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.

Rui Hachimura scores 27, Bradley Beal adds 26, Wizards upset 76ers 119-113

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WASHINGTON — As well as the Philadelphia 76ers have been playing at home lately, they just can’t consistently get their act together on the road, and a combined 15 turnovers by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons contributed to a 119-113 loss at the Washington Wizards on Thursday night.

The Sixers dropped to 5-7 away from Philadelphia – where they are 10-0 this season – despite 33 points from Tobias Harris, 26 points and a season-best 21 rebounds from Embiid, and 17 points and 10 assists from Simmons.

Facing one of the most lax defenses in the NBA, Embiid had eight turnovers and Simmons seven. The 76ers ended up with 21 in all, leading to 30 points for the Wizards, who had lost five of their past six games entering the night.

Bradley Beal had 26 points and 10 rebounds for Washington.

Rookie Rui Hachimura scored 27, while Davis Bertans scored 19 of his season-high 25 points in the second quarter.

The 76ers have lost 10 games in a row at Washington; their last victory in the nation’s capital came on Nov. 1, 2013.

Still, the Wizards started this one about as poorly as possible at the offensive end, missing their first five shots and turning the ball over twice before finally making a basket after nearly 4 minutes.

Raul Neto hit 3s on consecutive trips down the court to put the Sixers ahead 33-22 late in the first quarter. Bertans took over in the second, though, scoring 12 points in a row for Washington in one stretch and sparking a 16-2 run.

In the first half, Bertans shot 8 for 8 overall, 6 for 6 on 3s, and totaled 22 points.

The hosts stretched their edge to 75-61 midway through the third quarter and were up 91-81 entering the fourth, despite missing several players.

Washington’s roster has been injury-depleted all season so far, most prominently missing All-Star point guard John Wall. Each day seems to bring more bad news, and Thursday was no different: Point guard Isaiah Thomas was a late scratch, while guard-forward Jordan McRae was ruled out for no less than two weeks.

Others unavailable at the moment include starting center Thomas Bryant and forward C.J Miles.

 

Brandon Ingram gets stitches near right eye after Dario Saric falls on his head (VIDEO)

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Brandon Ingram has taken a step forward this season in New Orleans, a team that has put the ball in his hands a lot and trusted the forward to make plays. Ingram is averaging 25.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists a game, shooting 41.5 percent from three, and is playing at a level that will get him All-Star consideration. He just happens to be doing all that in a contract year.

Which is why this was a scary moment: Phoenix’s Dario Saric fell on Ingram’s head.

Ingram went back to the locker room but the result was just stitches, according to the team.

It looks like it was not as bad as the video made it appear.

 

Portland reportedly to guaranteed Carmelo Anthony’s contract for rest of season

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Portland was in desperate need of frontcourt help but, like the rest of the league, it was not sold on Carmelo Anthony as the answer.

The Trail Blazers decided to take a chance on Anthony, but a low-risk one — a non-guaranteed contract.

It’s worked out better than anyone had hoped — Anthony is averaging 16.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game, and the Blazers have been +14.2 per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Portland is 4-4 since he was signed (although, to be fair, the four wins came after Damian Lillard returned from injury to the lineup).

With that, the Trail Blazers have decided to guarantee Anthony’s contract for the rest of the season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Consider this a reward for Anthony.

The bigger reward is that Anthony is getting to redefine the end of his career. Understandably he did not like the way it ended, with getting played off the floor in the playoffs for Oklahoma City, then only lasting 10 games in Houston. The market had dried up for Anthony until Portland came through with an offer.

Now Anthony will be with the Blazers through the end of the season. At the very least.

Rockets to officially protest loss to Spurs due to disallowed James Harden dunk

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After 48 hours of bluster, the Houston Rockets are going to follow through with actions.

The Rockets are going to officially protest Tuesday night’s loss to the Spurs on the grounds of James Harden‘s missed call, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. A protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibits a team’s chance to win a game, the Rockets believe they have that and the league should allow the teams to replay the final 7:50 of the game (with the Rockets conveniently up by 15 at that point).

The Rockets prepared to file a protest of Tuesday’s loss to the Spurs, a person with knowledge of the team’s plans said, with an argument that will cite the James Harden dunk that did not count as an example of a “misapplication of rules.”

It will also cite subsequent errors in officials’ failing to grant a coaches’ challenge, though the primary argument is with points not being awarded following a made basket.

What’s not in question is that the referees missed the call on James Harden’s fourth-quarter dunk — it should have counted. After the game the officials, after reviewing the video, admitted as much.

In addition to the missed dunk, the Rockets also are arguing that coach Mike D’Antoni should have been allowed to challenge the play (another misapplication of a rule). The officials talked to D’Antoni for a handful of seconds, then moved away to debate the call itself — was it basket interference or something else — before settling on it being a missed shot with the ball out of bounds off Harden. D’Antoni said he was never given the chance to protest the call by the referees, after the game crew chief James Capers said D’Antoni did not protest the game within the required 30 seconds. Privately, some around the league question if D’Antoni actually told the officials he wanted to protest — he says he did, not everyone believes him.

Protests around the NBA are rarely upheld because the bar is incredibly high. A successful protest requires proof of a  misapplication of a rule that seriously inhibited a team’s chance to win a game. The Rockets argue that not giving Harden two points for a made basket qualifies as a misapplication of the rules, but others could argue it was just a missed call. There are a lot of those in every game (Russell Westbrook had a backcourt violation that was not called and became a Tyson Chandler dunk). 

This one play is not why the Rockets lost the game. Houston was up by 20 with 3:23 left in the third and by 10 with 3:53 left in the fourth but, as has followed a pattern with this team, could not hold the lead. Harden and Westbrook combined to shoot 17-of-68 on the night.

Because of that, and because there is 7:50 left in the game, it’s hard to imagine the league ruling to replay the end of the game. The Rockets likely will miss out on this.

But Houston — a team known in the league office for the deluge of referee complaints they file — is going to takes its best shot.