2019 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Ja Morant is the future of the point guard position

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Over the course of the next two weeks, as the 2019 NBA Draft draws closer and closer, we at Pro Basketball Talk will be taking deep dives into some of the best and most intriguing prospects that will be making their way to the NBA.

Today, we are looking at Ja Morant.

Previous draft profiles:

The trajectory that Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have taken to get to the point where they are projected to be the top two picks in the NBA draft could not be more different.

Four years ago, they were playing on the same, small AAU team out of South Carolina. From there, Zion blew up, becoming a viral sensation thanks to his athletic exploits, having his jersey get worn by Drake when he was still a high school junior and spending the majority of his time in the high school ranks as a top-five talent in his recruiting class.

Morant, on the other hand, was more or less a no-name prospect into the summer before his senior year. He eventually became a popular mid-major target, and he even received a scholarship offer from in-state South Carolina. He was hardly unknown, but he was miles away from being someone considered to be a potential franchise-changing talent at the NBA level.

As it stands today, the thing that both Zion and Ja have in common — besides the two most recognizable first names — is an otherworldly level of explosiveness that has both ratcheted up their hype and buried the lede. The reason Williamson is the most exciting prospect to come out of the college ranks since Anthony Davis is because of his ability to play the point and the five, all at the same time. He’s Draymond Green, only if he was injected with NOS from Dominic Toretto.

Morant’s athleticism rivals Williamson’s. Blessed with a 44 inch vertical, Morant’s motto this season was “jump with me if you want to go viral,” and that couldn’t have been more accurate. He spent more time on SportsCenter this season than every Ohio Valley Conference player before him combined, something that was highlighted by this dunk:

And that explosiveness matters, I would never try to say otherwise. Dunking over weakside defenders in the NBA is going to be more difficult than when playing at UT Martin, but being able to elevate the way Morant elevates will help him transition to the next level. His quick-twitch athleticism also manifests in his ability to make plays in the halfcourt, where his ability to change speeds — and to go from a standstill to top speed — is what allows scouts to be able to project Morant as a player that can create offense against set NBA defenses. For a player who did so much of his damage at the college level in transition, that’s a big deal.

Morant’s physical tools makes it very easy to see him as another De'Aaron Fox. They’re both about 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, and Fox just wrapped up his second season in the NBA with averages of 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 boards.

But simply focusing on Morant’s athletic ability is to ignore what he does best: Pass.

Because while Morant did average 24.5 points and 5.7 boards while shooting 36 percent from three, perhaps what is most impressive about his sophomore season with the Racers is that he led all of college basketball in assists at 10.0 per game, just like Lonzo Ball led the nation in assists in 2017 and Trae Young did in 2018.

I mention both of those guys for a reason. Morant does not have the same hit-ahead ability in transition that Ball does, but Morant’s vision in the open floor and ability to make long, accurate passes in the open floor is one of the things that he does best. He also thrives in early-offense, where his And-1 Mixtape handle allows him to keep his dribble alive and probe opposing defenses. Because he is such a threat as a scorer, defenses would then collapse, which is when Morant’s ability as a dump-off passer and a lob-thrower comes into effect.

And that’s not even what he does best as a passer, because where he really shines is in the halfcourt and working off of ball-screens. Morant’s basketball IQ is the most underrated part of his game. He knows how defenses are going to defend him. He knows how to use his eyes to move weakside defenders. He knows where the tag is coming from, and whether the shooter in the far side corner or the roll-man will be open. This is where that Trae Young comparison comes into play, because reading defenses is where Young thrived while at Oklahoma.

The best way to describe Morant’s ability as a passer is that he not only knows when and where his teammates are going to come open, but he has the ability to find a way to make the pass that will get them an open shot. Morant is right-handed, but he will, at times, look like a left-handed player because of how often he makes bullet, live-dribble passes with just his left. He makes reads, and passes, that few point guards in the NBA today can make.

That passing is what makes all the difference, and as much as his athleticism or ability as a scorer, it’s the reason why he can be viewed as a player with the potential to be a franchise-changing point guard in the same stratosphere as the likes of Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

Now, Morant does have some flaws, and they are quite notable and relevant.

For starters, he is of a slight build, which is less than ideal. He is not going to be able to bounce off of contact in the NBA the same way he did in the OVC, and in a league where switchability is a priority at the highest-level, he is going to be targeted. Opposing coaches are going to target him by trying to force switches the same way that Nick Nurse did with Steph Curry in the finals. That is going to be an issue if he can’t add some weight and strength, particularly because he has not been a consistently great defender to date. Some of that can be attributed to the load that he was asked to carry offensively, and there is reason to believe that Morant’s athleticism, anticipation and quick hands will translate to being an above-average defender in the NBA.

Morant can also be a bit sloppy. He averaged more than five turnovers per game, and while some of that is strictly a result of workload and defensive attention, he also had a habit of trying to force passes that weren’t there.

But the biggest question mark, and what is going to determine his ceiling more than just about anything else, will be how well his jumper comes along. Morant shot 36.3 percent from three this past season, but that number drops to just 33.6 percent if his 7-for-8 shooting from three in the NCAA tournament is factored out.

Put another way, as good as Morant was this past season, there is still plenty of room for him to grow moving forward.

And in a league where ball-dominant lead guards that thrive in ball-screens is the norm, Morant is a player with quite a bit of value in the long-term.

Doc Rivers challenges Sen. Josh Hawley to acknowledge Black Lives Matter

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Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley used the NBA’s list of social-justice messages players could put on their jerseys as an opportunity to grandstand. He wants more politics in the NBA — just his politics. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got in trouble for his succinct response to Hawley.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a longer response — and a challenge for Hawley.

“I mean, we have a senator that Tweets at Woj yesterday just because he was talking about what we were going to put on the back of our jersey,” Rivers said from the NBA Orlando restart on a conference call with reporters. “And they always try to turn it into the military or the police. There’s no league that does more for the military than the NBA.

“But how that about that Senator? I’ll make a challenge: We will do things for the troops as long as he acknowledges Black Lives Matter. I think that would be really cool for him to do.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. Colin Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?

“I guarantee you, we’ve done more for the military than probably that Senator. And I guarantee you this: We also are going to do things for Black Lives Matter. How about him? Maybe he should join into that.”

Well said, Doc. Well said.

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out throughout the Orlando restart, and there will be steps toward action. In an election year, expect other politicians to try and use that as a cheap opportunity to grandstand.

Unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 has team execs concerned

NBA COVID-19
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Doctors and scientists studying the coronavirus and COVID-19 are concluding this is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. That means the virus does not attach in the lungs and the airway, like the influenza virus; instead, this coronavirus attaches to blood vessels. This means any area of the body where there are smaller blood vessels — the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and more — is at risk of long-term damage from mini-clots in those vessels (something found in autopsies of some COVID-19 victims).

The heart issues in particular — and everything we don’t know about a virus that is still only about 10 months old — has NBA team executives concerned about the long-term effects on players as they head to Orlando for the restart of the season.

Baxter Holmes of ESPN had fantastic insight on this subject, speaking to team officials for his story.

“There are unknown effects it has on lung capacity, unknown effects it has on cardiac health,” said one general manager of a team entering the NBA bubble, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What if a 24-year-old catches it in Orlando and, in 14 days, he quarantines and is fine, but then he has these everlasting heart problems? [Or he] gets winded so easily, or he becomes a little bit too susceptible to fatigue? … These are all the unknowns.”

The NBA and the NBPA were particularly focused on the heart and cardiac concerns based on studies that found exercise while ill by people who had even a mild form of COVID-19 increased the risk of heart issues. The NBA’s director of sports medicine John DiFiori put it this way (as general advice) in the ESPN story:

“If you don’t feel well, don’t try to push through this. This is not a situation where anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, should try to push through or minimize symptoms or try to ignore symptoms and try to push through to try to continue to work or continue to play a sport.”

What that means for players is if they test positive in the Orlando bubble they will be put on a two-week quarantine without exercise or much activity. The challenge then becomes that once said player is cleared they will have lost some conditioning and need to work out to get in shape again — they cannot just step back onto an NBA court and play. The bottom line, if a player tests positive they may be out more than only two weeks.

Ultimately, doctors know little about the long-term impacts of the disease on the body because this strain is so young — even the first people in China who had COVID-19 and recovered did so fewer than nine months ago. There are concerns about impacts on the heart and lung — not to mention other areas of the body — and far more questions than answers.

Which is why the NBA and players union want to be cautious. And why team executives are concerned.

Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”

 

Home to three Pistons titles, the Palace of Auburn Hills demolished

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) — One of Michigan’s most beloved sports and entertainment venues was turned into rubble on Saturday with a series of controlled explosions.

The shell and roof of the Palace of Auburn Hills, which was home to three championship Detroit Pistons teams and three Detroit Shock teams and played host to some of the world’s biggest musical acts during its nearly 30-year run, crumbled to the ground following a series explosive pops.

The rest of the arena had already been removed.

The Palace, which opened in 1988, held more than 22,000 people for NBA games and up to 23,000 for concerts and other shows, according to nba.com.

After the Pistons relocated in 2017 to downtown Detroit, the arena about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of the city continued to host concerts and music events, the last in September 2017 by rocker Bob Seger.

It also became the second suburban Detroit arena that found little real use after its main sports tenant took its games back to the city.

The Detroit Lions played at the nearby Pontiac Silverdome from 1975-2001 before moving to Ford Field in Detroit. The Pistons also called the Silverdome home for a decade before The Palace opened.

The Silverdome was taken down with a partial implosion in 2017.

William Hall, a project manager for Schostak Brothers & Co., told the Oakland Press of Pontiac that the Palace site should be cleared of debris by the end of the year.

A new mixed-use development project is planned for the site.

“There have been some companies we’ve already talked to about possible development of the property,” Hall said. “I would say we’ve had conversations with at least half-a-dozen people. This property is very interesting and for a lot of businesses, its proximity is very attractive.”