clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ja Morant Is the NBA’s First-Week MVP. He’s Primed for a Whole Lot More.

The Grizzlies guard has leveled up this season. The rest of the NBA doesn’t seem to have an answer.

Time and again on Sunday night, Ja Morant took it to the hole in Hollywood, toying with the Lakers defense and sending Frank Vogel in search of answers. Kent Bazemore? Nah. Russell Westbrook? Nope. Malik Monk? Sorry. Avery Bradley? Nuh-uh. Traps at the point of attack? Try again. Late help at the rim? No dice.

Watching Vogel cycle fruitlessly through options as Morant sliced to the cup felt a bit like watching someone with dodgy reflexes play Whac-A-Mole. Ja getting whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, felt inevitable. He was relentlessly fluid, attacked from all directions and all angles, and found every crease and crevice in the defense with boundless creativity and playmaking panache.

The Grizz fell short on Sunday, dropping a 121-118 thriller thanks to an inability to cool down Carmelo Anthony (28 points in 28 minutes off the L.A. bench), with Morant missing a free throw that would’ve tied the game with 1.9 seconds remaining. But while Ja took the loss hard, one missed freebie couldn’t come close to dimming the shine of a 22-year-old supernova who had just hung 40 points and 10 assists on a title favorite, looking like the best player on a court featuring a handful of future Hall of Famers.

Magic’s not the only one recognizing real right now. Through three games, Morant is tied for the NBA lead in scoring, putting up 35 points per game on .671 true shooting—essentially MVP Steph Curry–type numbers.

By my proprietary metrics, Ja also leads the NBA in Holy Shit, Dude. It is, admittedly, a more amorphous category, but no less vital, because just look at this:

Morant’s ability to beat virtually any defender off the dribble and get into the lane has been the driving force behind the Grizzlies’ hot start, as Memphis was just a few stops away from sweeping a Staples Center back-to-back and exiting the weekend undefeated. His combination of physical gifts, finely honed skill, and playmaking intuition makes him brutally tough to cover: He marries acceleration and deceleration to keep defenders off-balance as well as any player in the league; his tight handle, sharp footwork, and long arms allow him to slink through openings and find release points unavailable to most other ball handlers; and his hang time, core strength, soft touch, and ambidexterity as a finisher enable him to get buckets over, around, and through rotating rim protectors.

That suite of skills is translating into pure production early in the season. Morant is taking half of his shots at the rim, converting an obscene 73 percent of them, and averaging more than 20 points per game in the paint. He’s scoring more on drives to the basket than the Jazz, Timberwolves, and Lakers—like, their entire teams.

Even if an opponent manages to bottle Morant up, it doesn’t necessarily avoid pain. The more resources devoted to stopping Ja from creating his own shot, the harder it is to keep him from creating looks for others with his elite pace and court vision. He’s more than happy to do that, exploiting openings with pitch-perfect lobs, cross-court lasers, and soul-crushing dump-off passes to teammates slicing into the open space he creates. Morant is averaging eight assists per game, tied for eighth in the league, and dropping dimes on his drives more frequently than—no bullshit—11 teams.

Twenty-two of Morant’s 24 assists this season have led to dunks, layups, or 3-pointers. That kind of table-setting, combined with his own voracious appetite for shots at the cup, has fueled a Grizzlies offense that ranks second in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Those numbers stand in defiant opposition to our long-established conceptions of what Memphis basketball must look like, and they’ll come down a tick once De’Anthony Melton stops shooting 58 percent from 3-point range. This is the blueprint, though: Give Ja a screener who can create some space (a role previously played by Jonas Valanciunas, now ably filled by Steven Adams) and flank him with shooters who can stretch the floor (Melton, newly minted $105 million man Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane). Then get your popcorn ready.

For as electric as Morant is off the dribble, defenses have been able to short-circuit him at times through his first two seasons by ducking under screens on the perimeter, packing the paint, and daring him to shoot. He went 6-for-16 on jumpers in Memphis’s loss in the 2020 postseason play-in game, 13-for-32 on them in the 2021 play-in tournament, and 10-for-31 from 3 in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. The next evolution in Ja’s game, then, is to be able to consistently drain enough pull-up shots to force defenders to take an extra step toward him outside. Once he’s drawn them out into deep water, they’re already drawing dead.

How effectively Morant can do that remains to be seen, but he’s stepping into his shots confidently to start the season. After stroking a few challenge jumpers on Sunday, he’s now 7-for-15 on pull-up jumpers, including 5-for-11 from long distance, according to NBA.com’s shot tracking.

If he can keep hitting that shot, all bets are off. A version of Morant who reliably makes defenders pay for sagging off of him would remove the ceiling from Memphis’s offense and propel the Grizzlies out of the play-in mix toward meaningful contention in the West. It would be the difference between Ja sitting on the fringes of All-Star consideration and vaulting into the All-NBA conversation. It would unleash an even more terrifying brand of nightmare on opposing defenses than the ones he already inspires. It’s hard enough to find an answer for Ja Morant right now. Before too long, there might not be one to find.