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The Key to Ja Morant’s NBA Future Was Revealed In the NCAA Tournament

The presumptive top-three pick ran into roadblocks against Florida State, where he got his first glimpse of the size and athleticism waiting for him at the next level. Luckily, he also showed the one weapon he can hone to keep his meteoric rise going.

Murray State v Florida State Getty Images

Ja Morant got a glimpse of his future in Florida State’s 90-62 second-round victory over Murray State on Saturday. The sophomore point guard had 28 points on 8-of-21 shooting, and he was far more effective from behind the 3-point line (5-of-6) than in 2-point range (2-of-15). Morant couldn’t used his speed and explosiveness to dominate the game like he did in their first-round victory against Marquette. The collective length and athleticism of the Seminoles forced him to change his game. The 3-point shot has been one of many weapons at his disposal in college: He took 29.6 percent of his shots from that range this season. It will have to become a more featured part of his offense at the next level.

Morant came out on fire. He shot 4-for-4 from 3 in the first 10 minutes, punishing the Seminoles for sagging off him and going under ball screens. He has improved as a shooter this season, going from shooting 30.7 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game as a freshman to 34.4 percent on 4.7 attempts per game as a sophomore, but he’d never shot this well from deep in his college career. Morant only made more than four 3s one other time in two seasons at Murray State, when he shot 6-of-12 in a win over Missouri State in November. He was playing more like Trae Young on Saturday, knocking down pull-up 3s and step-back 3s, and even making one from almost 30 feet away with a hand in his face.

His hot shooting forced Florida State to change their defensive game-plan. They played him more aggressively over the last 30 minutes, pressuring him up the floor, face-guarding him when he was off the ball, and switching ball screens when he was able to get free of his initial defender. Morant took advantage of the extra attention to get into the lane, but he had trouble finishing over so many long and athletic defenders once he got there. The only real success he had came when he used his ability to change speeds off the dribble and contort his body in the air to draw fouls, as he was 7-of-9 from the free-throw line.

Morant didn’t face that type of competition in the regular season, when he had his way against overmatched defenses in the Ohio Valley Conference. No one in the country emphasizes physical tools in recruiting more than Seminoles head coach Leonard Hamilton, whose goal is seemingly to recreate the Monstars as much as it is to field a basketball team. They are bigger than some NBA teams. Their starting guards are 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds (junior Trent Forrest) and 6-foot-5 and 213 pounds (sophomore M.J. Walker), and those two are some of the smaller perimeter defenders that guarded Morant. He didn’t have any viral dunks like he did in his first-round victory over Marquette. It’s hard to dunk over a 7-foot-4, 260 pound center (senior Christ Koumadje).

The toll of facing so many bigger defenders seemed to wear on Morant. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, he doesn’t have the broad shoulders and chiseled frame of Russell Westbrook, a player he is often compared to. It is difficult for a guard as slight as Morant to attack the rim for 40 minutes against NBA-caliber size and athleticism without eventually feeling the effects. Morant would have benefitted from a more diverse offensive gameplan. He didn’t take a single 3 in the last 17 minutes of the game; he no longer had the space to. Morant’s two-handed release makes it harder for him to shoot off the dribble, as it forces him to start his shot closer to his chest.

It would have helped if he had someone to take pressure off him. Florida State switched up their defensive approach against Morant in the middle of the first half, but not their underlying philosophy. Their goal was not to let him beat them as a passer, and they held him to four assist on two turnovers. They would live with him scoring as long as they prevented him from setting up his teammates, none of whom could create their own shot. Forcing the offense to run through anyone besides Morant was a win for the Seminoles. The numbers from his supporting cast were ugly. The other four starters for Murray State combined to shoot 10-for-31 from the field (32.2 percent) and had three assists on eight turnovers. Only two other players (freshman Tevin Brown and senior Leroy Buchanon) even made a 3.

Things looked much different in their 80-64 demolition of Marquette in the first round. The Golden Eagles couldn’t dictate anything to Morant because no one on their roster could stay in front of him. He got to the rim at will, collapsing the defense, and finding open shooters all over the floor. His effortless triple-double (17 points, 16 assists, and 11 rebounds) was closer to his formula this season than his slog against Florida State. Morant is known mostly for his dunking ability, but that’s only a small part of his game. He’s a well-rounded guard with a high basketball IQ who can alternate between scoring and passing. His athleticism is just the cherry on top.

Morant was forced into a bigger role than he will have in the NBA. The Racers lost their two leading scorers from a team that went 26-6 and made the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. They had a young team with only two seniors in their rotation. They needed Morant to do everything. He had a usage rate of 33.6 this season, which would have trailed only James Harden if Morant were in the NBA. Morant won’t have to be a one-man offense at the next level, where few defenses will sell out to stop him as much as Florida State did.

There will be an adjustment period when it comes to playing off the ball. He thrived in a smaller role as a freshman, but his overwhelming athletic advantage on his competition meant that it didn’t matter when defenses left him open on the perimeter; he could still blow by them. Making spot-up 3s will be more important for him in the NBA. Morant will have teammates who won’t need him to spoon-feed them open shots, which means he has to be able to play off of them as much as his teammates at Murray State played off of him. Being a good passer isn’t the only way for a point guard to make his teammates better. It’s just as crucial that he can space the floor and give them room to breathe on offense.

Defense will be an even bigger adjustment. Morant didn’t play much of it in college. He rarely pressured his man when he was on the ball, and Murray State hid him off the ball as much as possible. His NBA team won’t have as much patience for the lackluster effort he showed against Florida State, where he repeatedly lost track of his man when he was the help-side defender. Morant will have to redistribute his energy levels on both ends of the floor to play a more balanced game. His size will always put him at a disadvantage, as he may never be a particularly switchable defender, so he will at least need to play with more effort.

His growth as a shooter and a defender will determine the ceiling of the NBA team that drafts him. His strong play in the NCAA tournament may have solidified him as a top-3 selection in this year’s draft, where point guard-needy teams like the Suns and the Bulls could be picking, depending on how the lottery shakes out. Morant has to play defense and spot up if he’s sharing a backcourt with Devin Booker or Zach LaVine. How players fit together is an important consideration when it comes to building through the draft, and Morant may not have the luxury of coming to a team with no other building blocks in place. He will have to round out his game if he moves into a more complementary role early in his NBA career.

His ceiling as a player will come down to his 3-point shot. The defenses that Morant faces next season will look more like Florida State than Marquette. It doesn’t matter how high he can jump. It will be hard for a player with his frame to make his living around the rim in the NBA. The margin for error for him to succeed will be so much higher if he can become a volume 3-point shooter. He has everything else in his offensive game. If he can force the defense to pick him up 28-plus feet from the basket, he has the driving and passing ability to flourish. He’s just not as exciting a prospect if he has to play inside-out at his size.

The touch he showed on his 3-point shot against Florida State was encouraging. Morant has never had to be a high-level shooter before. His career free-throw shooting numbers (81.0 percent on 6.1 attempts per game) show that he may have enough touch to change his game. The increasing importance of the 3-point shot has made scouting smaller guards like Morant harder. He can be as dominant in the NBA as he was in college if he can consistently attempt 10-to-15 3s a game and knock them down at a high percentage. He has shown the ability to handle a usage rate higher than 30. He just needs to turn a lot of his 2-pointers into 3s at the next level. Morant looked like a star in the first 10 minutes of the game on Saturday. He will be one if he can keep shooting that well.