NBA Draft: Ja Morant Is The Next Russell Westbrook…But Better

Let me paint you a picture. Think about Russell Westbrook. Now take all the great things we love about the stud point guard; the athleticism, the finishing ability, the playmaking ability, all of it. Now imagine taking all that talent and putting it on a 19-year old kid. Excited yet?

What’s A Ja Morant?

The national spotlight falls on big names like Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett on a nightly basis. But it’s not just the highly coveted Duke Freshman that everyone is talking about. Nassir Little of UNC, Romeo Langford of Indiana, Keldon Johnson of Kentucky are all sealing the deal to be early lottery picks.

Starting to see a trend?

With a majority of NBA prospects coming from Power 5 schools, nobody has time to watch the lowly Ohio Valley Conference. It’s unfortunate because one of the very best players in the country lays in the OVC. You guessed it, it’s Ja Morant.

Morant is in the running for AP Player of the Year. His numbers jump off the page; 23.1 PPG, 10.7 APG, and 6.3 RPG on 54.0 FG%. It’s an elite season for one of the nation’s most exciting players. But Morant’s value goes way beyond the box score.

Is He Westbrook?

Chances are you never watched a Murray State game. Why would you? Nobody cares about the OVC. Well, I’ll give you a reason why.

Yeah, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, that was Ja Morant.

Morant possesses jaw-dropping athleticism matched only by superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. Morant has incredible speed. He’s quick, he’s agile, and he can certainly jump out of the building. He holds a fantastic 42” vertical.

Like Westbrook, Morant is excellent at reading passing lanes and piling up steals in a hurry. Morant uses his 6’7” wingspan to full effect. Playing disruptive defense, he’s racked up 1.7 SPG on the season.

Does this look familiar? How many times have we seen this? It’s almost a staple play; Westbrook creates a takeaway, breaks away in transition, and jams the ball in spectacular fashion. Now it’s Ja Morant’s turn.

Morant stays under control in traffic. After receiving the handoff, Morant uses the pick to navigate through a clump of Auburn defenders all while keeping his dribble alive. When the double team arrives Morant shows off his handles with a sweet behind-the-back move to get to an open area. He then uses a nice ball fake to capture the defense’s attention. Morant has the entire Auburn defense ball watching so he kicks the ball to his teammate Shaq Buchanan for a knockdown three.

The 10.7 APG mark is no fluke. As you saw on the last play, Morant is an elite passer. He has next-level passing vision, and his ability to penetrate opens up passing lanes with ease. More important than that, Morant is a willing passer. Whether he gets the assist or not, Morant hits his teammates in the right spots.

Like Westbrook, Morant has struggled with his three-point stroke shooting only 30.8% on 4.3 3PA. Despite the inefficiency, we see Morant’s deep range as he hits from 28–29 ft. Morant has a solid stroke which he shoots confidently, he just needs more consistency on his outside shot.

Morant does an excellent job of getting to the free throw line, he averages 7.1 FTA. Morant is aggressive and seeks contact, he does a great job of using his body to get to the line and steal free points. Hey, guess who else is adept at getting to the charity stripe. That’s right, you guessed it, it’s Russell Westbrook.

One of Westbrook’s best attributes is his ability to rebound. Westbrook has averaged 10.3+ RPG the last three seasons, uncharted territory for a point guard. Using his gaudy leaping ability, Morant is averaging 6.3 RPG this year. Westbrook averaged 4.3 RPG his final year at UCLA (wink, wink).

What Makes Him Special?

The comparisons between Westbrook and Morant are large in number; the strengths, the weaknesses, the playstyle, the athleticism. It’s almost like you’re watching the same player. While that has some truth to it, there are in fact a few things about Morant that separate him.

While watching Morant one thing becomes apparent quickly, his terrific basketball IQ. Morant displays a great understanding for the game, he knows when to attack, when to be patient, he demonstrates a strong understanding for the game at his age.

There’s no question that Morant can dust just about anyone in the open court. In this play, Morant gets out on the break and while he can get the easy layup, he doesn’t. Morant knows the overanxious Auburn big man Chuma Okeke won’t be able to stop his pursuit in transition. So instead of going up for the easy two, Morant slows down and gets Okeke to run into him and Morant goes up strong for the three-point play.

It’s these type of plays that Morant oozes off his high IQ. Westbrook has often been criticized for poor decision making. Imagine if Westbrook took smarter shots and didn’t force things. The prospectus of combining Morant’s unworldly athleticism with his high IQ is a scary thought.

A fantastic play from start to finish. With Auburn defender Jarred Harper creeping up, Morant makes a timely backdoor cut, receives the pass, and finishes through contact. And let’s not overlook the eye-popping hang time and crafty finish by Morant.

Ja Morant can most definitely play the 2 guard. He is one of the best off-ball cutters in college basketball. Teams try to play ball denial on Morant so often, and he uses that to his advantage burning teams with his back door cuts time and time again. In today’s NBA where versatility is at a premium, Morant’s ability to move without the ball will be a major advantage for whichever team selects him.

When’s the last time Russell Westbrook made anyone fall? Westbrook does a fantastic job of using his athleticism with simple crossovers to get to the rim. His ball control his A1, but his handles are far from elite.

Morant has serious handles. Loaded with hesitations, in-and-outs, behind-the-backs, and other moves, Morant has a plethora of ways to attack you. Westbrook can get to the basket in a jiffy but think about how good he would be now if you added top tier handles. It’s a frightening thought.

How Good Can He Be?

As most are, Ja Morant still has a ways to go before reaching stardom. Like all other prospects, Morant has his issues. It starts with his body. Morant has prototypical size at 6’3” but he will need to pack on a ton of muscle to his 175 lbs frame if he hopes to be physical in the NBA.

Morant can be a disruptive defender with his ability to create turnovers, but he must improve his defensive intensity. Too often he’s trailing behind walking in transition defense. When he gets beats one-on-one he simply gives up on the play. Morant has the size and lateral quickness to develop into an elite defender, it will be on him to focus.

The obvious caveat of Morant’s game is his outside shooting. Morant has a solid stroke, but he needs to get his jump shot to hit at a consistent rate. The importance of shooting in today’s NBA is at an all-time high, Morant will need to master his jump shot to unlock his true potential.

Morant has tremendous playmaking ability but at times he’s too eager to set up his teammates and he forces passes. Morant will need to cut down on his 5.3 TOV to be more efficient in the NBA.

You might be thinking, “Westbrook turns the ball over too much as well,” but this isn’t the same. While Westbrook will go into triple teams and get the ball stolen away, Morant stays under control in traffic. With his elite playmaking ability, Morant sometimes loses sight and does too much to get his teammates involved. Morant will mature and learn to pick his spots as the competition gets more fierce at the next level.

The weaknesses are there for Morant, but there’s nothing that can’t be corrected. The biggest issues with Westbrook have to do with his mental mistakes, his bad shot selection, selfishness, etc. With Morant, we don’t see those same mistakes. This is a high IQ player who understands the game.

Ja Morant is a special talent. Is he good enough to leapfrog freak-of-nature Zion Williamson? Probably not. But Morant is a can’t miss prospect that has a legitimate case for the no. 2 overall pick. His combination of athleticism, talent, and IQ is mouthwatering.

America, it’s time to fall in love with Ja Morant.