According to NBA.com, Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is averaging 14.9 points per game in the paint this season.
Why is that remarkable? A couple of reasons.
One, it’s by far the highest mark of Morant’s young career, up from 10.7 in his rookie season and 10.6 in his sophomore season. Two, it’s the third-highest mark in the entire league this season, behind only a pair of 7-footers in Giannis Antetokounmpo (15.6) and Nikola Jokic (15.3).
Need to be reminded that Morant is listed at 6-foot-3, 174 pounds?
The NBA is a league of giants, and yet one of the most dominant (and efficient!) paint scorers is a point guard whose size was once a concern.
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Calling Morant “light” is, of course, oversimplifying things because what he lacks in traditional sizing, he makes up for in other ways.
After all, we’re talking about someone who recently did this in the middle of a game:
— Drew Hanlen (@DrewHanlen) January 10, 2023
You can’t teach that kind of athletics.
The fun part of Morant’s game is how he harnesses his incredible athleticism. Sure, there are times when he’ll try to humiliate whoever stands between him and the basket (many business decisions are made when Morant’s head is full of steam), but it’s the pace at which he plays that separates him from the crowd.
He’ll do things like fly off a screen at full speed, make the shot-blocker think he’s going to get to the basket, only to leave them spinning (literally in JaVale McGee’s case) with a vicious euro step and soft finish.
He’ll push the pace in transition, slow down to force the assist defender into a decision, and then fly alongside his defender for an effortless dunk.
Watch Draymond Green, who knows a thing or two about playing help defense, on this play:
You’ll get a handoff, hit the brakes to put your defender in jail, and contort your body around a shot-blocker for a smooth tackle.
He’ll do the same thing: slam on the brakes to get his defender on the hip, to create room for a silky-smooth floater, which has become one of his favorite shots.
Essentially, Morant isn’t just pedaling to metal and jumping on anyone in his path. He knows how to build his speed and athleticism, has incredible body control to go along with a light touch, and has a firm grip to help him slide through cracks.
Oh, and he’s absolutely fearless.
Put it all together and you get possessions like this, where he loses his defender, takes off on the dotted line (!), and slides to the rim for an acrobatic finish around one of the best rim protectors in the league:
Dirty, dirty things.
Who the Grizzlies surround Morant with helps. Desmond Bane has been one of the best 3-point shooters in the league this season, Dillon Brooks sure isn’t shy about picking them up, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is a 7-footer who likes to hang out on the 3-point line. All three give Morant a good amount of room to work with, in midcourt. Steve Adams, who has started at center in all 40 games he’s appeared in this season, doesn’t offer shots at all, but he’s a middle-of-the-road screen setter and elite offensive rebounder.
Adams also does a lot of little things that are easily overlooked.
Next time you watch the Grizzlies, keep an eye on Adams and only Adams for a possession or two, and you might see him do this:
Adams not only helps Morant create space between himself and his defender with a perimeter screen, he pins his own defender, Blake Griffin, under the basket to prevent him from contesting Morant’s shot.
Adams does it a lot.
Like, almost every game.
I am not exaggerating.
It’s something Adams mastered during his time with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Like Westbrook, Morant is a difficult player to block just on the strength of his explosiveness and slipperiness. Having to worry about a 6-foot-11, 265-pound ram knocking you off balance while spinning makes things a little more complicated.
That’s not to say Adams is the reason Morant has become one of the most feared paint scorers in the league, but it’s one of several factors that contribute to making that key number as high as it is.