In the 2019-20 NBA season, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant was without a doubt the best rookie in the league. As such, he earned 99 of a possible 100 first-place votes for a near-unanimous Rookie of the Year selection.
Now, with a year of NBA experience under his belt, it's fair to assume that things are only up from here for the 21-year-old.
In recent history, Rookie of the Year winners - and other standout rookies - have made an All-Star leap in their second season. In fact, the last two Rookie of the Year Award winners have been selected to the All-Star Game in Year 2.
Note: While NBA All-Star 2021 in Indianapolis has been moved to 2024, the NBA has announced that plans for a revised NBA All-Star 2021 will be announced at a later date.
|Rookie Year||Year 2||All-Star?|
|Ben Simmons||15.8 PTS, 8.1 REB, 8.2 AST||16.9 PTS, 8.8 REB, 7.7 AST||Yes|
|Luka Doncic||21.2 PTS, 7.8 REB, 6.0 AST||28.8 PTS, 9.4 REB, 8.8 AST||Yes|
|Ja Morant||17.8 PTS, 7.3 AST, 3.9 REB||-||-|
Additionally, each of the last three All-Star Games has featured at least one second-year All-Star.
|2018||Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers|
|2019||Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers|
|2020||Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks|
|2020||Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks|
To be fair, Morant has a tough act to follow in Doncic, who made an astronomical leap into superstardom in his second year. Expecting that level of an encore performance in Year 2 might be a bit unfair to Morant but he is in a position to make more strides towards being considered among the league's elite.
In NBA.com's 2019-20 end of season player rankings, Morant came in at 29th and was just one of two rookies to fall into the top 30.
With respect to his standing as a potential All-Star, Morant ranked behind seven Western Conference guards, not including Russell Westbrook, who has since been traded to the Washington Wizards and Stephen Curry, who was not considered for the rankings after missing all but five games last season.
Can Morant emerge as one of the five best guards in the West as soon as this season? As great as he was as a rookie, there is much to improve on and Morant maintains a chip on his shoulder.
This mentality is what ignites the former mid-major guard, who, per Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, "still wants to prove everyone wrong even after last season's success." Barnes added that Morant has worked to improve by gaining five pounds during his offseason training while continuously working on his jump shot.
Those two things clearly could take Morant up a notch.
Morant is hard-nosed and isn't one to back down from any competition but adding bulk to a 6-foot-3, 174-pound frame will only benefit Morant for the rigours of a 72-game (eventually 82) season, especially as a point guard that will be hit with countless screens on a nightly basis.
As a shooter, Morant's form isn't exactly textbook but was mechanically sound enough for him to convert at a respectable 33.5% from beyond the arc, albeit at a fairly low volume, as he made under one triple per game. He used his elite ability to penetrate defences to make a living in the paint, where he scored 10.7 points per night.
For perspective, that's more points in the paint on a nightly basis than Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic and Kawhi Leonard. It was also the fifth-most in the league among all guards under 6-foot-4.
While Westbrook and Fox were the least efficient, each of the players that land above Morant on this list made at least one triple per game. Morant's clear strength is as a driver but a gradual improvement on his perimeter shooting will allow him to unlock more of his offence and, in turn, result in more driving lanes once defences are forced to play him more honestly.
We saw him do it against the Houston Rockets last year.
a taste of his own step back 😉@JaMorant | #GrzNxtGen pic.twitter.com/0I9XKlCxFL- Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 15, 2020
Above everything else, is the fact that the Grizzlies need to win. Morant's breakout season meant that Memphis's rebuild was accelerated much faster than initially believed, leading a team that was expected to win under 30 games just two wins shy of a postseason berth.
Morant, who used his passing ability to finish 10th in the league in assists should be an even better facilitator as the NBA game continues to slow down.
With Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas on the interior, Dillon Brooks, De'Anthony Melton and recent trade deadline acquisition Justise Winslow on the perimeter and rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane to boot, the core of a team that just missed the playoffs has been solidified.
It gets no easier in a vast-improved Western Conference, but Memphis is one of several teams that will be vying for a playoff spot but if a much-improved Morant can lead Memphis above even more expectations this season, expect that streak of second-year All-Stars to continue.
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