Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Sometimes, even the close-range shots don’t go down.
That was the case on Monday for Grizzlies franchise player Ja Morant, who consistently snaked his way through the Bulls’ defense, giving them fits with his shake-and-bake rhythm around the rim. But he often couldn’t make it count, shooting just 5-for-13 from inside the paint during the Memphis victory.
In some ways the game was a microcosm. Morant, the winner of last season’s Rookie of the Year Award, hasn’t always been the most efficient this year. Not relative to other stars. And not even relative to himself last year, when he was still new to the league. That sets him apart from a handful of other recent NBA studs. Last season, for instance, we watched Luka Dončić elevate from Rookie of the Year to legitimate MVP candidate in mere months. And sophomore Zion Williamson, who had an injury-hampered rookie season, is in the midst of a monthlong stretch averaging more than 30 points per game.
But there’s so much more to Morant and his game than what the most basic numbers indicate. Yes, his 47.8% effective field goal rate ranks 45th out of the league’s 50 players who take at least 15 shots per game. And yes: His 26.9% mark from three ranks dead-last in the NBA among those with 150 tries.
Dig a little deeper, though—into film from that win over Chicago, into advanced metrics, into some play-by-play sequences—and you’ll better understand why Morant’s aggression is so valuable to the playoff-contending Grizzlies, even though he’s been less efficient and more off target this season.
Since entering the league in 2019, Morant has misfired from inside the paint 549 times. But with defenses scrambling to slow down Morant, the Grizzlies have rebounded and immediately scored off 62 of those misses, a rate of 11.3%—the highest mark for any player over that span, according to Stats Perform. In fact, Morant is the only player in the NBA seeing his misses get put back more than 10% of the time.
Highest percentage of missed FG in paint leading to offensive rebound and putback by a teammate since 2019–20 (minimum 600 FGA in paint)
|Player||Paint FGA||Paint misses||Paint "Kobe Assists"||PCT|
As strange as it sounds, these sorts of plays billed as “Kobe Assists” years ago by ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, are often the best offense for the Grizzlies. Of all the different play types Synergy Sports tracks—spot-up jumpers; pick-and-roll sequences; transition; cuts; hand-offs; one-on-ones; off-ball screens and post-ups—Memphis only rates as a top 10 offense in one category: putbacks. And while that points to Jonas Valančiūnas’s knack for offensive rebounding, it also speaks to Morant’s ability to get into the teeth of the defense one play after another. He drives to the hoop a whopping 19 times per contest.
For his part, Morant says he’s loosely discussed the concept of such plays with his big men before.
“We talk a lot, and I always tell them: If I’m going downhill, and my man and their man jump to try and block my shot, I’m always trying to make the shot,” he explains. “I’m either going to put it up high on the glass, or lay it up soft to where it comes off the front of the rim, so they can be in position for an offensive rebound. Me and Jonas have a great connection, and I’ll take a miss any day if it’s for that reason.”
Morant had two sequences play out exactly this way against Chicago. A trio of Bulls encircled him during the third quarter when he took a floater from just inside the free throw line. As the shot rimmed out, Valanciunas—in perfect position with no one blocking his way—simply leapt and tapped the ball back in. (The putback began a 12–2 Grizzlies run and allowed them to pull ahead.) And with just under two minutes left in the final period, Morant sped around a Kyle Anderson screen and dribbled deep into the paint where three Bulls stood. He scooped a lefty layup that bounced hard off the backboard, right into the hands of Valančiūnas, who dunked home the miss and killed any chance of a late Chicago comeback.
“His ability to knife into small spaces, stay in the air, get it on the rim while drawing the attention of the defending big—or making that very-last second pass to Valančiūnas—has turned this into one of the most difficult situations to defend in all of basketball,” says Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle.
Morant’s dogged nature, and his ability to preoccupy stoppers in the paint, partly explains how Memphis manages to score 113.8 points per 100 possessions—the rate of a top 10 offense—when Morant is on the floor, despite his occasional inefficiency and the team’s below-average performance in so many areas. (Unsurprisingly the Grizzlies morph into a bottom-five offense when Morant isn’t on the court for them.)
The 6' 3" guard has connected on a little less than 52% of his tries from the lane since the start of last season, beneath the league average of about 56%. But factoring in putbacks, closer to 58% of Morant’s shots from there yield points right away. And beyond that there are a number of his close-range shots that Memphis grabs and uses to reset its offense. All told, about 63% of Morant’s tries from the paint lead to a positive outcome—a relative gold mine for a young club that’s short on dynamic playmakers.
This isn’t to say there aren’t flaws to be ironed out in the 21-year-old’s offense. While Morant benefits from incredible hangtime, which gives him the ability to make split-second jump passes and maneuvers around the rim, he occasionally turns the ball over because of his own indecision on those types of plays.
And while he has to shoot from outside to keep defenses honest—and to simply get better at it, to avoid being easily schemed against in the postseason, like a pair of poor-shooting MVPs have been—it’s fair to wonder whether he’s taking too many. At 3.5 three-point attempts per game, you could argue he should cut back some until they start falling more. After all Memphis is smack-dab in the middle of the race for the play-in tournament and owns a 1–5 mark—worst in the Western Conference—in games decided by three points or fewer. As the Grizzlies’ buzzer-beating loss to Dallas on Wednesday illustrated: Every possession counts.
Still, it’s hard to ask much more of Morant on that end. He gets to the line considerably more than last season. And the Grizzlies, who rank near the bottom of the NBA in three-point attempt rate, see a considerable increase in looks from outside with Morant compared to when he’s on the bench. “He opens the floor for the rest of us and gives us way more time to shoot,” Grizzlies teammate Dillon Brooks says.
Perhaps the most overlooked factor: He’s doing all this without having gotten a single minute from Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer last year and one of Morant’s top pick-and-roll partners. (Three weeks ago, the team said it hopes to have Jackson back in the lineup by the end of April.)
Morant will certainly welcome Jackson back with open arms when the big man is ready. But in the meantime, don’t be surprised if Valančiūnas and the Grizzlies keep taking advantage of all the attention Morant attracts. Because even when Morant loses individual battles with contested, close-range misses, his choice to take them in the first place often helps Memphis’ otherwise-lackluster offense win the war.