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Ja Morant Is Closer to Elite NBA Superstar Peers Than You Think

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2022

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) reacts after making a three-point basket during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

After Ja Morant went for 36 points and eight assists in a comfortable win over Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets on Monday, teammate Desmond Bane fired up the hot-take cannon.

"People debate whether or not he should be an All-Star," Bane said, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "But I think we should be debating whether he's the best point guard in the league."

On Tuesday, Ja backed Bane up. Not on the podium, but on the hardwood. As the Memphis Grizzlies wrapped up a short Eastern Conference road trip, Morant went for 26 points, six assists, five rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that doesn't even begin to tell the story.

In a game that the Cavs led by 11, Morant helped lead a late-second quarter surge that erased that deficit in less than four minutes. He made two buckets and assisted on two others in a 13-0 run to close the half. Then, after a back-and-forth second half, Morant's fearlessness buried Cleveland.

NBA TV @NBATV

Ja coming up clutch in Cleveland ๐Ÿ”ฅ https://t.co/pqB2zUJbmt

With just over 30 seconds left and the game tied at 104, Ja took a handoff on the right wing from Desmond Bane. The action didn't create an advantage for Morant, but that didn't matter. He went behind the back, attacked and hung in the air for a lead-seizing two. And, as if that wasn't enough, he ripped the ball from Darius Garland on the ensuing possession, went end-to-end and powered up a game-sealing layup.

The two runs were the on-court display of what Morant talked about after the victory.

"I don't fear nobody, dog," Morant told the Grizzlies' broadcast. "I don't care if you 7'7", or whatever, I'm coming straight at you."

Memphis Grizzlies @memgrizz

G12 ๐Ÿฅท ๐ŸŽค @JaMorant // #NBAAllStar https://t.co/3afhyNscvE

No one who's watched Morant over the course of his short NBA career could argue with him on that point. He's often described as having the "it" factor, and in his case, "it" might be that fearlessness.

In last season's playoffs, after Ja cut backdoor past Joe Ingles and caught a pass on the run, he found himself barreling toward three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. In a situation in which most guards and wings make an abrupt U-turn out of the paint, Morant took off, cocked the ball back for a hammer and was stuffed.

NBA @NBA

๐Ÿ˜ณ RIM PROTECTOR RUDY GOBERT! ๐Ÿ˜ณ #NBAPlayoffs on TNT https://t.co/PL9K4Wl3p4

Ja, undeterred, would go on to score 47 points in that game. Memphis lost the series in five games, but Morant averaged 30.2 points, 8.2 assists and 2.0 threes in his first postseason. Against the West's top seed, he looked like the best player on the floor for multiple stretches.

"I'm not afraid," Morant said of Gobert's highlight denial. "That's his job: to protect the rim. My job when I'm attacking the rim is to go finish. So obviously, he got a good block. But as you [saw] throughout the game, I was right back inside the paint."

That mentality carried into 2021-22, especially since his return from a knee injury and the league's health and safety protocols. In his eight games back in the lineup, Morant is putting up 27.6 points, 6.4 assists and 1.9 threes, while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 53.6 percent from three. Over his last five, he's at 33.2 points per game.

As long as Stephen Curry's in the NBA and performing anywhere near his current level, it's going to be hard for any point guard to snag his "best in the league" title, but Morant's playoff debut, season-long production and this most recent stretch have him, at the very least, on the precipice of conversations like the one Bane is trying to start.

Right now, an amalgamation of catch-all metrics from around the Internet peg Morant as this season's 24th best player, though cumulative numbers (think points, rather than points per game) are probably pulling that down a bit, since he's missed 12 games.

Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey

If you sort every NBA player w/ 300+ MIN on January 3 by the AVERAGE OF THEIR RANKS in 10 catch-alls (Box Plus/Minus, RAPTOR, Estimated Plus-Minus, LEBRON and Game Score per 36 minutes, as well as the cumulative versions of each), this is the top 30... https://t.co/ZVpJTtUwvb

Even with the absences, though, Curry, Trae Young, Chris Paul, LaMelo Ball and Dejounte Murray are the only point guards above him. And if you just narrow it down to Basketball Reference's box plus/minus (BPM "โ€ฆis a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference), the top two at that position are Curry and Morant.

However you want to measure it, Morant is on the short list of the game's best 1s. And considering that he's just 22 years old, that should be frightening for the rest of the league.

He's still going to get better. A 40.0 three-point percentage suggests his jumper is improving, but he likely isn't done on that front. With his nearly unparalleled burst off the dribble, defenders will likely always have to play him for the drive, but a few more weeks at this level from three will force them to respect his range. That will, in turn, lead to harder closeouts and wider driving lanes.

Most focus on the space that shooting creates for teammates, but it can have a similar function for the shooter himself.

Morant can also get better on defense. He's shorter and more slight than plenty of guards. The Grizzlies are surrendering a whopping 9.2 more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. None of that has to be permanent, though.

He's not going to get any taller, but, like Curry, Morant will likely get stronger over the course of his career. Fighting through screens and standing up to bully-ball drives will get easier. And with his high-end quickness, he should be able get into passing lanes and swipe steals as he gains more confidence in defensive schemes and scouting reports on his opponents.

Because of what we've seen from Morant already, it can be easy to forget that he's only been in the NBA for just over two seasons. Plenty of good (and even some great) careers are still floundering in year three. Ja already has himself and a young supporting cast almost locked into homecourt advantage in the first round of the 2022 playoffs.

And with his athleticism, production and the unmeasurable fearlessness that's driven him to wins like Tuesday's, Morant looks like one of the game's premier cornerstone talents.

In today's game, that's a tough list to crack. Luka Doncic, Young, Donovan Mitchell, Ball, Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Jayson Tatum and Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in Morant's draft, are all 25 or younger. But Ja leads all players in age-25 (or younger) seasons in BPM. His team is winning and has taken on a demeanor and identity that reflects his. The player picked ahead of him has yet to appear in a 2021-22 game.

Bane's "best point guard in the league" question may be a stretch. The "pick the under-25 player around whom you'd build a team" discussion often feels impossible. But Morant has played well enough that neither proposition is out of bounds.

And, as Curry has shown us over the last decade, a guard without the physical dimensions of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant can ascend to pretty lofty heights.

Morant may be next.