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Ja Morant Is Exploding Into an NBA Elite

At just 22 years old, Ja Morant is looking like an MVP candidate.

The Grizzlies guard opened the 2021-22 season with a bang, storming his way to 37 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists in a 132-121 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He hasn’t taken his foot off the gas since—Morant is third in the league with 28.3 points per game and seventh with 7.7 assists per game.

Morant’s third-year leap isn’t necessarily surprising, but I’m not sure that many expected such a high level of play so early. I wrote in March that he would have trouble vaulting himself into the NBA’s elite without a serviceable jumpshot, and that was a logical statement at the time. Last season, he converted just 30.3 percent of his 3-pointers and 72.8 percent of his free throw attempts—numbers that didn’t look very promising for his long-term outlook as a shooter.

But he’s significantly improved both figures in seven games this season, making 38.5 percent of his 3-pointers and 82.5 percent of his free throws. Even better, he’s attempting 5.6 shots from deep per game, a noticeable jump from 3.8 per game last year.

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer during an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors.
Image via AP

There are several reasons that can explain Morant’s version of the storied “leap.” Firstly, he’s taken on more of an offensive load. Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies’ starting center last season who averaged 17.1 points per game, was dealt to New Orleans in the summer. And Dillon Brooks (17.2 ppg last season) hasn’t yet appeared for Memphis as he recovers from a hand fracture. These absences have allowed Morant’s usage rate to climb from 27.9 percent last year to 32.5 percent this year, which currently ranks ninth in the league.

I mentioned earlier that his efficiency has also greatly improved, most notably due to his shot selection. Out of Morant’s 143 field goal attempts this year, just 11 have come from mid-range (7.7 percent). He’s also hitting many more of his attempts inside the paint (61.3 percent) than last year (50.5 percent).

Morant's poor efficiency inside the paint last year was in large part due to an ankle sprain that robbed him of his explosiveness for most of the season. Much of Morant’s inside game is reliant upon his ability to leap and hang in the air for finishes—with a bum ankle, he couldn’t get that same lift.

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant dribbles the basketball on offense during an NBA basketball game.
Image via AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Looking forward, as with any hot start within a small sample size, the question remains whether Morant can sustain his scoring throughout the season. He will certainly see some regression, as the Grizzlies offense will not live and die by him forever. Brooks will eventually return, and players like Jaren Jackson Jr. (12.4 ppg) and Kyle Anderson (7.4 ppg) can stand to contribute more each night.

We also have to remember that Morant is just 22 years old. He’s bound to take some questionable shots as he continues to explore what works to his favor. This is the time for Morant to experiment and see what sticks—if he continues to make his threes and score with volume inside the paint, there will be no need for low-percentage mid-range shots. But fans have to remain patient as his efficiency will dip and surge this season and beyond.

There’s no question that Morant is one of the brightest stars in the NBA, and it’s truly amazing to see him blossoming into an elite point guard in his third professional season. While he won’t border on averaging 30 points per game all year, there’s no limit to the impact he’ll have on the city of Memphis in the next decade and beyond.


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