One of the biggest NBA Draft stories this season was the meteoric rise of Ja Morant who went from an intriguing mid-major prospect with a cult following last year to a can't-miss lottery talent that has many expecting him to be the first guard taken off the board in June.
In his sophomore season, Morant commanded attention with his ferocious dunks that demonstrated his top-shelf athleticism, a surgical passing game and coupled with a long 6'3" frame pointed to him being a future star at the point guard position.
However, dominating at Murray State, in the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC), made for some doubters who questioned whether he could actually do it at the highest level.
Morant went on a mission to prove them wrong, starting with a 38-point, five-assist exhibition against Alabama. He followed that up by dropping 25 points, seven assists against an Auburn team who eventually went all the way to the Final Four losing to the eventually National Champions Virginia. He also finished with 30 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament leading Murray State to a win over the higher seeded Marquette Golden Eagles.
His raw offensive production is going to draw a lot of eyes but what could make a team fall in love with Morant is his leadership ability.
Not a ton was expected of Murray State this year but they vastly overachieved finishing first in the OVC with a 28-5 overall record which was due in large part to their commander Morant.
He regularly got the best out of his teammates and in a league like the NBA where most teams are pressed up against the salary cap looking for ways to get the most out of value contracts, having a player like Morant that can elevate the play of anyone you run out there with him could provide tremendous value. Morant will be the first point guard drafted, the question is what team will want to take him over one of the wings or forwards available early.
Morant's athleticism is his calling card and the bounce he shows for a point guard who is 6'3" with a plus wingspan indicates an astonishingly high ceiling for a player who is already fairly polished.
What I love about Morant's game is the fact that he doesn't use his athleticism to just be a straight-line driver, he instead uses it to go side-to-side and change speeds to keep defenders off balance.
Many athletes of his calibre are looking to just find the straightest line to the rim before putting their head down and torpedoing in that direction but Morant has a lot of shake and shimmy to his game that should help him out when he's facing NBA defenders. What also impresses me about Morant is the fact he has a handle that's good enough to keep up with his feverish changes of direction and pace. His library of dribble moves is extensive and he's able to keep the ball on a string as he squeezes his way through traffic and that developed handle is going to really help his transition to the NBA as we've seen young point guards exposed early in their pro careers due to an insufficient handle.
While Morant's springiness is what fills up the highlight reels it's his passing that might be his most impactful skill at the NBA level.
This Ja Morant dunk sounded like a cannon went off 😤- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 10, 2019
His 10 assists per game led college basketball by a country mile (the second place player averaged 7.7) and his 51.9% assist rate was the highest we've seen in the past 5 seasons. Court vision can't be taught and Morant has the innate understanding of space and angles that allows him to thread passes most other players wouldn't dream of making. He doesn't just find shooters, he passes it at the exact height where the crouch of their shot preparation starts to accelerate the release.
He doesn't just hit cutters in transition, he leads them perfectly where they don't have to slow down even a little before catching and finishing. He doesn't just drop off passes to big men, he sees where that player's defender is coming from and passes it to the proper shoulder where he can immediately turn and lay it in.
While we all acknowledge passing is an important part of the game it's not often truly elite passers can be identified and there's one in Morant who unquestionably is world-class in that area.
Morant isn't shy and in his quest to create offence on every possession got himself in some rather troublesome turnover situations. He had 5 or more turnovers in 18 of his 31 games this season and that is an unglamorous number that NBA coaches simply won't allow. Many of his turnovers came when he left his feet to make a pass or drove the ball to try and make a spectacular play in traffic and he'll need to become a safer, more reliable player with the ball while also keeping the flash that makes him a dangerous scorer.
You've probably seen a handful of Morant's soaring dunk highlights and that might give you the impression that he's an elite finisher at the rim and while he does have the elevation to finish over some defenders I think he has work to do on taking contact and finishing. He definitely needs to add muscle to what right now is a fairly slight frame and that should really help with his finishing.
i still got a lot to prove 😤- Ja Morant (@igotgame_12) April 22, 2019
He often went to softer extended finishes instead of taking the ball strong and finishing tight and that resulted in a lot of misses when contested. Instead of creating contact he also would settle for a lot of floaters and he did not convert those at a very good rate. He has all the physical tools to be a great finisher at the tin but they haven't yet been realized.
There have been a lot of questions raised about Morant's jumper and it's low release and streaky conversion rate suggests it may need to be reworked a little from a mechanical standpoint. A lot of his jump shots came off the dribble and that made for streaky shooting and those difficult attempts should be lowered a bit at the NBA level and he should shoot a better percentage because of it.
While I think he has enough other tools in his offensive game to make up for his below average shooting the question does have to be raised-can you win in the modern NBA with a primary ball handler that isn't a great shooter? With Morant, we might just find out.
Projected Draft Position: 2-4
Projected NBA Role: High-usage point guard.
Comparison: Steve Francis
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