, calcaneus bones, and gastrocnemius muscle propel the potential energy of a jump into the floor, creating the kinetic energy that electrifies the Fedex Forum.

Magic Muscles

Muscles are made up of two kinds of fibers— slow-twitch fibers and fast-twitch fibers.

Slow-twitch fibers are for endurance. They use energy slowly and evenly, and have more blood vessels to take advantage of the body’s oxygen.

Fast-twitch fibers are for greater bursts of faster movement, expending more energy in less time. They have less blood vessels due to their reduced need for oxygen to activate. 

“Twitch” refers to contractions of the muscle, how quickly and often they move. So, slow-twitch muscles contract slower and fast-twitch muscles contract faster.

Simple enough. 

The types of fibers that someone has are genetically determined. They’re born with a muscle composition that will last a lifetime, and certain types of training will affect that composition only a little. It’s the composition that influences athletic talents, not the other way around. 

Athletes with more slow-twitch muscle fibers are likely better at endurance sports, like running marathons. Conversely, athletes with more fast-twitch muscle fibers will excel at explosive sports—like basketball. 

Ja Morant may take off superman style, but the bio-mechanics resemble any ordinary person, with matching muscle groups and proper flexion and extension.

What makes him unique, though, is likely the composition of his muscle fibers, elevating him beyond mere mortal status and into the sky, defying Isaac Newton’s laws of gravity without turning to look below him even a moment. 

It’s those fast-twitch fibers that give him the illusion of defying gravity as well, when his trademark floating hang time comes into play. 

Fun fact—it’s possible to actually calculate hang time. It involves some specific physics-based math that won’t make an appearance in a self-respecting sports blog like The Lead.

But know this—it takes the same amount of time for someone to go up with a jump as it does to go down. The higher you jump, the longer you hang. Morant’s vertical is so powerful, it creates the illusion of levitation for a few moments before gravity and acceleration take hold.

One more statistic for you: a 2015 study of a champion sprinter demonstrated a muscle fiber composition of 71% fast-twitch fibers, compared to 29% slow-twitch fibers. This is the highest recorded fast-twitch fiber composition in history.

It’s unlikely that any professional basketball players have been studied similarly, but a study of one like Morant would likely show similar results—undoubtedly more than 50%, and likely more than 60%, in line with the natural talents he possesses as well as the types of training he participates in.

It’s all of these combined anatomical factors that make Ja Morant totally unique compared to the the average person, a freak of nature with no fear of both of the literal and figurative heights he can reach. 

Unrivaled Mechanics

Morant’s anatomy, although ordinary, produces extraordinary results, with his head and shoulders above the rim during a miraculous chase-down block or thunderous dunk.

According to the defined metrics, Morant has a vertical of 44 inches, wiping the floor with the NBA average of 28 inches. For comparison, record-setting Keon Johnson, 2021 draft pick and current Portland Trailblazer, set combine records with a 48 inch vertical, and a standing vertical of 41.5 inches.

Few other players have reached 48 inches, or close to it, and fewer still have earned legend status as a household name alongside their high flying.

Bleacher Report labels these players as the only legends to get up higher than Morant: Bernard King (46 inches); Anthony Webb (46 inches, at 5’7”!); Darrell Griffith (48 inches); and Michael Jordan (48 inches).

The Makings of a Legend

A note about the previous list—the aforementioned players are ones that have made history for their greatness. Athleticism is common in the league, but talent and skill are what elevates.

Morant is a phenom due to his finishing ability combined with his top-percentile acrobatics. It’s what sets him on his ascent, not just as a fantastic athlete, but as a legend to be remembered in Bleacher Report articles about athletes with success.

 

In the 2021-2022 season, Morant ranked third in drives per game, behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Doncic. However, he ranked first in points in the paint with 14.8, beating out bigs like Giannis Antetokounmpo for the title while shooting 68% at the rim.

Although he is having a slightly down year with his efficiency, he is also dealing with a combination of Desmond Bane‘s absence (influencing spacing) and a greater focus on creating for his teammates.

There’s nothing to say that he can’t return to previous—and historic—form soon. 

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Morant may be on pace to end his career as one of the greatest guard finishers of all time, especially with regards to his most common player comparisons.

Allen Iverson shot 55% at the rim in his career 2005-2006 season.

Kyrie Irving shot around 60% in 2016-2017.

Michael Jordan shot 63.2% in 1997-1998.

Such a high completion rate at the rim, one that resembles elite bigs, is exceptional for a point guard.

Biomechanically, Ja Morant may have the same anatomy as you or I, with the same musculoskeletal involvement as an ordinary person. But in terms of his athleticism and how he applies it, he’s anything but ordinary.

In the end, history may remember Morant as one of one.

CRAVING MORE GRIZZLIES?

Check out last week’s Recap by Andrew Hanissian (@AndrewHanissian), Grizzlies Continue Winning Ways with Victories Over Thunder, Pistons, Hawks. And be sure to check out the Grizz 901 Podcast, where the Grizz Lead guys get on to discuss the most recent games and much, much more!

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