How Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant is bending the game to his will

Yahoo Sports

A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.

1. Ja Morant is turning the game around 

Presented below are two shot charts. 

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(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)
(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)

The first one belongs to point guard Ja Morant, the spindly springboard who is going to run away with the NBA Rookie of the Year Award unless Zion Williamson emerges looking like prime LeBron James. The other one belongs to Morant’s teammate, big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)
(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)

Jackson Jr. scores all over the arc like a wing: coming off screens, nailing step-backs, spotting up, pick-n-rolling and pick-n-popping. But it’s Morant, eight inches shy of Jackson’s 6-foot-11 frame, who has the balance, post footwork and ball control to stay level when he’s swarmed inside the paint. The NBA’s lost post arts are making themselves new in the drives of smaller players like Morant.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Yahoo Sports illustration)

The Grizzlies, riding a six-game winning streak, took over the eighth seed in the West behind this duo that is just the latest example of the modern NBA’s positional role reversal. Jackson is taking over six threes per game, while Morant leads the Grizzlies in attempts at the restricted area. 

Morant navigates the rim with a mix of burst, instinct and touch, like the helicopter in the Helicopter Game trying to avoid crashing against the walls. He also has the burst to go through obstacles when that doesn’t work, making him more dangerous down low than your modern big man.

The boldness with which Morant uses his athletic gifts to embarrass other defenders makes him a dribbling highlight reel — reminiscent of when Blake Griffin drew curmudgeonly ire for Mozgov-ing the entire NBA in his rookie year — but Morant’s dominance is tied less to his ability to spring up and more to do with what he does when he’s on the ground. Morant rarely picks up his dribble or jump-passes into the unknown, a habit most athletic guards don’t develop and internalize for years because, prior to the NBA, they never had to. 

Morant is particular and rigorous about getting where he wants to go, and his ability to snake into the paint and stay there with a live dribble forces commitments, allowing him to leverage his calling: whipping passes all over the floor.

In the final moments of a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, the Grizzlies were up three when Morant came off a pick, drove into the lane, turned his back to defender Jarrett Culver, spun toward the rim, assessed the situation, eyed Jackson, and decided he wanted more leverage. He spun again, this time away from the rim, faking a short fadeaway to attract the necessary attention to create an open three for Jackson, who was waiting for the Wolves to succumb to Morant’s proximity to the rim and bring a second defender toward him.

Morant’s control under duress allows him to bust out new moves until something gives, and it almost always does. That’s when he pounces. Good playmakers take what the defense gives them. Elite playmakers take what they want. The ball was headed to Jackson the whole time. It was just a matter of how.

The NBA is still an inside-out league. We’ve just flipped who’s on the outside and who’s on the inside. 

2. Chris Paul is having a moment

This offseason, the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder made a trade that brought to life a thought experiment that rules NBA debates: If you replaced one elite point guard with another, which team would be better? It turns out the Rockets and Thunder are both better with Chris Paul, and worse with Russell Westbrook.  

Both guards have a habit of not letting the ball breathe enough. Westbrook enforces chaos, while Paul enforces control. Paul entered the league three years before Westbrook, but where the Rockets’ guard is starting to look old, Paul looks timeless, his wily tricks aging like a fine wine. He can still flop, jostle and manipulate angles with the best of them.

Paul punctuated the difference between the two when Westbrook returned to Oklahoma on Jan. 9 for the first time since the trade, and he’s done it by sticking to brass tacks in a league that is constantly shifting and evolving. 

In his book “Sprawlball”, Kirk Goldsberry explores how the NBA’s shot-map has evolved over history. If you want to understand the proliferation of the 3-pointer and death of the postup, look no further than the fact that between 2013-14 and 2015-16, four-foot shots — that are, due to their proximity to the rim, contested — were converted at a 31-percent rate league-wide, despite being worth one less point than threes. In 2017-2018, the league shot 39.6 percent of eight-footers. 

In-between shots have essentially been legislated out of the game, but while the mid-ranger lacks efficiency, it makes an offense more dynamic.

Paul doesn’t convert well on that dreaded four-footer, but just take a look here:

(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)
(Screen shot from NBA.com/stats)

Paul shoots at least 12-percent better than the rest of the league from the orb outside the restricted area. It’s an area that, at this juncture, opponents are least likely to defend. Regular-season defense is a matter of habit. If you usually don’t guard that shot, you won’t do it then, making Paul even more dangerous with the arsenal he has spent his career mastering: the drive and criss-cross dribble that allow him to get from one side of the paint to the other and shoot faders against off-balance big men, and unfurling floaters just short of the rotation waiting in the restricted area.

Paul just has his spots, and they’ve been the foundation of one of the best crunch-time offenses in the NBA, outscoring all opponents per 100 possessions except the Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks.

Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays a different game. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander plays a different game. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

3. In appreciation of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s rebounding

Speaking of positional role reversal, on Monday in a win over the Timberwolves, 21-year-old Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander put on his best Russell Westbrook impersonation and became the youngest player in NBA history to register a 20-rebound triple-double, beating a record set in 1993 by none other than Shaquille O’Neal, who had seven inches and over 100 pounds on Gilgeous-Alexander.

Gilgeous-Alexander gobbles up more rebounds than anyone on the Thunder outside of center Steven Adams, and it’s important that he can. As The Ringer’s Rob Mahoney put it, “In the push toward positionless basketball, teams skewing smaller and smaller have to find their own ways to replicate what traditional power forwards and centers have been doing ably for decades.”

When Adams has to venture out to the arc to guard 3-point shooting big men, Gilgeous-Alexander gives him cover. His small but big game also gives the Thunder the versatility to employ a three-guard lineup with Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder that’s lit the league up. 

The book on Gilgeous-Alexander is he’s a herky-jerky scorer, a willing but unnatural playmaker. He is selfless and smart, but he’s not made to be a quarterback. What he lacks in traditional positional strength, though, he makes up for with unconventional abilities that allow the Thunder to get creative while maintaining the foundations of their defense.

Hell, standing at 6-5 and averaging twice the amount of rebounds as he does assists, Gilgeous-Alexander may just be the prelude to a position we don’t have a name for yet.

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