Grizzlies

How Morant Stacks up Against His Top Comparisons

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Coming into last season’s draft, Ja Morant was being heralded as the next great point guard in the NBA. His athleticism and playmaking abilities garnered many comparisons to NBA stars such as John Wall and Russell Westbrook. So far this season, he has lived up to that hype. Morant is soaring above the rest of the rookie class, leading them in points and assists. Through the first half of his first NBA season, Morant is having a better rookie campaign than any of the players he was commonly compared to.

For this piece, I asked 10 of the biggest basketball fans I know for their top five comparisons for Ja Morant. Players were sorted by number of appearances, then the top five were sorted by highest average position. I took the five most common answers and looked at the first half of their rookie season’s to compare to Morant’s.

Morant’s Season So Far

Per Game Averages: 29.7 min, 18.0 pts, 7.0 ast, 3.4 reb, 1.0 stl, 0.3 blk, 3.3 TO, 49/41/80 shooting

Team Record through 41 games: 19-22

Morant projected as a throwback-style guard, primarily looking to create via slashing rather than shooting. His ability to create from drives is elite. Compared to other high-usage rookie guards in the past decade, Morant’s 3-point attempt rate is the lowest. His effective field goal (highest) and three-point (40%) percentages tell another story, however. His playmaking has been as good as advertised, and he’s been the centerpiece of the Grizzlies’ new offense. Only three NBA rookies in this century have averaged 18 points and six assists: Steve Francis, Damian Lillard and Trae Young. Morant is averaging nearly 18 points and seven assists so far this season. Morant stepped into a leadership role early in the season, and has flourished there. He led the team to what was a streak of 12 games with 110+ points scored, averaging 17.2 points and 7.3 assists over that span.

A Different Breed

As previously mentioned, Morant drew many comparisons pre-draft. Most comparisons were hyper-athletic guards. While that is certainly the type of player Morant is, the description doesn’t fully summarize his game. He has proven to be more multi-faceted than his predecessors. Here’s how he stacks up against his primary player comparisons.

Russell Westbrook

Per Game Averages: 30.7 min, 14.1 pts, 5 ast, 4.2 reb, 1.5 stl, 0.2 blk, 3 TO, 41/30/78 shooting

Team Record (rookie season) through 41 games: 8-33

Most people look at Ja Morant and immediately think of Russell Westbrook. It’s easy to see why. They both are explosive athletes that play with unlimited aggression. They both have a swagger about them and back down from no one. While Russ may not have been known as a great passer back in 2008, he has developed into one, and has consistently been at the top of the league in assists. Morant may not become the triple-double machine Westbrook is, but he’s definitely a more polished product as a rookie, and has a similar ceiling.

Morant’s numbers are fairly close to Westbrook’s. The biggest gap comes in points, where Morant averages four more. He also averages two more assists than Westbrook did. Westbrook played all 41 games, though, whereas Morant has only played 35. The Grizzlies have a much better record than the Thunder did. Everything else is nearly equal.

Morant’s efficiency is what sets him apart most from Westbrook. There is a significant difference between their field goal and three-point field goal percentages. The game has shifted to the perimeter more since Westbrook’s rookie season. In 2008, there wasn’t as much emphasis on three-point shooting, and it wasn’t a requirement for guards to be effective. Morant, on the other hand, came into a shooting-oriented league. He has made a conscious effort to showcase his shooting ability, especially when left open. He’s currently shooting 41% on 2.3 attempts per game. Westbrook has never shot higher than 34% in a season.

Derrick Rose

Per Game Averages: 37.5 min, 16.8 pts, 6.3 ast, 3.5 reb, 0.8 stl, 0.2 blk, 2.5 TO, 46/29/78 shooting

Team Record: 18-23

As Shannon Sharpe pointed out in the video above, Morant’s athletic abilities closely resemble rookie Derrick Rose. The stats back up Sharpe’s claim, as Morant’s numbers are nearly identical to Rose’s. The two play a very similar game. Rose, more so than Westbrook, used his handle to get to the paint. Morant is the same way, often breaking down a defender one-on-one before exploding to the rim.

The number that sticks out most in this comparison is D-Rose’s staggering 37 minutes per game. That’s a high amount of minutes for anyone, let alone a rookie. Morant is doing a little more than Rose in significantly less time. Morant’s minutes have been closely monitored, but have been less restricted recently. He may create a less-sizable gap between the two by the end of the year. He’s not going to play 37 a night, but his end-of-season average may be a little higher than the 29.7 he’s at right now. Again, Morant’s main advantage is his three-point shooting. Rose eventually got better in that area, but only has one season above 35%.

Rose’s Bulls have the best record of any team outside of Morant’s Grizzlies, largely due to his additions. Rose won Rookie of the Year, and the team ended 41-41. They made the playoffs, but lost in the first round. Morant has the Grizzlies on a similar trajectory. The team is now 20-24 and holding the eighth seed in the Western Conference. He is also seen as favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

Steve Francis

Per Game Averages: 35.5 min, 18 pts, 7 ast, 4.8 reb, 1.4 stl, 0.3 blk, 4 TO, 45/31/77 shooting

Team Record: 16-25

As much as Grizzlies fans may hate to admit it, Steve Francis may be the best statistical comp for Ja Morant. It’s uncanny how similar the two’s careers are so far. Their styles of play differ, but on paper they look alike. For starters, they both were selected 2nd overall by the Grizzlies, just in two different cities. Francis, however, never played a game for the franchise, and demanded to be traded immediately. Morant, on the other hand, has embraced Memphis and the franchise and has taken the team to new heights.

Morant’s stats almost perfectly mirror Francis’. It is worth noting that Morant matches Francis’ stats in six fewer minutes. It’s not unreasonable to think he would surpass Francis if he played the same amount of minutes. Both spent their first season as a young star on a rebuilding team. Francis’ Rockets were coming down off a great 90’s run which netted them two championships. Morant’s Grizzlies just ended a decade in which they made seven playoff appearances.

While it’s hard to point at any large statistical differences, how Morant grows over the next few seasons will have a big effect on breaking this comp. Francis was built around in Houston, but never could deliver the team to playoff success. He also had injury issues that derailed his career. If Morant can lead the Grizzlies while staying healthy, he will surpass Francis.

De’Aaron Fox

Per Game Averages: 26.1 min, 10.1 pts, 4.1 ast, 2.7 reb, 1 stl, 0.2 blk, 2.4 TO, 41/30/68 shooting

Team Record: 13-28

The youngest player on this list, De’Aaron Fox, was the 5th overall pick in 2017. His pre-draft analysis read just like Morant’s – an elite open-court athlete with limited shooting ability. As Mike Schmitz points out in the video above, Fox and Morant are very similar in physical build as well. While the stylistic comparison makes sense, Morant has proven to be much better than Fox at the same point in their careers.

Statistically, Morant holds an edge on Fox. He produces eight more points, three more assists, and better shooting percentages. Fox was not a full-time starter as a rookie, but only played three fewer minutes per game. However, Fox lays out the best blueprint for Morant to follow over his next few seasons.

Fox is the only player listed to be drafted in the same shooting-oriented era as Morant. Fox has also benefited from the analytics surge, and has yet to average 32+ minutes for a full season. The Grizzlies could look to mirror Fox’s development with Morant, even with Morant coming in ahead of where Fox was as a rookie. Fox has improved his efficiency, assist numbers, and overall scoring each year, despite only a small increase in minutes. Fox’s controlled minutes have allowed him to maximize his effectiveness but remain healthy. Health has been a problem for many hyper-athletic guards. The Kings have kept that in mind with Fox, and the Grizzlies are doing the same with Morant.

John Wall

Per Game Averages: 37 min, 15.1 pts, 9.4 ast, 3.8 reb, 1.9 stl, 0.4 blk, 3.9 TO, 40/29/80 shooting

Team Record: 12-29

John Wall rounds out the top five comparisons list. He was seen as an NBA-ready athlete and playmaker, and backed that up early in his rookie year. Wall came close to averaging a double-double over the first half of his rookie season, despite only playing in 29 games. He played the fewest games of any player discussed here, but averaged the second-most minutes per game.

Wall holds significant advantages over Morant in assists and steals. While both could be attributed to the minutes difference, there’s more to the numbers than that. Wall came into the league a little more physically prepared than Morant, and has a longer wingspan, both of which contributed to his steals advantage. The assist difference comes from the difference in offensive options on the team. The Wizards had seven players around Wall that averaged double figures. The Grizzlies only have five such players. Morant’s key advantages are efficiency, scoring, and team wins. Wall’s Wizards finished the season 23-59. Morant’s Grizzlies had 19 wins at the midway point.

One area that makes Wall similar to Morant but unique from the others is the use of the Internet to build hype. All of these players had hype as they entered the league, but Wall’s was one of the first to be built through the Internet. Wall’s HoopMixtape was a viral sensation, which was unique of at the time. There was also a song made for Wall’s famous pre-game dance. The Internet is arguably the primary source of hype now, and Morant built buzz after this dunk. After that, Morant became a Twitter and ESPN mainstay, which brought a lot of attention his way.

All stats via Basketball Reference. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @TLSportsMedia for the latest NBA news and insight.

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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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