Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant averages 17.9 points and seven assists. Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The dramatic rise of Ja Morant, the Rookie of Year favorite

When the Memphis Grizzlies traded Mike Conley Jr. to the Utah Jazz last summer, it signaled the end of an era. Conley was the last member of the Grit-N-Grind Grizz, the rough-and-tumble core that revived the franchise with a string of playoff appearances, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2013. Conley’s departure supposedly meant Memphis would be in full-fledged rebuilding mode and far out of the postseason hunt.

But Ja Morant, the point guard the Grizzlies selected No. 2 overall in the 2019 draft, has other ideas.

On a seven-game winning streak entering Monday afternoon's game against New Orleans, the Grizzlies (20-22) occupy the final playoff spot in the West. Memphis' involvement in the postseason hunt is easily one of this season's more surprising developments. And make no mistake about it, Morant -- the slam-dunk leader in the Rookie of the Year race -- is the key reason behind it.

Rookies (and younger players) generally don’t lead teams to the postseason. The Cavaliers, 17-65 the season before LeBron James arrived, finished 37-45 in The King's 2003-04 rookie season and out of the postseason. As a rookie in 2005-06, Chris Paul led New Orleans to a 38-44 record, but the Hornets also missed the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard was merely a cog in the machine for the Spurs, who finished 50-16 in a lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

Morant averages 17.9 points and 7.0 assists for the re-invigorated Grizzlies, who finished 33-49 last season, 12th in the West. But a deeper look at stats gives a more complete picture of his impact. The 20-year-old leads the team in usage rate (26.5) -- a measurement meant to capture the number of possessions a player is involved in. That mark doesn’t just lead Memphis; his usage rate is highest among all rookies, and it's the 10th-highest usage rate posted by a rookie in the past decade. Although some first-year players in the past 10 years have posted higher figures, they didn't have a huge impact on their teams. (See Dennis Smith’s 2017-18 season in Dallas.)

Morant also has the second-best on/off rating on the Grizzlies. His +3.1 mark trails team leader Jonas Valanciunas by just a tenth of a point. Overall, Memphis is nearly four points per 100 possessions better when Morant is playing than when he’s on the bench.

So the obvious question at this point is: What is Morant doing that is causing such a positive impact? And the answer is quite simple: He’s passing.

In the past 20 years, only two rookies -- Atlanta's Trae Young and Kyrie Irving with the Cavaliers -- have had a usage rate over 25 while posting a higher assist percentage than Morant’s mark of 35.1 percent. Morant’s ability to create shots for teammates is on a level that’s rarely seen. And the Memphis rookie does it in unique fashion.

When watching Young pass, there’s a clear pragmatism toward his approach. Teammates get open and with cold, calculating precision, Young gets them the ball. With Irving, an ultra-talented scorer, passing has always seemed like a secondary option. The ball leaves Irving’s hand for a teammate almost as a preventative measure to keep defenses on their toes as he hunts shots.

Morant, on the other hand, has a clear enjoyment of passing. He also possesses a knack for putting the ball into spots that most wouldn’t dare. Showmanship for some players is more style than substance, but Morant’s creativity usually manifests itself with dunks and easy buckets for teammates.

To collapse defenses and free teammates for open shots, a player must be a scoring threat. Pure passers with iffy shooting/scoring abilities (see Ricky Rubio and Rajon Rondo) have hit ceilings in their careers. It’s hard to be a truly destructive playmaker if defenses don’t respect a player’s ability to make shots for himself.

The first thing Morant needed to prove at the NBA level was that he could knock down open jumpers. In his last season at Murray State, Morant was merely respectable (36.3 percent) from the shorter college line rather than a true knockdown shooter. That has changed quickly in the NBA.

Entering Monday, Morant was shooting 40.2 percent from beyond the arc. And while he gets his fair share of catch-and-shoot opportunities, Morant has posted that figure with a number of much tougher, off-the-dribble 3-pointers that he needs to make to keep sagging defenders honest. Against a switching Houston defense last week, Morant hit a pair of those off-the-dribble 3’s en route to a dominant 26-point, eight-assist performance.

Morant’s quick shooting improvement has been a huge boost to his greatest strength: attacking the paint. Shifty and quick, Morant bobs and weaves with his dribble before exploding downhill toward the basket. Despite a thin, developing frame that defenses try to exploit with physical ball pressure, Morant still is among the NBA’s best at knifing to the basket.

According to the NBA’s tracking data, Morant ranks ninth in the league with 17.7 “drives” per game. He also averages the 11th-most passes off those forays to the rim, making 6.7 per game. And it’s the passes off those drives where Morant really does his damage. Once he collapses a defense, he uses his precocious ability to figure out which type of pass -- whether it be a lob, drop-off or jaw-dropping flick -- to get the ball to an open teammate.

Memphis' schedule toughens up heading into February, so it may soon fall out of the top eight. But Morant's positive impact as a rookie is undeniable. Soon, he may be one of the best players in the league.

Brett Koremenos is a writer, trainer and strength coach who has worked and written about athletes from high school to the professional level for over a decade.

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