Grizzlies

Morant Finding Ways to Make Presence Felt

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Though Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant is having what some people might consider a “sophomore slump”, he is still posting solid counting stats and helping his teammates in numerous ways.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies score 10 points more per 100 possessions when Morant is guiding the offense. The same positive number can’t be said for the defensive end, where the Grizzlies give up more than 14 more points per 100 with Morant playing.

For the purposes of this exercise, let’s focus on his impact on the offensive end of the floor.

The Tape is Out

On the season, Morant is scoring 19 points per game, which is good enough for borderline top 40 in the league. Unfortunately, that scoring has not been accomplished in an efficient manner. Among point guards, Morant is scoring at a very average rate of 110.6 points per 100 shots. This inefficiency has been exacerbated since Morant’s return from injury in mid-January. In seven games from February 2nd to February 14th, the Grizzlies guard failed to shoot above 50% from the field. This week, in a blowout loss to the Pelicans, was the only game where he able to score at will. He finished twelve of sixteen from the field in a 28-point effort.

The tape is out on Morant and opposing teams are game planning to sag off of him because he presents only a minimal threat to hit from deep. You can see in the clip below that Lonzo Ball completely falls back into the paint to cut off a potential Dillon Brooks drive, and Josh Hart only gives a half-hearted short closeout, daring Morant to shoot.

Morant is shooting only 26.5% from three on the year, and the only place he is consistently scoring is at the rim. This creates many exciting moments, but down the road Morant will need to expand his game to create more opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Get Your Ja-ggles Out

Speaking of opportunities for his teammates, Morant is averaging eight assists per contest, which ranks in the top 10 in the NBA. Since he missed time due to injury, he doesn’t qualify to be listed on any leaderboards, but this gives you a good idea of where he stands among elite distributors in the league.

Morant leads the Grizzlies in scoring, even though he’s not doing it in the most efficient manner. However, that’s not where the bulk of his impact lies throughout the game. His ability to create shots for his teammates and implement Taylor Jenkins’ offensive system is paying dividends on that side of the ball.

While in the midst of battling injuries, the Grizzlies look to have settled on their starting lineup until the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. – and maybe even Justise Winslow? This lineup includes Morant, Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jonas Valanciunas. Most of this season, the Grizzlies starters have been out shown by the reserves. This dynamic has changed now that the bench is now battling injuries to De’Anthony Melton and others. Now the starters are the ones holding up the roster and trying to create space from their opponents on a nightly basis.

With the previously mentioned starting lineup, the Grizzlies have a net rating of an astonishing +26 per 100 possessions. This group has played 165 trips up the floor together, the most of any lineup that includes Morant. When looking at high level efficiency, the only thing this lineup does poorly is get to the free throw line, and also allows their opponents to reach the charity stripe at a high rate.

On an individual level, each of those starters benefits from sharing the floor with Morant. As you can see in his shot chart, Morant is taking plenty of shots at the cup and is 4th in the NBA in drives per game at just under 20. His finishing ability is only slightly above average, but the level of play that he elevates his teammates to is something to relish in.

His fellow starters all have improved shot quality per PBPstats.com when sharing the court with Morant. This is no fluke. In this transition play against New Orleans, Morant collapses the entire defense, leaving two wide open three point shooters in the corners, which allows Brooks to hit an uncontested catch-and-shoot three.

Since Ja does carry such a heavy scoring burden in addition to assisting his crew, Grayson is technically the only starter who averages more points per 100 when playing alongside Morant. This isn’t the red flag some have made it out to be. Since we know that the overall scoring numbers are good for this starting group, efficiency becomes the main component that we should examine.

Out of that core unit, Dillon Brooks is the only player who doesn’t see an increase in frequency of shots at the rim or three point line while alongside Morant. This sheds light on the fact that Morant is able to create more occasions where his teammates are left open on the perimeter (Allen/Anderson) or on the roll (JV/Anderson). The three-point attempt rates for Anderson, Allen, and JV all increase with their floor general playing. Already this season, we saw the Grizzlies break a franchise record for threes in a game with 23 – a number that in the pre-Jenkins years would more closely resemble attempts per game instead of makes.

Teams have to respect Morant’s explosiveness and highlight-creation ability, so defenses are losing track of their man while trying to interrupt the guard’s drives to the rack. This ability leads to better shots, which leads to better shooting, as evidenced by the entire starting lineup having better eFG% when together.

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Morant also takes the offensive pressure off his teammates when he is in the game. When Morant was out, guys like Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks were asked to go above and beyond their comfort level to try and create offense. Kyle saw his usage rate surge to over 23%, which would easily be a career high. Now that Morant is back, Anderson is able to take more open shots that benefit him and the rest of the roster.

We can talk another day about how Morant needs to improve on the defensive end of the floor in order to fully evolve as a player and truly become an elite point guard. However, we should celebrate what he has already been able to accomplish with this Memphis roster and the culture and play-style that he has helped foster.

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About Zak White

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