A Peak into Ja Morant’s NBA Transition
The Memphis Grizzlies have already started signaling that they will select Ja Morant with the second overall pick in this upcoming NBA Draft. At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, Morant is a quick-twitch point guard who is nearly impossible to keep out of the lane. With point guard Mike Conley aging into his early thirties, the Grizzlies would be making a smart move if they drafted Zion Williamson’s former AAU teammate.
His playing style is exciting to watch but, how will it translate to the NBA? Morant is a ball-dominant guard who relies heavily on both improvisation and speed to break down defenses. With an imperfect jumper that pushes straight out from his body, Morant is dependent upon getting to the rim to maintain his efficiency. Fortunately, he has the hangtime to jam it home or get fouled. A look at some advanced stats may give us a glimpse into what Morant’s first year in the Association will look like. Let’s start with his free throw attempt rate (FTr).
Free Throw Attempt Rate
For people with streaky jumpers or questionable shot selection, getting to the line can be a saving grace. Ask Carmelo Anthony or Russell Westbrook about this metric. Determined by tracking how many free throws are attempted per field goal attempt, FTr can be a good indicator of offensive efficiency. So, what did Morant’s percentage look like last season?
Morant posted a remarkably high FTr of 51.2 percent last year. In other words, for every two field goal attempts he took, Morant attempted just over one free throw. This stat is more impressive when you consider he shot 81.3 percent from the stripe.
For comparison, Westbrook, a guard known for his relentless assault on the rim, has had a FTr of 38.5 percent over the last five seasons. James Harden had a FTr of 44.9 percent this year, which was the highest among point guards. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Morant to carry over this high rate to the NBA. Why? Teams will scheme away that strength. Lengthier arms will be able to contest without fouling. Bigger NBA bodies may deter Morant’s 170-pound frame. Lanes close more quickly.
Analytic departments are surely aware that Morant cannot sustain this rate and therefore, efficiency. Still, he should get to the line often and it will help his offensive production. But what should we monitor in regard to this statistic? Be ready to here reports of Morant’s weight-gaining diet as he puts on pounds to go against NBA bigs. This advanced stat also relates to the next metric we will discuss.
This season, only one player posted a higher usage rate at the pro level than what Morant did in the college ranks. The player? James Harden. A third of all Murray State plays resulted in Morant either taking a shot, going to the free throw line or turning the ball over.
Will this high rate be seen during his rookie year? No. And that is okay. The vast majority of NBA players do not have a usage rate that high. Unless Memphis ships off Conley, which is a possibility, Morant will have to learn how to operate within an offense when the set is not designed for him to score.
What can this look like on the court? Can Morant be used in multiple playmaker lineups in an off-ball role? He is adept at cutting and hypothetically, Morant could cause distractions using that skill, opening the court for others to score.
Morant, however, did not flash much off-ball potential in college. Despite having the theoretical athleticism to run defenders through screens, this is not his strong suit. Do not expect him to play the role of distracting floor spacer in two guard lineups, like what Kyrie Irving often did in Boston.
Instead, keep an eye on the team that drafts him and how they structure their backcourt. If the Grizzlies move Conley it indicates that they are comfortable with Morant having what will be a very high usage rate for a rookie. If this is the case, we may want to lower expectations for Morant’s first professional campaign. A high usage rate combined with an expected regression in FTr means Morant will not reproduce the efficiency of his sophomore year in college. Be patient, however, he could get there one day.
This year, Morant took 8 shots at the rim per game and shot 60.6 percent on them. Not only was this done at a similar volume to guys like Dame Lillard, John Wall and Harden but, it was at a better percentage too. Will this high mark translate to the League, though?
Maybe. Although Murray State played tough non-conference games against teams that possessed NBA length, Morant may have benefitted from playing against guys who lack elite measurables. There is a great chance his bounce and elusiveness cancel out the challenge he’ll face when constantly going against stretchy wingspans. Regardless, this is something we should be able to discern as early as Summer League games.
We saw a glimpse of it versus Florida State in the NCAA tournament. Morant battled against one of the longest teams in college basketball and had trouble getting good looks at the rim. There were times when he was either blocked from behind after beating a 7-footer to the hoop or had floaters bothered by a long defender.
Yet, he can float in the air against defenders and shows decent touch around the rim. Check out the hangtime he demonstrated versus a 7-foot-4 center. It is likely that NBA teams force Morant to prove he can consistently hit pull-up jumpers and deter him from the paint by sending help defenders there. Morant has the dexterity and hops to finish at the rim but a slight regression in this area could be coming his way.
Overall, Morant will have to adjust to NBA speed and size. I trust him to do so. His physical tools welcome that challenge. Sure, Morant will need to hone his off dribble shooting if he wants to accentuate his athletic gifts attacking the rim. If you want to lower expectations for Morant’s first year as a pro, it is reasonable to do so. Just don’t lower his ceiling.