Yesterday, Murray State star guard Ja Morant declared for the NBA Draft. Morant is currently projected to be selected second in our 2019 NBA Draft Guide. Former NBA scout Bryan Oringher takes a deep dive on Morant and how he could transition into the NBA.
First thing I do watching a prospect? Fire up Synergy. Load it up with a random assortment of clips from the whole college season. Watch possessions – shots, turnovers, etc.
My first reaction when watching Ja?
Oh boy. Here we go again.
I’ve been a big proponent that we’re overdoing it with the Zion Williamson hype. I think he’s a really good prospect, but not a transcendent talent.
With Ja, I saw another “man amongst boys” type situation. Zion quite literally has that in terms of his physical attributes. He is a physical behemoth, a freak whose sheer size and force just overwhelm college athletes. With Ja, I saw him playing well in games against teams like Spalding, or Tennessee Tech, or SIU-Evansville.
I’m glad I kept watching, particularly his two NCAA tournament games against more high-level competition. Because this kid is ready for the NBA.
Yes, Ja played an unbelievably easy schedule. (No, it’s not Ja’s fault.) Yes, I do believe strongly that his statistical dominance is just another reason why I trust a trained eye more than stats when it comes to college players. There have been, obviously, plenty of guys who dominated the college game but didn’t translate well to the next level. I haven’t closely watched this year’s other guard prospects yet, so it’s possible I’ll see someone who has as much NBA potential as Ja but who wasn’t able to shine like he was because they played a much higher-level schedule.
Regardless, when watching Ja something absolutely stood out to me: The kid can pass. Like, at an elite NBA level.
Morant reads pick-and-rolls great. He can go either way off them. He changes speeds, uses different in-and-out and hesitation dribbles, and most impressively can pass with either hand phenomenally well. A lot of NBA players seem almost ambidextrous. Ja immediately is in the top 1% of NBA guys there. He can whip outstanding left-hand passes across the court with ease.
Beyond that though, he also excels just in creating off the dribble. He doesn’t need a screen often to get by his man. So much of the NBA is about gaps and driving lanes. Obviously much has been made of the spread style and how much more space there is in the NBA. But I think people forget sometimes still that the longer wingspans of the NBA are sitting in those gaps, at the ‘nail’, etc. and will steal the ball easily if your handle isn’t as tight as can be.
Zion’s handle is nowhere near as tight as can be. The goal here isn’t to compare the two – I’m fully aware they play very different positions. But anyone who expects Zion to be Giannis or LeBron or someone like that early on is very mistaken. Ja can break his man down off the dribble really, really well. And once he does that, he’s phenomenal at reading the next-level defense.
He makes tremendous plays out of the 5-on-4 when he beats his own man. He also is phenomenal in the 4-on-3 he often creates when he rejects or splits a PNR. He’s virtually able to go wherever he wants on the floor, and that will make him a star playmaker at the next level.
Is he the next Russ?
To be honest, I really don’t see this comparison. Although Ja is a good athlete, I don’t see him being a top 1% NBA athlete like Russ is. He also obviously is considerably slimmer and doesn’t really have a big size advantage on anyone. While he’s a good jumper off two feet, I didn’t see a ton of freak athleticism or explosive plays that Russ routinely makes.
When I think of Russ, the first word that comes to mind is motor. Russ plays with an out-of-this-world, 0-to-100 motor at every second on the court. While Ja plays hard, I don’t see that as a huge advantage to his game right now. By all accounts, he has a great mentality, loves watching film, has obviously rapidly ascended college basketball and draft boards, and I wouldn’t put it past him to find that extra gear. But right now, I don’t see a guy who attacks the glass ferociously. I see occasional defeatist body language, moping around defensively, quitting on plays. None of these things are inexcusable at this age or even knocks on Ja. I just don’t really see Russ.
Players who come more to mind? I can buy Mike Schmidt’s hybrid D’Aaron Fox/ lesser-shooting Trae Young comparison. I see a lot of Jeff Teague in his game. From their similar college stats to similar build, Teague excelled in the league and in Mike Budenholzer’s pace-and-space offense. His career peaked with one All-Star appearance in 2015, so some may view this as an insult since he isn’t a huge name. But if I told you that someone you’re taking top 5 had a floor basically of being Jeff Teague, I would gladly take that. Teague’s speed, ballhandling, ability to beat guys off the dribble, play spread PNR, and make shots has translated into a long, productive career as a starting PG. I expect Ja to have the same.
Rajon Rondo came to mind a few times. While Ja doesn’t have the wingspan or massive hands that made Rondo a star defender early in his career, I can see him being able to rebound in the league maybe not to Russ’ extent but to Rondo’s – being a guy who grabs some out of area given his athleticism and can chase some down with his instincts on the offensive glass as well.
Most importantly, Rondo has a brilliant basketball IQ, being able to constantly probe, Nash dribble, push the pace, etc. to create shots for teammates. Rondo has a handle that allows him to basically control the game as the PG and execute plays and make the right read. I was really impressed with Ja’s ability to properly read the coverage and just make the right find out of it. Murray St. runs some excellent plays and I saw Ja really be able to interpret what would be open and see passes before others. This is the kind of natural ability I talk about that few have.
Lastly, Mike Conley Jr. came to mind. While a good athlete, Conley thrives off changing speeds, playing slow to fast, and reacting to how the defense plays him. He is outstanding with both hands, particularly with his right (weak) hand floater, and Ja interestingly seems to prefer using his left around the glass to me. I see Ja, like Conley, not being an overbearing athlete or physical presence but being able to control the tempo of the game, fit into any offense asked of him, and make high-IQ winning plays that make his teammates better.
"He has a great feel for timing and touch. He knows when to put a pass on a laser, when to loft it. Come off of ball screens, throwing the lob and putting it in the pocket.” #NBA scout on Ja Morant's passing ability. Averaged 10 assists a game (w/video). https://t.co/DjHsGRlgOo pic.twitter.com/jKXVrQ5v8E
— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) April 2, 2019
Ok, enough about the passing already
You want to hear about his shot? Fine. Ja can shoot. Not at an elite level right now, but I see nothing mechanically wrong with his shot and nothing that can’t be fixed with hours and hours of NBA repetition.
I’m surprised to even hear people knock it as much as they do, honestly. Ja has deep NBA range now. I don’t think he’ll shoot it like Lillard, but I think he’ll be in the top 10 or so shooting PG’s very quickly. The volume of threes he takes is a good sign. I saw him shoot the ball great in the NCAA tournament and have tremendous poise and confidence.
His FT% is a good sign. He shoots off the catch, has a decent step-back, and can shoot behind screens reasonably well. It’ll take him some time and he’ll battle some consistency issues like D’Angelo Russell, but if he puts the work in, the opportunity is absolutely there to be a big-time PNR shooter, spot-up shooter, and maybe even come off the occasional pindown.
Ja can finish as well. He has really impressive touch around the rim, can use both hands as stated, and really knows how to hang in the air, find the right amount of spin, etc.
Where he struggles to me is in the intermediate area offensively – making elbow pull-ups and floaters, solutions all needed in the NBA when bigs play drop coverage and are back far waiting to protect the rim. It’s not a huge area of concern, but a skillset he’ll need to develop if he wants to really dominate PNR at the next level.
Defensively, what do I see? Well…not sure. I didn’t see much defense. That isn’t necessarily a knock on him. In the games I watched, his team asked him to do so much offensively – play almost 40 minutes, bring the ball up every single time, create end of clock, and basically be involved heavily in every play – that I think they understandably allow him to relax some defensively.
He usually guarded a non-shooter in the corner and didn’t really have to do much of anything. I like this better than guys who play on zone teams who don’t really know how to play man principles, but it’s not a huge difference. Truthfully, I think it’s really hard to evaluate Ja defensively right now, and I think he has no clue how much harder things are going to get in the NBA.
No one does, really. Yes, it’s hard as heck being asked to play nearly 40 minutes on both ends. But you’ll have to do that in the NBA. Over 82 games.
In Ja’s defense, he’ll hopefully have a lot more help offensively and not have to do just about everything on that end. He seems like a great competitor and I love betting on the late-rising kids, the unrecruited underdogs who dominate the game because they used all the slights to motivate them more. He’s so smart that I would think he’ll be able to understand schemes, tendencies, etc. without issue.
In some cases, you can see him being almost too smart on the defensive end as well. He’ll gamble from behind or go for the highlight steal. These things can translate into some highlight plays at the next level, but doing them too frequently will have coaches pulling their hair out and Ja sitting on the bench.
His build leads me to think he’ll be just fine defensively – not noticeably horrible or noticeably great. He has good enough height, wingspan, *insert Jay Bilas-buzzword here* to stay in front of some guys, but the guys who can stay in front of most in the NBA are…well, basically non-existent.
All of this is a long way of saying basically: who knows what he’ll be defensively? It’ll be about how hard he wants to play, how well he studies and picks up schemes, what kind of condition he’s in, etc. I’m certainly not betting against him – I just can’t pretend to tell you I know what he’s going to be defensively.
I spoke to an NBA scout over the past week and he said he’d take Ja over Zion 100 out of 100 times.
Texted with an NBA scout last night. FWIW: Told me “I never like guys whose best skill is ‘motor’ or ‘athleticism.’” Means they don’t have other skills. Also said he’d take Ja over Zion 100/100 times. My Ja scout will be out in the next couple days.
— Bryan Oringher (@ScoutWithBryan) April 2, 2019
I don’t agree with the scout, for the record. I think Zion’s ceiling is too high to pass up. I agree with the scout that it’s not a great thing when the best skills a guy has currently are motor and athleticism. That means to me that Zion is much further away from really being an elite NBA player. But he definitely has a chance to be really, really elite.
When I was starting in basketball, a longtime NBA scout told me “hustle is a skill” and not every guy in the NBA has it. That is incredibly true. I love Zion’s hustle, and some nights he’ll just wear teams out by playing hard as heck, like Montrezl Harrell. I think it’ll take Zion longer than Ja to find his role within an NBA half-court offense. I don’t think it’s outrageous for certain teams in situations to think long and hard about picking Ja or trading down if they get the pick. Chicago next year should start LaVine, Porter, Markkanen, and Carter Jr. Zion, of course, could be a 3-headed group at the big spot, but I don’t love the fact that your future core can’t really play together.
Ja translates immediately into being a starting PG in the NBA. Zion will take more seasoning and should start off the bench for any team that has aspirations of competing instantly.
I would take Zion in most situations, but I think Ja Morant can certainly be in the conversation as well. Where will Ja land? We can be fairly certain it’s at the top.