There are one or two players who make the leap toward legitimate superstar status every playoffs. This year it was Jason Tatum and Ja Morant. To those who have been watching, Luka Dončić was finally given the opportunity to show what he could do in the second round, which is much of the same domination he’s leveled at opponents since his rookie year. But up until now, Ja Morant has been an uber-athletic, downhill guard who is impossible to guard in transition. The comps were thought to have been Steve Francis, Baron Davis, and Stephon Marbury.
This year’s playoff run changed all that.
During the first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the rumors that the Grizzlies are better without Ja returned. That rumor is propagated by Reddit reactionaries who know little of the NBA before 2010. It’s hard to argue with people like this. Ja has shown himself to be an exceptional talent since being drafted second in 2019. To think that his teammates, a collection of above-average role players and solid starters in Desmond Bane and Jareen Jackson Jr. Ja, was haunted by poor shooting averages against Patrick Beverley and the T-Wolves. But he still finished the series with 22 PPG, 9 RPG, and 11 APG.
After the Grizzlies beat the T-Wolves in six games, most experts had the up-and-coming Grizz being knocked back into reality against the Warriors. But the Grizzlies showed another side to their core — elite defense. The Grizzlies forced the Warriors into brutal perimeter shooting while Ja went supernova.
He averaged an astronomical 38 PPG, 7 RPG, and 8 APG in the three games he played. To do this against any teams in the playoffs is one thing. But to do it against the three-time champion Warriors put Ja on another level and permanently shut up the millennials who think the Grizzlies are better in Ja’s absence. If anything strangled that rumor, it should have been the Grizzlies’ inability to beat the Warriors after Ja went down with a knee injury in Game Three.
Ja is expected to rest and rehab throughout the summer before returning next summer. Smartly, the Grizzlies have proclaimed the young guard will be part of their long-term plans and will continue to build around his skill set. The one question remains, how good can he be? It’s easier to judge Dončić’s ceiling since he plays with mostly average to below-average role players. However, the entire Dallas offense is orchestrated around the Slovenian’s strengths. He dominates in a vacuum as the focal point to coach Jason Kidd’s schematics.
Morant is graced with a much better supporting cast. He doesn’t have the All-Star No. 2 guy like Tatum in Jaylen Brown, but the Grizzlies are 10 deep at the minimum. This is one of the reasons they can maintain continuity and adjust when Ja is out due to injury. Their offense is not as strictly predicated upon Ja’s shooting or scoring. It benefits from the double-teams he draws, but many Grizzly players can score off-the-dribble and create their own shot.
Ja can be a juggernaut on offense. His scoring output in the Warriors series confirms that, as does the 27 PPG he notched this season, earning him the Most Improved Player award. How much better can he be? As long as Memphis surrounds him with complimentary talent, he will continue to have an easier time than guys carrying heavier loads offensively. At 6-foot-3, Ja has the perfect height for the modern point guard, and his elite athleticism and lighting-quick first step have elevated his dominance on pure physicality alone.
His PER was at an elite 24.4 this season, a seven-point jump from his sophomore season. Unlike the aforementioned Francis, Marbury, and BDiddy, Ja can shoot the ball with the best of them. His splits of 49%/34%/76% don’t tell the full story. All three were career highs, as were his .53% 2p% and his .53% eFG% this season.
His numbers from three and the free-throw line have room for improvement. However, he has shown the ability to improve his perimeter stroke incrementally from his first year to his third. Once he becomes a threat from deep, defenders will have to guard him closer at the line, allowing him to use his quickness and vertical to get by defenders for points at the basket.
Of the last 10 winners of the Most Improved Player awards, only Giannis Antetokounmpo went on to win an MVP or championship. It’s not hard to believe Ja could be next in line for that jump. Typically, MIP winners go on to be once or twice-time All-Stars while having successful start-level careers. Ja is built differently, physically and mentally. He has the drive and intelligence to take his game to the next level. He has two areas where he needs clear improvement from. If he concentrates on his shooting from the perimeter and charity stripe, he could unlock the next part of his game and join Dončić, Giannis, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James as the best players in the NBA.
The massive leaps he took this season have pushed his comp higher, to Dame Lillard and Derrick Rose territory, multiple time All-Stars, All-NBAers, and MVP candidates/winners. Rose seems to be the best comparison, as both were human highlight reels on the break and possess that necessary DAWG mentality to dominate against the best competition.
Rose’s stats and shooting number are fairly similar to Ja in his third season. In fact, Ja is averaging 27 PPG to Rose’s 25 PPG in their third seasons. That was the season Rose won the MVP award, and cemented himself as the best point guard in the NBA. Ja is playing in the Golden Age of point guards, and will have to put forth a Herculean effort surpassing Rose’s MVP numbers to get noticed for that award.
Also like Rose, Ja has a thin frame, which aided in his knee injury during the Warriors series. Health will play just as big of a part as shooting improvement, towards Ja reaching MVP candidacy. Elevating the play of Bane and Jackson next season will contribute to that rise as well. But you can’t argue Ja has already got a hell of a head start.