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Ja Morant May Be the Next Westbrook, but Does the NBA Want Another Westbrook?

The Murray State point guard may be the best traditional point guard in this year’s draft. The question is how valuable that is in the NBA given the way the game is trending.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No player in college basketball, not even Zion Williamson, has made more money in the pros this season than Ja Morant. The Murray State point guard went from a secondary option in the Racers offense as a freshman to one of the best players in the country as a sophomore. He has been so dominant (24.1 points on 49.8 percent shooting, 10.3 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game) that he could become the first top-five pick from the Ohio Valley Conference since 1967. Morant has everything that a team looking for a traditional point guard should want. The question is how much they should want that type of player given the way the NBA is changing.

The irony is that Morant would not have even been considered a traditional point guard a generation ago. The big divide at the position used to be between pass-first players and those who called their own number on offense. A player as skilled as Morant shows how arbitrary that distinction can be. His job as a freshman was to distribute the ball and set up two high-scoring seniors (Jonathan Stark and Terrell Miller Jr.) on a team that went 26-6 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Their departure has forced Morant to channel his inner Russell Westbrook this season.

He is having a historically great campaign in a ball-dominant role. The Sports-Reference database for advanced statistics goes back to the 2009-10 season, and in that time, not a single player has matched his combination of true shooting percentage (60.9), usage rate (33.1), and assist rate (52.7). It’s no wonder that Murray State has the no. 7 offense in the country. They run everything through a player who can either score at will against one defender or find the open man when the defense sends help. Nor is his success just coming against lesser competition, either. Morant averaged 31.5 points on 53.5 percent shooting, 8.5 rebounds, and six assists in his two games against teams from Power 5 conferences (Auburn and Alabama) this season. His jaw-dropping dunk at the end of the Alabama game turned him into a viral sensation:

Morant has carried the Racers to a 25-4 record, but it still may not be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. The OVC hasn’t had an at-large berth in 32 years, and there is no guarantee that Murray State secures a spot in the field of 68 by winning the conference tournament. They play in a semifinal on Friday against Jacksonville State, who beat them by 20 points earlier in the season, and they would likely have to face Belmont, a team that beat them by 13 points and has an NBA prospect of its own in senior forward Dylan Windler, in the championship game on Saturday.

NBA scouts will not hold an early exit in March against Morant, but they do have some concerns about whether his dominance will translate to the next level. He won’t be able to overpower NBA defenders with raw physicality. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, Morant has a far scrawnier frame than Westbrook, who is built like an NFL linebacker. He is also more explosive vertically than laterally, and he doesn’t have the top-end speed of a young Westbrook or De’Aaron Fox. There is more craftiness and guile to his game. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Morant is only in the 52nd percentile of players nationwide when scoring in the paint, a huge drop-off from where Fox was (76th percentile) in his only season of college. Morant has made up the difference by living at the free throw line, where he averages 8.1 attempts per game.

Morant’s ceiling in the NBA will depend on his continued development as a shooter. He has made strides this season, going from shooting 30.7 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game as a freshman to 34 percent on 4.9 attempts per game as a sophomore. He has a bit of a funky two-handed release on his jumper that concerns NBA scouts, but he’s also an 81 percent career free throw shooter, and a player’s shooting from the charity stripe is more predictive of 3-point percentage in the NBA than 3-point percentage in the NCAA. The concern about Morant isn’t that he will be a bad shooter at the next level, it’s that he will never be a great one.

The specter of Trae Young, who has come on strong over the second half of his rookie season with the Hawks, is hanging over Morant. Young is part of the first generation of players who grew up watching Steph Curry and built their games around the pull-up 3. Now, Young is pushing the Curry model even further in the NBA. The Atlanta rookie isn’t shooting that well from 3 (33.2 percent), but he’s taking so many (5.8 per game) and taking them from so far away (43 attempts between 30-34 feet from the basket) that he changes the geometry of the floor. To put his long-range shooting numbers in perspective, Curry attempted only 33 shots between 30 and 34 feet across his two MVP seasons. The NBA is reinventing itself at warp speeds, and all the trend lines point to it becoming even more 3-point heavy in the years to come.

There are two benefits to playing a volume 3-point shooter like Young at point guard. The first is that he puts pressure on the defense almost as soon as he crosses half court, which forces defenses to cover more ground than they ever had to before in NBA history and opens up room for his teammates. The second is that his skill set is more complementary to other players than that of a guard whose game is built around attacking the rim. Young threatens the defense just by moving off the ball. He can knock down 3s off the penetration of other players, and he’s such a dangerous shooter that he gets the benefit of huge driving lanes every time he attacks a close-out. A player like that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be successful.

The search for the next Trae Young is why Vanderbilt freshman point guard Darius Garland has been rising on draft boards, even though he played in only five games this season before tearing his left meniscus. Garland, who shot 11-for-23 from 3 (47.8 percent) this season, had a reputation as an elite shooter coming into college. Some league executives think that if he is healthy during the pre-draft process, Garland could be picked ahead of Morant on draft night. Garland isn’t nearly as athletic as Morant, but he can shoot 3s off the dribble, put the ball on the floor, and find the open man. He more closely fits the model of a point guard who can play on or off the ball.

A team that drafts a more ball-dominant point guard like Morant has to build its offense around him, which limits its flexibility with the rest of the roster. One of the reasons the Kings passed on rookie sensation Luka Doncic in last year’s draft was the presence of Fox, whom they took with the no. 5 overall pick in the 2017 draft. The Mavs, who took Dennis Smith Jr. at no. 9 in 2017, eventually shipped off their young point guard when he struggled to coexist with Luka. Fox and Smith are fairly different types of players, but what they have in common is more important: Neither can shoot 3s at volume. The more meaningful distinction is no longer between pass-first and score-first guards but between the ones who consistently pressure the defense from beyond the 3-point line and ones who don’t.

The easiest way for the latter type to have success in the NBA is to have the size to play multiple positions on defense. That has been the key for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the other standout point guard from this year’s rookie class, who has started 57 games on a Clippers team that has all but locked up a playoff berth. He doesn’t have a huge role in the offense, and he averages only 1.6 3-point attempts per game, but his size (6-foot-6 and 180 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) allows him to play next to many different types of players. A point guard with his defensive versatility can be even more valuable in the playoffs because he can switch screens and match up with bigger players.

Players of all shapes and sizes are coming into the league with the ability to run point. Zion, the consensus no. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, has the chance to be the first full-time point center. A ball-dominant point guard like Morant is not the best fit with a bigger player who needs the ball in his hands, while lineups built around point forwards can put smaller guards in a bind on defense. A team that can play longer and more athletic wings at every position on the perimeter leaves a 6-foot-3 guard like Morant, who has not been a particularly diligent defender at the NCAA level, with no one to match up with.

Morant is caught in the middle of a pincer movement behind two trends that could make players like him obsolete. A decade from now, the best point guards in the league will either be significantly bigger than him or will be much better 3-point shooters than he is. Morant has too much going for him to bust out of the NBA, but he will need to keep reinventing his game to keep up with the way the sport is changing. The team that drafts him in the lottery will raise their floor at the cost of lowering their ceiling. For as great as he has been in college, a player like Morant can only be so valuable in the modern NBA.