Ja Morant is probably going to be a top-three pick in the 2019 NBA Draft because of his star potential. But where does his game have to improve for him to reach that level?
Ja Morant was probably the second biggest name in the 2019 NBA Draft class behind Zion Williamson. The sophomore point guard from Murray State took over the draft conversation with two huge national games against Alabama and Auburn early in the season, and the NCAA Tournament likely solidified Morant’s clout. The Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year dazzled in the Racers’ two tournament games, posting the first NCAA Tournament triple-double since Draymond Green against Long Island in 2012, with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 16 assists in an upset victory over Marquette. And while Florida State beat Murray in the second round, Morant going for 28 points and five rebounds was still an impressive feat against a team with legitimate NBA length and athleticism on defense.
Morant has star potential. He’s a dazzling passer, and he is probably the second-best transition scorer in the class outside of Williamson. He has flair for the big moment, such as his game-winner against Jacksonville State in the OVC Tournament quarterfinals.
It’s easy to get lost in what he does well, and his ability to do it on volume. Posting a 61.2 true shooting percentage on a 33.3 usage rate is insanely difficult, and coupling that with an assist rate of 51.8 percent is a rare achievement. Since 2009-10, the only other player to hit the benchmarks of 25 percent usage and 50 percent assist rate was Kris Dunn in his sophomore season, and Morant’s true shooting percentage was six percentage points better.
You couple that with the highlights of Morant’s defense, which are good. When he makes the correct read, he can make some impressive weak side blocks and steals.
Add that together, and you get a pretty exciting player in a draft class that lacks exciting players outside of Zion.
However, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees with Morant, which seems to be a common problem for fans and scouts alike. His statistical production and highlights pop, particularly against Ohio Valley Conference competition, and that’s enough for some. But dig a little deeper, and you can see how Morant might not make the jump from college star to NBA All-Star very easily. The learning curve to become a functional NBA point guard is a steep one, and while Morant may have different hurdles to cross than past point guard prospects like Trae Young and Lonzo Ball, they are certainly relevant and will cause difficulties for him early on. Rather than focus on what he can do, it’s important to highlight the things he struggles with because there is a high likelihood that he’s going to struggle early on in his career.
The first issue is one that’s pretty obvious to anyone — his frame, which is thin and wiry at 6-foot-2, a suboptimal combination for the NBA. He doesn’t have the power to drive through a real contest at the rim, as we can see from this drive against an NBA-level contest from Auburn’s Chuma Okeke.
Of course, finishing wasn’t an issue for Morant in college, as he had counters to that. If he gets a head of steam towards the rim, he’s great at exploding in the paint quickly to avoid those proper contests.
But he’s less adept at doing so when there’s tighter space, and he doesn’t have the same vertical explosion off one foot, as we saw in the prior clip. That’s why Morant may struggle to make that athleticism functional at the NBA level — he has Westbrook-esque explosion without Westbrook’s build and lacks the ability to power up in close quarters that a guy like Damian Lillard has. Of course, Morant has very exciting craft around the rim:
But it’s extremely difficult to rely on craft primarily in the NBA as opposed to college. Even the elite of the elite craft finishers — Manu Ginobili, Kyrie Irving, etc. — had the strength to get into the defender and finish through contact. Morant doesn’t have that yet, and with his narrow frame, it’s questionable that he ever will despite good finishing numbers this year.
Morant’s frame also limits his defensive ceiling, which doesn’t have to be high for him to bring NBA value. Morant has his positive moments, but the combination of Morant’s build and lack of effort paints a negative picture for his overall defensive output at the NBA level. Morant’s lateral agility and vertical pop help him create events in off-ball situations, but he too often falls asleep at the wheel off the ball, and doesn’t commit to fixing his mistake with good closeouts.
It’s also easy to confuse him with more complex offensive actions. Force him to chase off screens, and he loses track of the ball-handler easily, in part because he can’t reliably fight through screens with his current build.
There’s also the question of Morant’s feel for the game on offense, and it’s important to make a distinction that this doesn’t have to do with his passing, which is very good. Morant has great vision, acceptable technique on advanced pass types, and he does a good job of finding the open teammate. The ability to make this left-handed shovel pass in transition is what makes him likely the best passer in the 2019 NBA Draft class.
Instead, we have to talk about plays like this one from the Auburn game.
Morant’s sense of the moment on a possession-to-possession basis can be a little concerning at times. He makes good reads and finds open teammates, yes. But his ability to make the right decision when isolating and his ability to read a defense as it’s setting up lags behind the other primary initiators in this class. I’m high on Coby White’s potential as a point guard because of how consistently he made good attacking decisions in North Carolina’s offense. R.J. Barrett, who struggles with the same issue of shot selection, is more likely to be a functional finisher and is more comfortable creating shots in the halfcourt. Morant has the same problem of drifting in and out of control of the game that Barrett does, but his tendency to force the issue compounds the questions of shot selection. Often times, it feels like Morant can clearly see a good play, but doesn’t have the technique to make it, or his teammates don’t see the play developing in the way that Morant does.
In college, this was just a small price to pay for the load that Morant could shoulder for Murray State. But in the NBA, this lack of feel for the moment could be a significant hindrance that keeps him from being worth the contract his talent is going to demand. We know what this type of problem manifests as in the league: Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Dennis Smith Jr., to name three. Having talent matters, certainly. But all three of those players were supremely talented like Morant, and it didn’t translate into wins because they couldn’t (or haven’t, in Smith’s case) mastered the management aspect of being an NBA lead ball-handler.
That’s my main hesitation with Morant, much as it is to a lesser extent with R.J. Barrett. Morant’s talents set him up to be a college star and to get drafted high. But there are real concerns around the margins that will very likely be problems for him at the NBA level. He will likely figure out ways to score and gather assists consistently. But in terms of the things that vault point guards into elite company — decision-making, elite finishing, off-dribble shooting, and maintaining calm under pressure — Morant is going to have a steep learning curve to reach the level of the top-3 pick he’s probably going to earn. Of course, he can get there — after all, De’Aaron Fox had a lot of the same movement skills and weaknesses, and his Year 1 to Year 2 growth was incredible. But betting on that may be foolish, and it might be very difficult for Morant to live up to the hype.