HOW DOES A 6-foot-2 point guard whose self-described weight is “175 soaking wet” level with the NBA’s top big men in paint scoring?
“Because moms can’t stay in front of me,” Ja Morant told ESPN after pondering the question for about as long as it takes him to get from the 3-point line to the rim with a clear lane.
Morant laughs, but his joke is true. The 23-year-old Memphis Grizzlies superstar last season became the first guard to lead the league in points in the paint in at least 25 years, and did so with a repertoire of moves to skirt even the biggest defenders, under and sometimes getting over them in the league.
Morant’s blink-and-he’s-gone burst, his ability to change direction at full speed and his ball-handling skills are certainly important factors in his dominance in central defence. Likewise, the rabbit-like hops that allow him to occasionally dive into traffic on 7-foot vehicles.
But it’s too simplistic to just point to the spectacular to explain how one of the smallest players in the league routinely dominates where size and strength usually come first.
Consider a play in early November as Morant showcases in four separate pieces the combination of explosiveness, finesse, feeling and film study that makes him such a unique force in painting.
“People look at this athletic stuff, but it happens once a game or every two games,” Grizzlies shooting guard Desmond Bane said of Morant’s highlight reel dunks and before the team’s game against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday (8 p.m ET). NBA TV).
“But he ends up with 26 points and 20 of those are in the suit, so it’s like how the hell did he get the other 18?”
IN THE OPENING Minute after the Grizzlies’ home win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 11, Morant gets to work.
He uses a screen from bruise center Steven Adams — the NBA version of a run-blocking right tackle — near the left touchline, about 30 feet from the basket. Unable to sidestep this, Anthony Edwards gives Morant a chance to isolate against Rudy Gobert with a runway ahead of him.
Morant stays in first gear as he slowly dribbles through the center of the floor, seemingly waiting for the right split second to accelerate. Gobert tries to stay an arm’s length from Morant but is most concerned about protecting the rim, aware of possible backdoor cuts for lobs or layups, as well as the threat of an attack from Morant.
“Obviously he’s very athletic and a very smart finisher, but he can really pass,” Gobert said. “The lob, the pass to the shooters – as a defense, if the guy who has the ball most of the time can find the open man, that’s what separates the good guys from the greats.”
As Morant crosses the free throw line, Gobert gives just a little too much cushion. Morant leaps two feet from the dotted line – it’s up, up, up – and unleashes a right-handed swimmer just above the three-time Defensive Player of the Year’s outstretched arm. hiss
Ja Morant makes it look easy as he sinks a floater over Rudy Gobert.
“Get to two feet, lift, and just shoot a touch right over the front of the rim,” Bane said. “That’s his bread and butter. He jumps higher than you and he has the touch. That’s tough. That’s tough.”
Defenses are usually fine when forcing contested floaters, which are typically low-efficiency shots. Not for Morant, who has made and attempted the third-most floaters in the league this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
Morant made 44.7% of his 215 floaters last season while leading the league with 16.6 paint points per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. He’s shooting 40.7% on 91 floaters this season while averaging 14.5 color points, ranking seventh in the league.
These floaters often come late in the shot clock when Morant needs to create something and this is the best option available. But there’s an advantage to taking Floater when he finds a convenient gap, like the shot over Gobert.
“It allows me not to get contact every time,” Morant said, “to be able to have that floater just before I get to the big one.”
MORANT PUMP COUNTERFEIT at the top of the 3-point arc and then crosses between his legs from right to left while assessing 6-foot-9 Timberwolves forward Jaden McDaniels.
Morant waves off a screen by Adams. He’s happy to take on McDaniel’s 1-on-1. With just over four minutes left in the first quarter, Morant hits the accelerator.
He’s driving to the left, the direction an assistant Wolves coach in the back row keeps shouting at him to deny. The scouting report certainly mentions that Morant drives left 60.9% of the time per second spectrum, which is sixth most among 49 players with 200 or more drives this season.
Once Morant makes a move on McDaniels, as Adams put it, “it’s a close.”
Adams walls Karl-Anthony Towns in paint to prevent help from coming. But McDaniels, who is averaging 1.2 blocks per game, is still in a good position to challenge Morant with his seven-inch advantage from behind.
However, Morant goes with a goofy-foot lefty layup, jumping with his left foot instead of his right and getting the ball on the glass just a split second faster than McDaniels’ raised hand. It’s one of the many layups Morant works on to start every single practice and he’s equally comfortable with both hands, ending this season with a higher clip (57.5%) with the left.
Yes Morant goes to the basket and puts in the And-1.
“I can’t rely on darkening every single play so I have to have different types of finishes to be able to get my shot off,” Morant said, “whether it’s off the glass, same leg/hand, vice versa , forever hanging in the air.”
On another play midway through the second quarter, Morant catches the ball on the right wing and decides to play pick and roll with Adams. Edwards walks across the screen and allows Morant to step in front of him. Morant stops, pinning Edwards to his back and essentially out of play, and dribbles in place while surveying the floor.
Morant sees Wolves reserve guard Bryn Forbes slump to help and Towns into drop coverage. As Grizzlies wing John Konchar moves along the arc, Forbes nervously takes a few steps in that direction, giving Morant the alley he was expecting.
Morant takes a dribble forward and starts in Towns, switching the ball from his right hand to his left in mid-air and finishing over a 7-footer who was flailing his arms but never getting off the ground. and 1.
“He has the ability to manipulate the screens or the defensive covers so he can then go downhill where he’s obviously thriving,” said Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins.
“He has an incredible ability now, studying what teams are doing to him and knowing up front, ‘This is how I’m going to break it down.'”
THERE IS LITTLE less than seven minutes remain in the fourth quarter as Forbes switches to Morant on the right wing, well past the 3-point arc. Forbes urges him and Morant blows airy past him to the right.
Towns and McDaniels are back, both in paint waiting for the little guard that made them look goofy earlier in the game. No problem for Morant; It’s just time for a little trickery in the trees.
Morant jumps on in the lane just before the restricted area and pumps fake. As Towns and McDaniels collectively challenge a shot that doesn’t come, Morant ducks under and puts the ball up and in while barely getting off his feet.
Ja Morant stops on a dime and hits the layup after tricking two defenders into biting a pump fake.
“Ja somehow finds a way to navigate those cracks, whether it’s pivot points or jumping over people or whatever the case,” Bane said. “In those cracks he gets even thinner.”
Four minutes later, the Grizzlies put the finishing touches to the win as Adams set up another highscreen for Morant. Edwards carelessly goes under the screen this time, and Morant zooms in on Towns and drives to the center of the floor to his right.
Shortly before the free-throw line, Morant suddenly and gently changes direction and takes the ball in his left hand. This forced the tall man to twist his hips.
Once again, Towns is in trouble.
“When he’s attacking he’s not off balance and he can always cut back,” said Adams, who has faced Morant four times as an opponent. “Some people, when they attack, they have a hard time backing down once they go in that direction. He’s balanced all the time, so he always has the option to change the angle, you know what I mean? It’s so hard to protect. “
As Morant goes up for a left finish, Towns runs into him and pulls his sixth foul. The contact throws Morant off balance with the 12 on the back of his jersey almost parallel to the ground, but Morant somehow switches the ball to his right hand and gently lays it on the glass. With Morant sprawled out on the baseline, the ball rolls around the rim and goes inside.
Ja Morant rises and switches hands to end an incredible and-1 game.
Another and-1 underscores a typical Morant performance: 28 points, 16 in the suit, in a Memphis win.
Morant sits up and flexes his wiry arms as the crowd at the FedEx Forum goes into a frenzy. His coaching staff frequently hit him with pads as Morant trains during his off-season training sessions and prepares for moments like this.
“He definitely has a lot of moments where it gets you, but it doesn’t surprise you because that’s what you expect of him,” Jenkins said. “He always has something up his sleeve.”
ESPN Stats & Information’s Matt Williams contributed to this story.
https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/35197166/the-explosiveness-finesse-feel-turned-ja-morant-elite-paint-presence The explosiveness, finesse and feel that turned Ja Morant into an elite paint presence