There are one or two players who make the leap to legitimate Superstar status in every playoff. This year it was Jason Tatum and Ja Morant. For those who were watching, Luka Dončić finally got a chance to show what he’s capable of in the second round, which is essentially the same level of dominance he’s wielded against his opponents since his rookie year. But so far, Ja Morant has been an over-athletic downhill guard who is impossible to guard in transition. The comps were believed to be Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Stephon Marbury.
This year’s playoff run changed all that.
During the first-round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, rumors returned that the Grizzlies were better without a yes. This rumor is being spread by Reddit reactionaries who knew little about the NBA prior to 2010. It’s hard to argue with people like that. Ja has proven to be an exceptional talent since being drafted runner-up in 2019. When you consider his teammates, a collection of above-average role players and solid starters in Desmond Bane and Jareen Jackson Jr. Yes, poor shooting averages were plagued by Patrick Beverley and the TWolves. But he still finished the series with 22 PPG, 9 RPG and 11 APG.
After the Grizzlies defeated the TWolves in six games, most pundits had thrown the rising Grizz back to reality against the Warriors. But the Grizzlies showed another side of their core – elite defense. The Grizzlies forced the Warriors into brutal perimeter shooting while Ja went supernova.
In the three games he played, he averaged an astronomical 38 PPG, 7 RPG, and 8 APG. Doing that against teams in the playoffs is one thing. But doing it against the three-time champion Warriors took Ja to another level, permanently silencing millennials who believe the Grizzlies are better in Ja’s absence. If anything quashed that rumor, it should have been the Grizzlies’ inability to beat the Warriors after Ja went down with a knee injury in game three.
Ja is expected to rest and rehabilitate all summer before returning next summer. Wisely, the Grizzlies have announced that the young Warden will be part of their long-term plans and continue to hone his skills. The question remains, how good can he be? It’s easier to gauge Dončić’s deck since he plays with mostly average to below average roleplayers. However, Dallas’ entire offensive is geared towards the Slovenian’s strengths. He dominates in a vacuum as a focal point to train Jason Kidd’s schemes.
Morant is blessed with a much better supporting cast. He doesn’t have the All-Star #2 guy like Tatum did in Jaylen Brown, but the Grizzlies are at least 10 deep. It’s one of the reasons they can maintain continuity and adapt when Ja is out through injury. Their offense isn’t based as strictly on Ja’s shooting or scoring. It benefits from the double teams he draws, but many grizzly players can score from dribbling and create their own shot.
Yes, a juggernaut can be on the offensive. His scoring performance in the Warriors series bears this out, as does the 27 PPG he achieved this season that earned him the Most Improved Player award. How much better can he be? As long as Memphis surrounds him with complementary talent, he’ll continue to have it easier than guys who carry heavier loads offensively. At 6ft 3, Ja is the perfect size for the modern day point guard, and his elite athleticism and lightning quick first step have increased his dominance on a purely physical level alone.
His PER this season was an elite 24.4, a seven-point jump from his sophomore season. Unlike the previously mentioned Francis, Marbury and BDiddy, Ja can shoot the ball with the best of them. His split of 49%/34%/76% doesn’t tell the whole story. All three were career highs, as was his 0.53% 2p% and 0.53% eFG% this season.
His numbers from three and the free-throw line can be improved. However, he has shown the ability to progressively improve his girth hitting from his freshman to his third year. Once he becomes a threat from deep, defenders need to guard him closer to the line so he can use his speed and verticality to get past defenders and score points at the basket.
Of the last 10 Most Improved Player award winners, only Giannis Antetokounmpo won an MVP or championship. It’s not hard to believe that Ja could be next in line for that jump. Typically, MIP winners become All-Stars once or twice while having a successful career at the starting level. Yes is physically and mentally built differently. He has the drive and intelligence to take his game to the next level. He has two areas where he needs significant improvement. If he focuses on his shooting from the perimeter and charity stripe, he could unlock the next part of his game and join Dončić, Giannis, Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the NBA’s top players.
The tremendous leaps he’s made this season have propelled his comps up into the territory of Dame Lillard and Derrick Rose, multiple All-Stars, All-NBAers, and MVP nominees/winners. Rose seems to be the best comparison as both human highlight reels have been on hiatus and possess the necessary DAWG mentality to hold their own against the best of competition.
Rose’s stats and shot count are pretty similar to Ja’s in his third season. In fact, in her third season, Ja averages 27 PPG versus Rose’s 25 PPG. That was the season Rose won the MVP award and established himself as the NBA’s top point guard. Playing in the golden age of point guards, Ja will have to make a Herculean effort to surpass Rose’s MVP numbers to be noticed for this award.
Also like Rose, Ja has a thin physique which helped with his knee injury during the Warriors series. Health will play as big a role as improving shooting for Ja to achieve MVP nomination. Improving Bane and Jackson’s game next season will also contribute to this increase. But you can’t argue that Ja already has one hell of a head start.