Ja Morant looks incredible right now but what he already knows could cause him to drop off a little at the NBA level as other players start to learn those same skills.
First, flash back to the beginning of this month, at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, day two. One of the later panels of the day was former Sports Illustrated reporter David Epstein talking about his new book with Malcolm Gladwell. The book is targeted heavily towards youth development in sports, bouncing between the examples of how Tiger Woods was raised, with constant targeting of everything in life towards golf, and how Roger Federer was raised, where he wasn’t even allowed to choose a focus until much later and was made to diversify his interests. You can listen to the full panel here, on the official SSAC Youtube channel.
One of the most interesting topics was a discussion from somewhere in the middle of the panel on a concept called closed skills. The classic definition of closed skills involves the skill being one that appears only in a stable, invariant environment. The problem is, in team sports, there’s no such thing as a stable, invariant environment outside of a small fraction of cases (free throw shooting, for example), but there are definitely still closed skills. Or at least there are things that when players learn how to do them, they act a lot like learning a closed skill, even if technically they aren’t closed, which is a meaningless distinction. A team-sports-oriented definition of closed skills, then, is that they are skills that share three key criteria:
- They are easy to teach to virtually anyone
- They are valuable to performance
- They have limitations as to how good you can be at them
So now, flash forward to Thursday, March 21, the first day of the round of 64 in the NCAA tournament. The most hyped matchup of the day was between Marquette and Murray State, in large part because of the matchup between Marquette’s highly acclaimed point guard Markus Howard, and Murray State’s even higher acclaimed point guard Ja Morant. It went well for Morant, to say the least. He recorded the first triple-double in the Men’s NCAA tournament since Draymond Green, and the Racers won by 19. Morant’s performance elicited tweets like this one, and overall Morant got his chance to burst into the public sphere after being equally explosive for most of the Ohio Valley Conference season.
But now it’s March 22, and we can take a slightly more critical look at yesterday’s performance, exciting as it was. I’ve long contended, even before yesterday, that Morant’s biggest assets right now were not his athleticism or his finishing or his passing vision. Instead, Morant is excellent at a few much more nuanced skills — changing north-south speeds, timing when and how he attacks the pick-and-roll and recognizing when he is doubled on the perimeter. His finishing and passing vision are a product of more than just those things, but those things also greatly augment his finishing and passing vision.
For example, here’s a clip of one of Morant’s finishes yesterday:
That’s a good finish. It requires footwork — in fact, more precise footwork than would be required in the NBA even given how an NCAA referee tends to be more aggressive on travel calls. It requires some athleticism — those changes of direction are non-trivial from a physical standpoint. But the largest thing in it is that he’s able to use those changes in direction more from a skill standpoint and into the open gap.
Similarly, here’s a clip of one of his assists yesterday:
That’s a good pass, and it requires some vision. You have to be able to find a passing lane between all the outstretched arms and literally all five opposing players, which is a component of vision. But the actual identification on the pass is simple — there are five of us, so literally all four of my teammates will be open. You can see that in this assist too, as there’s actually a point where he’s doubled near midcourt and you can see him look up to find who’s open, and then drive in a manner that gets that player the ball.
But those skills I’m talking about that augment his finishing and passing vision? I’d contend they’re closed skills.
NBA coaches have a long line of success in teaching guards that aren’t good at changing speeds to do just that. Look at De’Aaron Fox, who before the draft had that first and foremost on his list of weaknesses, and now, 1.8 years into his career with the Sacramento Kings, that’s a strength of his. It’s definitely valuable, as we can see from Fox how adding that ability between year one and year two took him from one of the worst players in the league in most metrics to the best player on a burgeoning upstart near-playoff team. And finally, there’s a cap as to how good you can be at it. Going back to that example where Morant finished at the rim, while the finish was good, it only happens because the defenders both overplay him rather than staying down and honest. No matter how good you get at changing speeds, a defender that plays in a disciplined fashion will be able to contain that move.
And you can do the same exercise with attacking in the pick-and-roll or reading the double team. Every point guard in the NBA is able to do those at some level, and heck, even guys as raw as rookie Thon Maker have flashed the ability to identify the open man out of a double team at a level that college players usually cannot. They’re valuable skills, but they definitely have a ceiling to them because no matter how well you read the pick-and-roll coverage or find the open man out of the double team, you still have to execute, and that’s not nearly as easy at the next level. As a result, Morant’s three biggest skills absolutely meet our earlier criteria for a closed skill.
But what does that mean for Morant? Well, discussed in the Sloan panel at the beginning was a specific trajectory regarding closed skills, and that they tend to provide a benefit the short-term Right now, because Morant is already good at those closed skills, he is far and away the best point guard in college basketball.
But I’m an NBA writer, and that doesn’t matter much to me. What matters to me is that he’ll succeed at the NBA level, and I think the second part of the trajectory, where people who learned them early tend to tail off in the long run, is a bit more nerve-inducing. As everyone gets to NBA coaching and learns how to do those closed skills, Morant’s advantage over the field should close. We think of Morant as a late bloomer, because he was under-recruited and ended up at Murray State, but skill-wise, he’s more like a well-developed, NBA-ready guy.
And that doesn’t mean Morant won’t be good. He’s still a good athlete and a good passer and a solid basketball mind. But it might be best, based on what we know about his skill profile, to temper expectations a little.