The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2019 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.
Ja Morant beat the odds to be the no. 2 pick. He was an unranked high school recruit who became the first player from a mid-major school (Murray State) to be taken that high since Michael Olowokandi (Pacific) went no. 1 overall in 1998. Morant, who was considered a mid-first-round pick after a promising freshman season, flew up draft boards with a historically great sophomore campaign. No college player has averaged as many points (24 per game) and assists (10) as Morant since at least 1992, the earliest year in the Sports-Reference database.
Morant was the NCAA version of Russell Westbrook, a one-man offense who used his speed to get to the rim at will and his vision to pick apart the defense when it collapsed on him. He was so dominant that he became one of the biggest stars in the country despite playing in a tiny conference that was never on national TV.
It will be hard for Morant to maintain that playing style in the NBA. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, he’s a scrawny player without the superhuman build of someone like Westbrook. While he has the athleticism to dunk on anyone, he will be at a huge disadvantage in terms of size and strength at the next level. He will not be able to finish at the rim as easily as he did in the Ohio Valley Conference, and he’s had trouble in such situations in small sample sizes. He shot 2-for-15 from 2-point range in a second-round NCAA tournament loss to Florida State, the longest and most athletic team that he faced all season.
Morant will have to rely more on his jumper. He was a passable outside shooter in two seasons at Murray State, where he shot 34.3 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game. He doesn’t have textbook form, and defenses were happy to leave him open on the perimeter if it kept him out of the lane.
The most encouraging sign for his potential is his excellent career free throw shooting numbers (81.0 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), which are often the best indicator of 3-point-shooting ability in the NBA.
The good news for the Grizzlies is that Morant doesn’t need to be a big-time scorer to thrive. His freshman season, when he was the third option on a team built around two seniors, was historic in its own right. Morant averaged 12.7 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 6.3 assists, and 6.5 rebounds per game, becoming only the 14th NCAA player since 1992 to reach those statistical benchmarks. Some of the others include Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, and Lonzo Ball.
In Memphis, Morant can play as a more traditional point guard. He is a smart player who knows how to run the offense, keep everyone involved, and pick and choose when to score. Even when he became a high-usage offensive player as a sophomore, he never stopped setting up his teammates. In their final college seasons, he was a far better passer than the other top point guards in this year’s draft:
Top Point Guard Draft Picks’ Passing Stats
The Grizzlies need his passing more than his scoring. They already have a legitimate franchise player in Jaren Jackson Jr., the no. 4 pick in last year’s draft. The most important thing that Morant can do in Memphis is get Jackson the ball.
At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Jackson is the prototype for the modern big man, with great defensive instincts and the size and speed to defend players at all five positions. He would be an elite prospect if all he could do on offense was dunk. What makes him truly special is that he also has a well-rounded offensive game: He can post up, put the ball on the floor, and shoot 3s (35.9 percent on 2.4 attempts per game as a rookie).
Jackson’s traditional statistics (13.8 points on 50.6 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game) don’t tell the whole story of his rookie season. He has more offensive polish than he is given credit for. Jackson was in the 72nd percentile of scorers leaguewide on isolation attempts on a decent number (83) of attempts. There have been only 10 other players in NBA history to take as many 3s as Jackson while having a block rate higher than 5 percent. Look how comfortable he seems shooting stepback 3s in these clips:
His dribble-drive game is even more impressive. There aren’t many 6-foot-11 players in NBA history who have been able to pull off these types of moves:
Jackson has one more massive point in his favor when evaluating his potential: his age. As a player who was born in September 1999, not only was he significantly younger than the other centers taken in last year’s draft, he’s younger than many of the ones taken this year:
Recent Center Draft Picks’ Birth Months
|Marvin Bagley III
The age gap between Jackson and Bamba (16 months) and Jackson and Ayton (14 months) is huge at this stage in their careers. There is a big learning curve for frontcourt players in the NBA because so much of their early success depends on physical development. Even in a smaller and faster league, bigs still have to do a lot of pushing and shoving under the basket. It can take years for them to become strong enough to hold their own. Jackson was already an extremely effective player despite being younger and less physically developed than his peers. It’s scary to imagine how good he might be in a few seasons. Bamba turned 21 at the end of his rookie season. Jackson won’t be that old until he’s in his third season.
Jackson has so much room to grow—literally. He has the frame to add weight without sacrificing quickness. He looked significantly bigger while playing for the Select Team at the Team USA training camp in Las Vegas during the past few weeks. One source close to the Grizzlies told me that he has added 20 pounds of muscle this summer. That number may prove to be a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s a perfect example of the type of physical development Jackson has in front of him.
The extra weight should help him take on a bigger role in the offense. The Grizzlies didn’t feature him much his rookie year because they were trying to compete for the playoffs in what wound up being the last season of the Grit and Grind era. Jackson earned a starting spot in training camp, but he mostly played off of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies didn’t throw in the towel until the trade deadline, when they moved Gasol to the Raptors, but Jackson suffered a deep thigh bruise right as that happened, and was shut down for the rest of the season.
Memphis, which has a new GM (Zach Kleiman) and head coach (Taylor Jenkins), is starting over. And there is virtually no one standing in Jackson’s way: Their only other returning player who averaged more than 10 points per game last season is Jonas Valanciunas, who came over in the Gasol trade.
Jackson has the versatility to thrive in multiple lineups. He will start games at the 4 next to Valanciunas, and then play as a backup 5 in smaller lineups next to combo forwards like Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke, the no. 21 pick in this year’s draft. Clarke, who already looks like a steal after winning summer league MVP honors, fits perfectly with Jackson up front.
The benefit of having a pass-first player like Morant is that he will make sure Jackson gets the ball in the spots where he is most comfortable. One of the biggest problems many skilled big men have early in their NBA careers is that their point guards are more concerned with hunting for their own shot than running the offense. Jackson isn’t Nikola Jokic. He has shown the ability to start the fast break himself after getting a defensive rebound, but he’s not a point center who can have the entire offense run through him. He’s at the mercy of his guards. There is nothing he can do if they take bad shots before he even touches the ball.
Memphis doesn’t want Jackson’s early seasons to play out the way Karl-Anthony Towns’s have. Towns has spent his NBA career surrounded by shot-happy guards like Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Jeff Teague, and Derrick Rose. One of the most effective ways for a big man to post up is to pass the ball out and then repost to establish deeper position in the lane. The problem for Towns is there have never been any guarantees that he will get the ball back if he gives it up. Last year, Tyus Jones was the only Wolves guard who even knew how to throw an entry pass into the post. Towns had a higher usage rate when Jones was on the floor (30.7) than when he was off (26.7). The exact opposite happened when he was playing with either Teague or Rose. It might not be a coincidence that the Grizzlies signed Jones to a three-year, $26.4 million contract this offseason.
Memphis is in a great situation. They are in Year 1 of their rebuild and already have a franchise player whom they can build around for the next decade. Morant doesn’t have to be the same type of superstar he was in college. His real value to the Grizzlies is helping Jackson become one.