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NBA Draft 2019 Player Profile: Ja Morant

Ja Morant
No player in the 2019 NBA Draft has seen a more impressive rise over the last 24 months than Murray State's Ja Morant. The electrifying point guard wasn't ranked by any of the major recruiting services (ESPN, Rivals, 247) coming out of high school and held just one high major offer, hometown South Carolina. After a solid, but unspectacular freshman campaign, Morant exploded onto the scene in '18-'19. He became a viral sensation for his gravity-defying dunks, and his statline of 24.5 PPG, 10 APG and 1.8 SPG was a major reason for Murray State's second round NCAA Tournament showing. He has become the consensus No. 2 player in this Draft for most, just behind Zion Williamson. Yet, it will be a big jump up from Ohio Valley Conference competition to the bright lights of the NBA. Does Morant have what it takes to succeed? Is he really worth the No. 2 overall selection?

Quick Facts
Ja Morant
From: Dalzell, South Carolina
Height & Weight: 6'3", 175 pounds
Position: PG
Age: 19
Team: Murray State Racers (Crestwood High School)

One of the most common NBA comparisons you're going to see leading up to the Draft in late June is that Morant resembles Russell Westbrook, and you can understand why when you watch him. Morant has bouncy, explosive athleticism and is an absolute force on both ends of the court. He had some dunks this past season that were jaw-dropping, including a forceful jam in the NCAA Tournament to seal the first-round victory. He does not possess Westbrook's strength and natural power, but makes up for it with quickness and acrobatics mid-air. Morant is nearly guaranteed to have some plays at the next level that dot highlight-reels for some time and the excitement and energy he brings to his team cannot be overlooked. The impressive thing about Morant is that he has grown from just a great athlete into a better all-around player in his sophomore season with the Racers. He never shot the ball very well in high school and hit from three at a 31% clip in his freshman year. He jumped that up to 36% this past season, while shooting threes at a much higher volume. Morant also raised his field goal percentage overall, as while as shooting better from the stripe. That ability to grow and improve each year is obviously crucial to success at the next level and speaks to Morant's work ethic and want to learn. Despite the fact he is an elite scorer that can score in a multitude of ways, Morant averaged 10 assists per game this past season. He has an incredible feel for the game and his passing ability really is off the charts. He puts passes right on the money, leading his teammates perfectly, and knows when to utilize each type of pass. That 10 APG led the country by a wide margin (second was 7.7) but even more telling was a 52% assist rate was the highest we've seen in five years. That ability to distribute the ball, well limiting turnovers, shows he has all the tools to be a floor general for years to come. On the other side of the ball, the point guard is not quite an elite defender just yet, but he seems to be getting there. He's a pesky on-ball defender that knows how to tip passes and get steals (1.8 per game). He understands rotations pretty well and how to help teammates, although that is something he could get even better at in the NBA. He isn't going to be asked to hit the defensive glass too often to snatch up boards, but he is a really strong rebounder for his size. He averaged 4.5 rebounds per contest, which isn't easy to do for a 6'3" player.

We are going to hear the common knock against a player like mid-major competition: "just look at who he played against!" Yet, if you look at the stars of the NBA's Conference Finals teams the vast majority of them are from small schools such as Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry, Damian Lilliard and C.J. McCollum. Good players are good players no matter what competition they played in college ball, and I think that is knock against Morant shouldn't be warranted. With that being said, there are some other question marks surrounding his game, as there are for any 19-year old. The biggest one for me is how his frame will translate to the next level. He has solid size and length for a point guard, but at 175 pounds he'll need to add bulk and muscle. This is particularly important for a guy who relies so much on getting to the rim and finishing. Again, Morant has improved as a shooter while with Murray State, but his jumper still leaves a little bit too be desired. He was a very streaky shooter these past two seasons and the mechanics of his shot aren't very pretty. He has an extremely low and pretty slow release, which makes me wonder whether it will work in the NBA. There are some lengthy defenders at the next level that are excellent at blocking low jumpers, which is concerning. Morant also really is not a shot creator, despite his immense quickness. He relies on teammates to set screens for him or is generally a spot-up shooter. Now, this isn't a huge detractor for a guy who is just 19 years of age, but it is definitely a part of his game he'll have to grow if he wants to become an effective offensive player at the next level. Lastly, Morant needs to prove he can truly defend some of the elite point guards in the NBA today. As a I said, Morant is a good on-ball defender but there is a difference between being "good" in college and "good" in the pros. Can he guard a rangy shooter liek Steph Curry or a powerful rim rattler like Russell Westbrook? Point guard in the NBA has so much talent and so much variety it is always going to be a lot to ask of a guy coming right out of the college ranks.

My Take
This past season, Morant was one of my favorite players to watch when he was actually on TV. His jaw-dropping dunks are easy to get behind and his world-class passing ability is well worth a high selection in this Draft. With that being said, I'm not quite as high as others are on Morant, as I have three of four on my big board and not a lock at the second spot. Of course, this still means I think the Murray State product will have a successful career but the jump shot does concern me. Over the past few years, we've seen a number of talented guard PG's that are great athletes but average shooters struggle to adjust to the NBA game. Just a few that come to mind recently are Emmanuel Mudiay & Dante Exum, although injuries have to taken into account there. The size is another thing that concerns me. Just because Morant can pull off some crazy jams doesn't mean he is an elite finisher just yet, and NBA rim protectors will not make it easy for him.

Where He'll Go
I'd be absolutely floored if Morant does not go to the Memphis Grizzlies with the second overall selection. The Grizzlies are clearly entering a rebuilding stage and that likely means Mike Conley's time there won't last much longer. He has one year left on his deal plus a massive player option, meaning unless he gets traded Memphis has him for two more seasons. That could be great for Morant, who will be able to learn under a real pro like Conley.

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