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Ja Morant is emerging as a significant foil for Stephen Curry and the Warriors

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Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

A potential matchup in the playoffs looms against a rapidly rising superstar.

Ja Morant is just so freakin’ good.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ third-year superstar — yes, I think we can all call him a superstar at this point — has rapidly evolved into an offensive dynamo. The voraciousness of his game leaps out of the screen; his play is a unique combination of ferocity and control.

Morant is averaging 24.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. He’s shooting 52% on twos, 38% on threes (an incredible eight-percentage-point improvement from last season) on decent volume, and 77% on free throws. His scoring efficiency has improved tremendously: 57.5% True Shooting, one percentage point above league average and a four-percentage-point increase from his True Shooting mark last season.

But more than the stats and the numbers, the absolute absence of fear and the abundance of audacity are what sets Morant apart from his peers. His confidence at the point of attack knows no bounds; he leaves his defenders behind in what amounts to a blinding flash.

Take what he did against the Golden State Warriors, a team that, going into their game against the Grizzlies, allowed the second-fewest points in the paint (41.3) and allowed the fewest rim attempts (opponent rim frequency of 26%).

Draymond Green’s absence may have played a huge part as to why Morant and the Grizzlies were able to score in the paint almost at will (58 points in the paint), but Morant’s ability to blaze his way toward the rim and cause havoc is rapidly becoming independent of the opposing team’s defensive personnel.

Morant finished with 29 points on 23 shots against the Warriors, forced into second-half inefficiency by a delayed defensive adjustment but delivering when it mattered the most. His first half was a torturous masterclass in rim scoring.

The speed with which Morant explodes at the point of attack belies his patience and the complete control he has over his movements. He waits for openings to present themselves. When ball screens are set for him, he knows how to attack all sorts of coverages.

“Icing” screens and forcing him sideline to deny him middle penetration don’t seem to matter, since he’ll plainly blow past the dropping big and place his shot over outstretched hands.

The gist of his driving game can be described in two words: relentless determination. Deny him middle penetration, and he’ll find a way — through thick and thin — to force middle penetration.

The versatility of his scoring at the rim is often overlooked. Morant may do the majority of his damage with the ball in his hands, but he is a willing off-ball mover on backdoor cuts. He is a force in transition; turn the ball over against him — like the Warriors did plenty of times against the Grizzlies (16 turnovers turned into 26 points) — and he will dole out punishment accordingly.

Morant is in a class of his own — literally. He averages 14.9 points in the paint, third in the league and trailing behind two paint behemoths in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić.

He also happens to be the only guard — let alone point guard — in the top 10 leaderboard in paint points.

 NBA.com
Points in the paint leaders

Among 23 point guards who have played at least 900 minutes this season, Morant is third in finishing at the rim (65%), behind only Kyle Lowry and Dejounte Murray, per Cleaning The Glass. However, he dwarfs all but one in terms of shot attempts at the rim (189, second only to Russell Westbrook’s 292). Morant is second in the league in drives per game (20.3) and leads the league in drive points per game (13.2).

If defenders manage to wall off his straight-line path toward the rim, Morant brandishes a soft touch on his floater. Per Synergy, Morant is shooting 47.6% on his floaters and is scoring 0.962 points per possession on them, placing him in the 69th percentile.

While his explosion and north-south speed have been his trademarks, he is equally adept at instantaneously stepping on the brakes mid-drive and opting for a runner in the paint.

Morant understands the attention he receives and combines it with astute passing and playmaking, both in transition and in the pick-and-roll. The moment he slows down after using a screen — snaking it with the expertise of a veteran — is the moment where his underrated processing abilities kick into gear.

Once Morant gets two feet within the paint, it’s a guessing game for defenses. Will he accelerate for a layup? Will he use his floater? Or will he pass to a roller or weak-side cutter for a lob? Morant’s expertise in tempo change makes sure such guessing games are, more often than not, losing propositions for opponents.

Morant’s 29 points against the Warriors were accompanied by eight assists. His assist percentage of 35% is on track to be a career high, while also leading the Grizzlies. He is their undisputed conductor and most versatile creator; while the Grizzlies are buoyed by their well of depth, Morant elevates their ceiling in a manner befitting a marquee superstar.

Something about facing the Warriors empowers Morant to bring his utmost best. In three games against Golden State this season, Morant is averaging 26.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 6.3 assists on 47/19/88 splits, which includes 57% on twos. The only solution to slowing him down seems to be a combination of ball denial, on-ball pressure, and timely help defense.

Gary Payton II provided the ball denial and on-ball pressure, but Steve Kerr seemed reluctant to unleash him on Morant till late in the second quarter. Payton had successful spurts against Morant, but foul trouble prevented him from fully committing to physicality. The absence of Green also meant that no one could serve as the last line of defense against relentless paint assaults from Morant and the Grizzlies.

On paper, Andrew Wiggins’ length and ability to cover ground were natural foils for Morant, but too many mistakes were committed. Wiggins lost track of Morant off the ball, had trouble navigating around screens, and was too jittery and disorganized.

The Morant dagger below captured his ability to capitalize on the smallest mistakes. Wiggins leads too far out with his right foot — blood in the water for Morant, who explodes past Wiggins with a crossover and leaves him in the dust.

The Grizzlies have now won 10 consecutive games, a franchise record. They are fourth in the Western Conference, and their record against teams over .500 is 19-8. Two of those 19 wins are against the Warriors, with one regular season matchup remaining and a second-round playoff matchup within the realm of possibility.

Meanwhile, the Warriors have lost three of their last four games. Their offense is scuffling, coinciding with Stephen Curry’s worst slump of his career.

A full-strength Warriors squad may still be the safe bet in a seven-game series, but Morant and the Grizzlies are proving they aren’t going to be an easy out. They have taken it to the Warriors ever since their fateful play-in clash last season — and they will continue to bring it for months and years to come, for as long as Morant continues to be the face of their franchise.

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