Following the breakout season that he had last year, it is easy to overlook that Ja Morant just turned 23 years old just a few days ago.
The second overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft made a significant leap in his third year, pushing up his regular season averages to 27.4 points, 1.5 threes, 6.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.2 steals over 57 appearances.
It was more than enough for him to earn the first of what is expected to be many NBA All-Star game appearances and helped fuel the Memphis Grizzlies to a 56-26 record that was the second best in the Western Conference. Morant was also seventh in the NBA Most Valuable Player award race and earned a slot in the All-NBA Second Team.
If Memphis can maintain its newfound place as one of the best teams in the West, it is highly likely that Morant will garner more votes moving forward and eventually establish himself as one of the frontrunners for these prestigious awards. Although Luka Doncic’s guard slot on the first team is expected to be his for the next decade, the other one, currently held by Devin Booker, is ripe for the taking.
Morant’s powerful style of play has inevitably drawn favorable comparisons to Derrick Rose, another athletic point guard who took the league by storm more than a decade before him. Like Morant, Rose’s third year in the league, where he was also only 22 years old, was his breakout campaign.
The former Chicago Bull most notably won the NBA MVP award and steered his team to an Eastern Conference Finals. Rose’s numbers that year are actually quite similar to what Morant posted this past season which further highlights how good the Grizzlies’ lead guard has become.
It is not too far-fetched to believe that Morant could win an NBA MVP trophy of his own as well over this next decade, further highlighting how good he has gotten over his first three years in the league.
While it may seem to be too soon to start worrying about the physical risks that a player as young as Morant takes when he attacks the basket, Rose should prove to be a cautionary tale for the rising star. Unfortunately, that MVP year proved to be Rose’s last full stint as one of the league’s most dominant physical forces as injuries began to take a toll on his body. This has often been flagged as a major risk for Morant as well moving forward, given how similarly violent his forays to the basket are.
It will be difficult to reign in his style of play given how much success he has achieved with it, though an improvement in his three-point shot could help reduce the number of drives that he takes per game. This is something that Rose, a career 31.6% three-point shooter, never achieved until the past two seasons with the New York Knicks where he shot over 40%–albeit with limited attempts.
Morant’s career norm is only slightly better at 32.7%, though he has increased his number of attempts per game from 2.7 in his rookie season to 4.5 last year which is indicative of his willingness to shoot from distance.
The continued improvement of Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, and the rest of their supporting cast should help alleviate the load that Morant has to carry as well. Rose’s heavy burden as his team’s lone superstar was a crucial factor in his downfall and is a risk that is currently under control, at least in the meantime, for Memphis.
The hope is that none of these worst case scenarios come to fruition for Morant who has become one of, if not the most, entertaining players to watch on a nightly basis. Beyond his athletic gifts, he has also proven to be highly skilful, especially as a passer, which bodes well for his eventual, but still distant physical decline.
As he celebrates his 23rd birthday, the best is clearly yet to come for Ja Morant. It will be captivating to see how much better he can become during these next few years and the future of the Grizzlies, as well as the entire NBA, is in good hands.