To the West: Fear Ja Morant

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Nov 15, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) and Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) during the first half against the Utah Jazz at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In the Western Conference play-in game last season, many gazed as the Memphis Grizzlies ran into the buzz-saw that was the Portland Trail Blazers. Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies flashed what teams in the Western Conference are going to face for many years to come. Morant scored 35 points and added eight assists in the four-point loss. This game marked Morant’s first postseason game and the beginning of what will be a string of playoff appearances for the Grizzlies. The West should fear Ja Morant.

This season, the Grizzlies are 26-23 and currently stand as the 8th seed in the West. Surprisingly, they’ve done this without 2nd-year player Jaren Jackson Jr. Triple J tore his meniscus in his third game in the Bubble and is due to return by the end of April. This roster has proven that they’re savvy enough to make another playoff appearance. There are multiple critical parts to this team’s success.

The Man To Fear in the West: Ja Morant

Aug 15, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies reacts after a dunk against the Portland Trail Blazers during the fourth quarter in the Western Conference play-in game one at The Field House. Mandatory Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

First and most importantly, Ja Morant. Last year’s Rookie of the Year has continued to impress with his incredible athleticism and playmaking ability. His shooting and efficiency have decreased slightly this season. Overall, Morant’s stat line is incredibly similar to last season’s.

However, the offense as a whole has demanded more of him with JJJ out. Morant’s continued development will be critical to the Grizzlies’ future. He’s off to an incredible start. Ultimately though, the Grizzlies are building a compelling supporting cast.

Slow and Steady

Mar 20, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson (1) celebrate with guard Ja Morant (12) after defeating the the Golden State Warriors at FedExForum. Grizzlies won 111-103. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most notable player improvement’s this season has been “Slo-Mo” Kyle Anderson. Before this year, Kyle Anderson featured singularly as a bright wing player. Now, Anderson has transitioned to playing the four with the Grizzlies, playing the four 73% of the time compared to last season’s 31%.

With Morant creating shots and spacing for his teammates, Anderson has shot more threes this season than ever before. He’s gone from 1.3 to 3.8 three-point attempts per game, with his percentage moving from 28% to 37%. Anderson’s emergence as a three-point shooter has filled the gap of Jaren Jackson Jr. so far this season. With Jackson back, the Grizzlies have depth in ways other, star-driven teams do not.

Guards, Guards, Guards

Mar 2, 2021; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard De'Anthony Melton (0) shoots the ball against the Washington Wizards during the second quarter at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the draft, the Memphis Grizzlies selected Desmond Bane 30th overall. Bane has heavily outkicked his coverage this season. On 3.9 attempts per game, he currently ranks 10th in the NBA in three-point percentage at 44.6%. This percentage makes him not only the best rookie shooter in the NBA but amongst the elite shooters such as Kevin Durant, Paul George, and Khris Middleton. Wildly enough, Bane isn’t even leading his own team in 3 point percentage.

3rd-year player De’Anthony Melton has developed into an important player off the bench for the Grizzlies. Melton is shooting 45.3% from 3 point range and averaging 10 points a game for the Grizz. Many fans have watched Melton this season and voiced that they think he should be in their starting five. No matter his role, Melton has been a critical part of the Grizzlies’ continued success this season. There are telling statistics, however, that he likely should continue coming off the bench.

Ja Morant And…?

Mar 20, 2021; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Brandon Clarke (15) celebrates after scoring along with guard Ja Morant (12) forwards Kyle Anderson (1) and Dylan Brooks (24) and center Jonas Valanciunas (17) during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors at FedExForum. Grizzlies won 111-103. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Out of lineups with at least five games for the Grizzlies, the lineup with the best +/- does not include either Melton or Bane. The Grizzlies’ best lineup has played the most minutes for the Grizzlies this season. This lineup includes Ja Morant, Grayson Allen, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jonas Valanciunas. Averaging a +3.5 rating in the 12.3 minutes per game they play together, this group has had an impressive season. Allen has been vital; though his three-point percentage is the same, he’s shooting 1.5 more threes a game, averaging 10 points a game.

In the entire NBA, this lineup is tied for second amongst lineups that have played at least 20 games together. Only the top lineups from the 76ers and Jazz rank ahead of them. Adding Jaren Jackson Jr. makes this roster one of the deepest in the league, with Melton, Bane, Brandon Clarke, Justice Winslow, Tyus Jones, and rookie Xavier Tillman all filling solid roles for the Grizzlies. They lack in star-power to match the best in the West right now. They have in young, talented depth. It’s reasonable to think that Morant will continue to develop the nuance it takes to be a stud point guard in the NBA. The West fear the development of Ja Morant and this Grizzlies roster.

West: Fear Ja Morant

Dec 22, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; The 2020 NBA Championship Larry O'Brien trophy won by the Los Angeles Lakers is see on display before a game between the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone on the Grizzlies roster returns next season. Their record has improved tremendously this season versus last as their young roster (aside from veteran Jonas Valanciunas) continues to learn how to play in the NBA. On top of being a young team, they’ve had little stability due to the COVID-19 pandemic under Ja Morant’s leadership. The season was in jeopardy last season and went into a complete stop for several months before restarting. This season, the Grizzlies postponed six games in two weeks January due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions. Hopefully, as the pandemic begins to slow, the Grizzlies can have a regular season and offseason to develop as a team. As he matures in the league, the West must begin to notice–and fear–Ja Morant. The Grizzlies are well on their way to a Western Conference Finals appearance, and soon.

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