According to NBA.com, Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is averaging 14.9 points per game in the paint this season.
Why is that notable? A couple of reasons.
One, it’s by far and away the highest mark of Morant’s young career, up from 10.7 in his rookie season and 10.6 in his sophomore season. Two, it’s the third-highest mark in the entire league this season, trailing only a pair of 7-footers in Giannis Antetokounmpo (15.6) and Nikola Jokic (15.3).
Need you be reminded, Morant is listed at 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds.
The NBA is a league of giants, and yet one of the most dominant (and efficient!) paint scorers is a slight point guard whose size was once a point of concern.
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Calling Morant “slight” is, of course, simplifying things greatly because what he lacks in traditional size, he makes up for in other ways.
After all, we’re talking about someone who recently did this in the middle of a game:
You can’t teach that type of athleticism.
The fun part about Morant’s game is how he harnesses his incredible athleticism. Sure, there are times where he’ll try to humiliate whoever stands between him and the basket — lots of business decisions are made when Morant gets a full head of steam — but it’s the pace he plays with that separates him from others.
He’ll do things like fly off of a screen at full speed, make the shot blocker think he’s going to drive all the way to the basket, only to leave them spinning (quite literally in JaVale McGee’s case) with a violent euro step and soft finish.
He’ll push the pace in transition, slow down to force the help defender to make a decision, then fly by his defender for an effortless dunk.
Watch Draymond Green, who knows a thing or two about how to play help defence, on this play:
He’ll receive a handoff, hit the brakes to put his defender in jail and contort his body around a shot-blocker for a smooth lay-in.
He’ll do the same thing — pump the brakes to get his defender on his hip — to create room for a silky smooth floater, which has become one of his go-to shots.
Essentially, Morant isn’t just pedal to the metal and jump over anyone in his way. He knows how to weaponize his speed and athleticism, he has incredible body control to go along with a soft touch and he has a tight handle that helps him slip through the cracks.
Oh, and he’s absolutely fearless.
Put it all together and you get possessions like this, where he loses his defender, takes off at the dotted line (!) and glides to the rim for an acrobatic finish around one of the league’s best rim protectors:
Filthy, filthy stuff.
Who the Grizzlies surround Morant with helps. Desmond Bane has been one of the league’s best 3-point shooters this season, Dillon Brooks sure isn’t shy about getting them up and Jaren Jackson Jr. is a 7-footer who likes to hang out on the 3-point line. The three of them give Morant a good amount of space to work with, in the halfcourt. Steve Adams, who has started at center in all 40 games he’s appeared in this season, offers no shooting at all, but he’s a mean screen-setter and elite offensive rebounder.
Adams also does a lot of little things that easily go unnoticed.
The next time you watch the Grizzlies, keep an eye on Adams and only Adams for a possession or two, and you might catch him doing this:
Not only does Adams help Morant create space between him and his defender with a screen on the perimeter, but he pins his own defender, Blake Griffin, underneath the basket to prevent him from being able to contest Morant’s shot.
Adams does it a lot.
Like, almost every game.
I’m not exaggerating.
It’s something Adams mastered during his time with Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Like Westbrook, Morant is a difficult player to block on the strength of his explosiveness and slipperiness alone. Having to worry about a 6-foot-11, 265-pound battering ram knocking you off balance while you’re rotating over makes things a little more complicated.
That’s not to say Adams is the reason Morant has become one of the league’s most feared paint scorers, but it’s one of several factors that contribute to that one key number being as high as it is.
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