Ja Morant Leveled Up
It’s only been three games, but it’s impossible not to notice what Ja Morant has done for the Grizzlies. He’s leading the league in scoring at 35 ppg and is shooting an absurd 58% from the field, including 44% from three and (*rubs eyes, double-checks*) a silly 77.8% at the rim.
Morant is currently scoring 20.7 points in the paint this season. Last season, Zion Williamson took the league by storm like a prime Shaq and lived at the basket; he only averaged 20.3. Dan Devine at The Ringer has an excellent piece where he points out that Ja currently is scoring more on drives to the hoop than the Lakers, Jazz, and Timberwolves are as teams.
He also leads the league in highlights, and not just all on offense:
I’m not entirely sold the three-pointer is real yet (he shot under 30% in the first two games but was bolstered by a 5-7 showing against the Lakers). I would’ve said that the long bomb is key to Ja making it to an All-Star level. Apparently, I was wrong (since he was pretty darn good even in the games he wasn’t splashing), but if the shot is real, and he can consistently hit at 37-38%, there is no ceiling to his offensive game anymore. What can any defense do about a guy who scores like Wilt from close, like Dame from deep, and oh yeah, is also dropping dimes like James Harden?
The second-biggest storyline of the first few games has been the immediate impact many of the league’s rookies have made. There were high expectations for this class, but few people expected so many rookies to be this good, this fast, and that’s before #1 overall pick Cade Cunningham has even laced up his kicks. Below we’ll take a quick look at a few that have caught my eye.
Evan Mobley - Evan has shown the killer defensive and offensive versatility that had many comparing him to Chris Bosh in the pre-draft scouting reports. His mobility on the perimeter is impressive, whether it’s attacking closeouts on offense or sticking with guards like Trae Young on defense. After four games, he’s averaging fourteen points, eight rebounds, three assists, two blocks, and a steal on 55% shooting, which is the sort of well-rounded, efficient statline rookies rarely put up. Mobley’s had flashes of being Cleveland’s best player already, and frankly, the team should be featuring him on offense more (preferably at Kevin Love’s expense).
Jalen Green – Jalen shook off two rough shooting nights to start his career to light up the Celtics, going 8-10 from three and showing the confident stroke that had so many observers high on him going into the draft. The athleticism is apparent, and he has an array of creative finishing moves like this one:
Houston will be really, really bad this year, and rookie scorers on lottery teams usually have more off nights than on ones. But games like this should get Houston fans excited for the future AND the present.
Josh Giddey – the Thunder point forward’s court vision is as good as advertised. He’s not particularly fast with the ball, but Giddey’s already adept at using his size (he’s listed at 6’8”) to force his way into the paint and get into his preferred floater area. He has some good defensive instincts, although on-ball defense needs improvement (like most rookies). Shot mechanics need some work, but overall, Josh has looked better than many expected. His game reminds me of a rookie Lonzo Ball (just without the green light from deep).
Scottie Barnes - the surprising-ish fourth pick has captured Raptors’ fans hearts already:
Look at the way he suckers the defense by glancing at VanVleet right before spinning back into a massive dunk. That sort of subtle head fake is unusual in forwards of any age, much less in twenty-year-olds. I’ve previously compared Barnes to a different Scottie, and the first few games have only reinforced that impression. Barnes is a long athlete (7’2” wingspan) with good vision and handles for his position, and he’s already a solid defender who should become a very good one. Scottie has hit double-digit scoring in all four games at a 56% clip despite no outside shot whatsoever, so if he can work on becoming a credible shooter over the coming seasons, he could be the kind of Swiss Army Knife forward that every team dreams of having.
NBA Rule Changes
It’s hard to quantify, but it feels like the flow of the game has improved more than I expected with the NBA’s rule tweaks this off-season. Personal fouls per 100 possessions have barely diminished, at 38.0 this year to 38.4 last year, but the “unnatural shooting motions” that turned off fans have almost been eliminated. The end product is much smoother to watch. Look at Demar DeRozan, a foul-drawing master, get his man in the air and then clearly resist the urge to fling himself at the airborne defender:
This is what basketball should look like! It’s great! Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart falls for the pump fake but makes a nice contest. He avoids contacting DeRozan, who is forced to put up a difficult jumper that rattles out.
One thing to note: according to NBA.com, James Harden and Trae Young are each drawing more than one fewer foul per game. Steve Nash said Harden’s the “poster boy” for this rule change and is being unfairly targeted by refs, which may be true but is also hilarious since Steve complained about Trae Young’s non-basketball plays last year. Can’t have it both ways, Steve!
Finally, the end of games is significantly better since refs don’t have to go to the replay booth for every out-of-bounds call anymore. It’s made a huge difference in the flow of the game and keeps excitement levels high. I think the balance of allowing coaches to challenge but not having instant replay be the default is the right mix of aesthetics and accuracy.
Overall, this is better basketball. The product is more polished and more fun to watch. Now, if they could just do something about the “take” fouls killing fast breaks…
Until next time, enjoy basketball.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:
I love Morant's stride before that dunk - he was planning that in his head for sure. His ups were crazy too, head hit the backboard!