Is Ja Morant really worth the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft?

Morant looks like a worthy #2 pick in a weak draft, but will his game translate to a winning NBA style?

Brandon Anderson
Jun 3, 2019 · 19 min read

A MORANT IS A HOUSEHOLD NAME NOW. You’ve seen the highlight dunks. You watched him put up a triple-double in March Madness, then follow that up with 28 points against Florida State in round two. Morant is the top point guard in the draft, and he’d be the likely #1 pick in the the draft were it not for the existence of a 285-pound superfreak named Zion.

Instead, Morant seems to have settled into #2, where he’ll likely head to the Memphis Grizzlies as the point guard of the future. But is Ja Morant really the second best player in the 2019 NBA Draft? And what sort of player are the Grizzlies getting if they take him second overall?

Let’s do a full scouting report of Morant’s strengths and weaknesses, then size up his NBA value to figure out what a successful Morant team looks like going forward…


orant had a season unlike any other for Murray State — quite literally, in fact. He became the first player in NCAA history to average 20 points and 10 assists a game, hitting the 10.0 on the nose and adding 24.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.8 steals a game. Morant made 50% of his field goals, broken down into 56% on a high volume of twos, 36% on five threes a game, and 81% from the line, where he got to early and often.

It’s a dominant statistical line and unprecedented. Morant was a sophomore — he’ll turn 20 in August — and this was his only season as the Racers’ lead handler and do-everything guy. His production exploded, with nearly twice as many shots, free throws, and assists per game as his freshman year. He also took a notable step forward from 30 to 36% on threes, a key development we’ll get back to in a bit. Morant’s usage leapt from 20 to 33%, and he saw his assist rate skyrocket to 51%, meaning he assisted on over half his teammates’ field goals while sharing the court with them.

Morant is an explosive athlete and an outstanding passer, undoubtedly his two standout abilities, and he has good feel for the game. His shooting and defense are the two biggest question marks, along with his body frame. Let’s look at each of those areas a bit more in depth.

Passing

Morant could quickly become one of the NBA’s top passers. That much seems obvious when you lead the NCAA in assists, but Morant’s passing ability is special. Several times a game, he makes a pass that has the crowd oohing and aahing, even on the road. Morant makes so many special passes that few others can make, even in the NBA. He particularly loves the one-hand lefty pass, his dominant hand. He can shovel the pass quickly to a teammate on a dump-off or zip it all the way to an open corner three. He also has the over-the-shoulder hook pass to find guys across the court. Murray State ran a smart, modern offense, and that really helped Morant because it maximized spacing and almost always kept shooters in the corners, so Morant always knew where he could find an open teammate once he got into space. He averaged over four assists a game this season on three-pointers alone.

Morant is a showtime passer, for better and for worse. At times that means a highlight pass, like the three-quarter court outlet alley-oop against Auburn, but other times it means a frustrating turnover. He plays to the crowd emotionally at times, a worrisome trend. Game after game, I wish he toned down his showboat passing. A lot of players get into a groove and chuck up a heat check; for Morant, his heat check is a bad pass trying to do too much, and it often leads to a turnover or run-out bucket. He’ll need to curb that trend.

Many of Morant’s assists come naturally within the flow of the game against a bad OVC defense. Many are hitting wide open teammates more than passing guys open. At first, that struck me as a negative, since it mutes the assist numbers a bit — but there’s plenty of other bad defense around the country and no one else is putting up double-digit assists. Murray State’s system set Morant up to succeed, but he still gets credit for seeing the passes and being able to make them.

Morant’s passes have serious mustard on them. Sometimes it’s a little too much zip, like Michael Vick throwing it 100 miles an hour to a receiver eight yards in front of him when a simple dump-off will do. But the passing ability itself is terrific. Morant can make any pass at any angle, and he’d have a lot more assists if his teammates were a little better and could finish his looks — help he’ll get in the NBA. Against both Marquette and Florida State in the NCAA tournament, Morant flashed an impressive litany of passing angles and skills.

Morant’s passing is outstanding — though it’s a bit of a problem that he knows that, because he tries to do too much at times. That leads to heat-check passes and heaps of turnovers, with several sloppy or lazy turnovers each game when he tries to rely too much on his passing ability rather than making a better intelligent play. Some of Morant’s passes are “hopeful” at best. He needs to make smarter decisions and has to know what his teammates can and can’t do, even if he does get them the ball in a spot.

Without a doubt, Ja Morant’s passing is the elite skill he brings to the NBA. We’ll get back to the mental side that pairs with it.

Athleticism

Athleticism and handle don’t always go hand-in-hand, but they’re tied closely in Morant’s case. He has elite burst and quickness. My first game watching Morant this year was Auburn last fall, and his athleticism just leapt off the screen — and that’s all the more meaningful, now that we know the Final Four team Auburn became this March. Morant is great at changing speeds and direction and has an electric first step. As the season went along, more and more teams faded Morant’s dominant left hand, but it often didn’t matter. He’s so quick off the dribble that he could get there anyway.

Morant brings a strong handle to the NBA. Like the passing, he’ll need to tighten it up in some areas in order to cut down on turnovers, and he tends to over-dribble at times, but part of that is Murray State’s m.o., playing so quickly and asking him to do so much. Morant dribbles comfortably with both hands, though he clearly favors his left and will see NBA teams work to take that way, and there they’ll have the bigger and stronger athletes to do it.

Morant is an explosive athlete with a huge two-foot leap, though his one-foot jump is not quite as electric, and that’s the one he needs to finish through traffic. His outstanding jump often lets him hang just a split second longer than you’d think on a drive, just long enough to combine with his vision to allow him to make a pass just about everyone in the world can’t make.

Morant is more quick than fast, but plenty of both. He pushes the ball quickly in transition or semi-transition, and his quickness and change of direction give him a slithery dribble attacking to the rim. Morant typically has the attention of at least five or six defensive eyes at all times and still is able to create space. Against quality teams like Belmont, they just had no one that could stay in front of him, so Morant was at the rim all game. He killed Marquette pushing off rebounds or in semi-transition.

The Marquette first half was the best I saw of Morant all season. The Eagles tried to take Morant’s shot away and turn him into a passer, and he happily obliged. Morant got to his spots and made great pick-and-roll reads, with some electric lefty passes across his body or cross-court to the corner with the perfect angle and timing. Morant dominated a March Madness tournament game with a triple-double despite taking only nine shots. In the second round against Florida State’s better athletes, Morant didn’t stand out as much. His usual burst was muted, and the Seminoles length and physicality gave him real problems. That’s a problem considering that was the most NBA-like defense Morant faced all year, but it’s also a problem that his teammates weren’t up to the challenge, so of course five NBA athletes swarming him were enough to overwhelm his athleticism.

Morant drew a ton of fouls and got to the line early and often, another direct result of his handle and athleticism. Even against FSU, his step still got him to the rim, but the Noles out-physicalled him when he got there and took away his finishing.

I don’t think Morant is going to be an elite end-to-end speed guy like John Wall or De’Aaron Fox, but his handle, burst, shiftiness, and explosive jumping ability will certainly give him some real advantages in the NBA.

Shooting

Morant shot 36% from deep this year and finished 34% on 245 attempts in his two seasons. That fits about what the eye test sees. His shot form is a bit inconsistent, and his three is going to need some work. Many of his threes are borderline set shots with a flat arc, and I’m not sure that shot will translate. Will it be long enough for an NBA three? Will he even get that sort of shot off in the NBA? On a catch-and-shoot, Morant’s stroke looks nice and easy, but he dominates the ball so much that that’s not really a big part of his game. His step-back three leaves something to be desired. The shot is a big question mark. Florida State sagged and dared Morant to shoot, and he did hit five first-half threes, but that’s just shot variance. They were not great takes, and he didn’t make many of them the rest of the year, just 57 in all, leaving his supposed shooting improvement in doubt. If NBA teams don’t respect Morant’s three, they’ll drop on defense and dare him to shoot, muting his first step and drive ability.

Morant’s free throw stroke gives some reason for hope. He made 81% of his 411 free-throw attempts in two seasons and has a nice stroke. That’s a good sign, since free-throw percentage is typically a better indicator of NBA three-point ability than college three-point shooting numbers. The free-throw percentage and the fact that many of his threes seemed forced with still a decent percentage outcome gives some reason for hope — but the shot will have to get a lot better.

Morant is a pretty good finisher, though we’ll see how well that translates against better athletes. He tends to throw up a lot of crap at the rim — but he also makes a lot of them and draws a lot of fouls. Maybe that’s a Kyrie-like preternatural ability to finish at the rim, or maybe it’s a problem. Against Florida State, his 3-of-14 on twos was a big problem. Morant has a decent looking floater and some nice touch but made only about a quarter of his runners. He’s going to have to polish his finishing ability, especially with such a slight frame. The shot is not broken, and the touch gives reason for hope, but it’s definitely a significant concern.

IQ and feel for the game

Basketball IQ and mentality is one area I appear to feel a bit different than consensus with Morant; I’m a little underwhelmed.

Morant makes very quick reads and decisions, but he does so to a fault at times. He’s extremely confident, and at times that’s good, but not all quick decisions are good ones. At Murray State, Morant had an eternal green light to just go and create a play. Many times he sort of just bursts in one direction without any real plan, and that leads to a bad shot or a turnover. The quick decisions are typically outstanding in the pick-and-roll. Morant has a natural feel there and will form a devastating pick-and-roll combo with Jaren Jackson Jr. if he indeed heads to Memphis.

The basketball intelligence and feel for the game are clearly there, and strong. But it feels like they’re at constant battle with Morant’s competitive nature and showtime desire, in a way that reminds me of Russell Westbrook. The showboating is infuriating at times and often leads to turnovers and easy points at the other end, and while there are quick reads and decisions at times, there are also times where Morant seems to get bored a couple times a half and fires up a contested three, or where he goes all Brett Favre and tries to fire a cool pass between three guys just because he can. It feels like there’s a constant war between Morant’s natural feel for the game and his fiery do-everything competitor’s attitude. That worries me.

I’m not impressed with Morant off the ball or in defense. On offense, if Morant doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he’s often just standing there. Sometimes that’s because he’s playing 40 minutes and it’s a chance to catch his breath, but more often it felt like he had no real role on offense if he wasn’t initiating. That’s a problem in the modern NBA. Standing and waiting in the corner when you’re an average shooter at best means the defense gets to play 5-on-4, and that won’t cut it at the next level.

I was impressed with Morant’s mental progression in the OVC tournament and NCAA tournament games. Against Belmont, his passing was muted because he saw he could get to the rim at will and went back to that unstoppable well early and often. Against Marquette, Morant took what was there from the defense, playing within himself and making quick reads, patiently controlling the game with his passing and tempo. He attacked the right matchups and responded well to double teams, often doing the Stephen Curry thing where he sagged back and made the right pass to ignite a 4–on-3. Mentally, that Marquette game was the best of maybe ten games I saw Morant play this year. Against Florida State, Morant was more aggressive as a scorer because that’s what the defense was giving him. Even though he struggled to finish the looks he got, it’s good that he was taking them, again a natural ability to read and recognize. As the game wore on, Morant made some mental mistakes out of frustration, but the overall mentality improved as the season went on and left me with more hope than I had a few months ago. But I still worry about that mental war.

Defense

Morant’s defense was downright terrible. It was lazy and disengaged and laughable at times. Morant did have 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks a game, using his athleticism to create defensive events. That was Morant’s idea of defense at Murray State — laying back and gambling on flashy defensive highlights. But that’s not defense, and it’s definitely not team defense.

On the ball, Morant is fine. He stays engaged, and his length and athleticism are enough to stick with the ball handler. But off the ball, Morant’s defense is a disaster. Half the time he appears to be ball watching, and the other half he’s disinterested or disengaged entirely. Murray State typically hid Morant off ball on defense, trying to conserve some energy for a player doing so much on offense. It’s typical for top prospects to look bad on defense because they’re carrying such a big load — see Trae Young and Ben Simmons — but Morant’s bad defense feels like more than tired legs.

That natural feel and IQ for the game Morant has on offense? It’s not there defensively, especially in team defense. Morant loses his guy so often while ball watching. Against Florida State in the biggest game of his life, Morant got lost on D and gave up a three on the very first possession. How disengaged do you have to be to not be locked defensively on the first play? Morant plays fake defense at times, with lazy, halfhearted close-outs on shooters and feigned efforts swiping at an opponent as he dribbles past him. He’s happy to go for the individual steal and run-out but often hurts his team on defense. He’s just not paying enough attention. Against Jacksonville State in the OVC tourney, he couldn’t even bothered to defend or box out in the final seconds of a close game with a tournament berth on the line. Against Belmont he totally lost star Dylan Windler on several shots. Against Marquette, when he could have engaged with Markus Howard all game, he instead sort of floated on defense and appeared to be daydreaming, losing his man on rotations.

The lack of effort extends to rebounding too. Morant’s 5.7 rebounds a game are solid for a point guard, but there are too many times where he doesn’t put in the right effort boxing out or getting to a loose ball he doesn’t think he’ll be able to do anything with. The transition D is lackluster, too.

Morant should have more energy for defense at the next level, and he has the athletic profile of someone that should be able to play some D, but it’s only a projection at this point. I’m not sure the defensive IQ is there, and I’m not sure it ever will be.

Body frame

Morant stands 6'3" with a 6'6" wingspan. He has a long, slender body frame that leaves him a little frail, weighing in around 160 pounds. From a body standpoint, Morant is a near clone of De’Aaron Fox. That frame is a concern for me, because Morant plays a more physical game and I’m not sure his body will hold up well at the next level.

I lost track of how many Morant games I watched where I saw him pick up some sort of niggling injury somewhere during the game. Morant is so explosive athletically that he plays a bit out of control at times and puts his body at risk. He was constantly limping off the court after a mistimed jump or after plowing into some defender and getting wrecked physically. Morant is a bit of a rag doll. His scoring is predicated on getting to the rim and drawing fouls, and he gets a lot of star calls, but those calls won’t come as easy at the next level, and frankly, he’s going to get hurt trying.

Against Auburn, Morant had constant physical problems. In one of the Belmont games, he rolled his ankle a minute in trying to make a cut. Against Florida State, he got hurt ten minutes into the game trying to get around a screen and didn’t seem to hang physically with the bigger, stronger FSU guys. Morant went just 3–of-14 on twos against the Noles, including 3-of-9 at the rim. He got pushed off his spot physically all game, and the Seminole defenders were physical enough to stay with him one-on-one or wipe him out at the rim. That’s the sort of defense and physicality Morant will face at the next level, and it concerns me. Will Morant be able to add enough strength to hang in the NBA, and will he maintain his quickness and burst advantage once he does? Is he going to be a guy that leaves 10 games for stretches with injury niggles and misses 15 more with nagging problems?

Overall profile

Add it all up and you get an interesting but flawed prospect — much like any professional prospect, of course. The defense and frame are a concern, but the athleticism, passing, and ability to naturally read and take what’s there from a defense are exactly what you look for in a modern NBA point guard. That’s why Morant projects to be a high draft pick.

In many drafts, Morant would be a nice pick in the 5-to-8 range, something like the second point guard off the board and a nice upside guy, a bit of a sleeper coming out of Murray State. The problem is that this draft doesn’t have any #2, 3, or 4 prospects. There are nice players in the draft, guys like Jarrett Culver and Brandon Clarke and De’Andre Hunter, but there isn’t much star power ready to fill the top of a draft. With the number two pick, you’re looking for a potential superstar, and Morant might be the only applicable name on the board once the Pelicans draft Zion Williamson with the first pick. That makes Morant the #2 pick almost by default. He’s going to go second partly because no one else should.

I’m not totally sold on Morant, nor in love with the prospect of building a team around him, and yet I also think he’s the clear #2 pick in a draft that lacks other options there. But I’m curious what his game might look like in the NBA.

NBA comps

It’s always tough to make college-to-pro comparisons, because every prospect is unique in their own way. But it’s also helpful to put guys into a few similarity boxes just to give some ideas of what you might be getting.

Morant profiles as a high usage point guard who’ll rack up both assists and turnovers and who probably won’t take or make a lot of threes in an era that demands it. I used the Basketball Reference database to look for NBA players this century with over 7 assists and 3.5 turnovers a game while also making less than 2 threes at under 37%. The closest two hits are Russell Westbrook and John Wall, and both comps make a lot of sense. Wall and Russ are supernova athletes with awesome passing and read abilities, but they’ve also become increasingly difficult players to build winning teams around with their lack of shooting ability. Other players that fit the mold are rookie Trae Young (before his three hopefully improves) and late-career Allen Iverson. Expand the parameters a bit and players like Derrick Rose, Baron Davis, Steve Francis, and Stephon Marbury join the fray. Ja Morant is none of those players. But stylistically, you can see a lot of overlap.

To me, that’s a problem. What sort of NBA team are you building in 2019 with one of those guys at point? I’m not saying those guys aren’t good. Rose, Iverson, and Westbrook won MVPs, and several of those players led the league in assists. But most of them take a lot off the table for a modern offense with their lack of shooting, and many have a similar mental war between sound basketball decision-making and hyper-athletic but reckless highlight plays attacking the rim. You also find a lot of shorter-peak careers in that list, probably not a coincidence because games predicated so much on elite athleticism without size or shooting to balance can fade quickly when that major injury comes. And is Morant a supernova athlete like Russ, Wall, or Rose? Those are some of the best athletes the NBA has ever seen. That’s how good they had to be athletically for their games to hit.

As I think of the player Morant should become, I can see him becoming something like the 15th or 20th best point guard. A quick look around the current NBA reveals at least 12 guys I’d rank solidly ahead of where I expect Morant to get, in no particular order: Kyrie, Kemba, Steph, CP3, Conley, Bledsoe, Russ, Simmons, Dame, Fox, Lowry, Wall, and Murray. That puts hypothetical prime Morant in the mix with guys like Teague, Dragic, Russell, Trae, etc as about a league-average point guard. But there’s a problem — in 2019, we also see guys like LeBron, Giannis, Doncic, and Harden run their team’s point, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Durant, Butler, or Kawhi join them at their next stops. Not every team needs or even wants a ball dominant point guard anymore. With those names added in, suddenly Morant projects as something like the 20th or 25th best lead handler, which ranks near the bottom of the league. That’s not great.

Maybe Morant actually gets to something like Russ or Wall in terms of statistical output, making him a top-five point guard and a top-10 lead handler. What does a team look like with Russ or Wall leading the way in 2019? We know what those teams look like. They look like 3-to-5 seeds and a spirited first-round exit. They look like the 90s, with one guy pounding the rock trying to make a play with the clock winding down while the rest of the league is whipping the ball around the horn. This sort of profile hasn’t had much success of late, and the NBA appears to be moving even further away from that direction. If Morant doesn’t find a shot, his offense is somewhat muted, his off-ball value is nil, and his defense is a negative. We know now that that sort of player isn’t quite as valuable as we once thought.

Parting thoughts

It’s an admittedly mixed review of Ja Morant, all things considered.

Morant is a top prospect, and he should be the #2 pick in the draft. Grizzlies fans can start getting excited about a future with Ja and JJJ, two real pieces to build a team around. There’s upside there for the first time in a long time. And let’s be honest — for a franchise like Memphis, getting back to a bunch of 4-seeds and spirited first-round exits is a pretty good starter-kit plan.

But there are real concerns too, both with Morant’s immediate draft profile and also with his long-term NBA outlook. Obviously you could do much worse than to draft a guy drawing slight comparisons to Westbrook, Wall, Rose, or Fox, and you definitely take a guy that’s even a shadow of those players second overall in a weak draft. But there are some real team-building questions around Morant that need to be answered, especially if he never finds anything more than an average shot from deep.

The NBA is constantly evolving, and if there’s one key lesson many teams have learned at critical moments this season, it’s that the entire offense can bog down if the lead handler can’t hit a shot or find some role off the ball. Defenses are too smart and too quick, able to warp everything to limit the other strengths. Without a reliable shot, teams can sag off Morant, cut off his driving lanes, and take away the passing angles. Like so many other prospects before him, that shot is going to be a huge key that unlocks the rest of his game.

Ja Morant is a dynamite NBA prospect and the worthy #2 pick. Let’s just hope it’s the good kind of explosion.


Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon’s writing archives here.

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Brandon Anderson

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Sports, TV, NBA, NFL, culture. Words at SI's Cauldron, Grandstand Central, others @wheatonbrando ✞

SportsRaid

Original reporting and curated sports data journalism. Actively looking for additional writers.

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