Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Out of his former teammate’s shadow, Ja Morant’s time is now

Leave a comment

Ja Morant‘s time is now.

This season was supposed to be Zion Williamson’s time, and Morant has been in that shadow before.

Morant and Williamson were teammates years ago on the South Carolina Hornets, a smallish AAU team in the home state of both stars, the kind of program that didn’t have massive shoe company money or play in those circuits. Morant was entering his sophomore high school season, Williamson was just about to be a freshman — and Williamson’s legendary athleticism was just about to explode on the scene. With Morant feeding him Zion got noticed for his dunks, and we know the story from there: Williamson became an Internet sensation, Drake was wearing his jersey, he went to Duke and became the No. 1 pick.

Morant’s fluid athleticism kicked in later, so much later that he didn’t get college offers from the major powers and ended up at mid-major Murray State. Morant was good but didn’t look like an NBA franchise-changing player. At least until his sophomore year of college, when Morant found his game, shot up draft boards, and scouts struggled to project how the skinny, athletic kid would do when it was Kevin Love sliding over in help defense and not some undersized kid from Austin Peay.

Well…

Now is Morant’s time.

With Williamson sidelined by knee surgery, it is Morant who is running away in the Rookie of the Year race. It is Morant whose exploits have become SportsCenter favorites. It’s Morant and his Grizzlies who have become League Pass darlings.

Morant, still the overlooked mid-major kid in his own mind, shrugs it all off.

“[The Rookie of the Year race] is not my focus right now at all, I’m not worried about the hype, I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Morant said recently.

It’s not an act. The years in the relative shadows of smaller AAU programs and mid-major gyms taught him to be humble, keep his head down, and work hard. Now, even when the fans are noticing him and voting him 10th among West guards for the All-Star Game, it catches him off guard.

“Speechless, honestly,” Morant said of his reaction to the fan vote. “I didn’t see it until my family sent it to me.”

Other teams are noticing him, too — Morant is now the first name on the scouting report for every team going against Memphis.

“Watching the first game when we played them, he has great control with his speed and, he kinda got everyone involved early then tried to take over late. That’s kind of rare for a rookie,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said recently of Morant.

Which gets to what has most impressed the Grizzlies about Morant — he’s a fast learner. Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins described Morant as a “super coachable kid.”

“Now you see teams are throwing a lot at him, I’m sure he’s on top of every scouting report,” Jenkins said. “He’s seeing different coverages throughout any single game, different matchups, he’s having to learn on the fly, and I think from a game-to-game standpoint he really dives into how teams are covering him and how he can be effective, not just as a scorer but more as a playmaker…

“It may be a new matchup, a new coverage, but he learns on the fly pretty fast. He and I have dialogues during games sometimes ‘Hey, they’re in center field right now,’ or ‘they adjusted the blitz,’ or ‘they’re in red.’ It may take a few possessions to figure out, but he’s in constant dialogue with myself and more importantly with his teammates about how to attack.”

Morant came into the league a guy who liked the film room.

“When we first sat down he said, ‘I love to watch film, I love to talk the game, learn the game,’” Jenkins said. “When we ask who he wants to go up against every night he says ‘whoever I can learn from.’…

“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…. the assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three ball better. As a three-point shooter he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”

Which is scary because he already looks like a franchise cornerstone. Morant already sees his game compared to that or Russell Westbrook and the other elite athletic point guards around the league. The league’s best players are taking notice.

“Most of the top guys in the league said they was in my corner if I needed anything to ask… after the game some of the guys are telling me to stay humble, keep going,” Morant said when asked what players are saying to him after games.

“I just go out there and try and be me, obviously, to stay with what I do and continue to be Ja. Try to control the pace and be in control. I’m an unselfish guy so I’m looking for my teammates.”

Morant is averaging 17.8 points and 6.9 assists a game — counting stats that could be higher if Jenkins and the Grizzlies didn’t intentionally keep his minutes around 30 a night. Morant is seventh in total minutes played among rookies. Ask the Grizzlies about it and the talk is about the long-term, that Morant is a guy who needs to get stronger to avoid injury, how the team is teaching him to use some finesse around the basket, and how Memphis is not looking to run its young star into the ground to chase an eight seed.

The Grizzlies are thinking long term.

“I think he’s just scratching the surface…” Jenkins said of Morant’s potential. “When we studied him coming out of college this was going to be a guy who came in super hungry, competitive, he’s all about the team and how he can impact winning.”

The Grizzlies are challenging him to improve his body, become a better defender, and become more consistent from three. They like how he’s responded to the challenge.

“When you see that athleticism and combine it with that vision — what he can see late, early — it’s impressive. You tack on the skill of three-point shooting and the competitiveness and the unselfishness, we’ve got an impressive young man there.”

They do.

And his time is now.

Badgered by Shaq, Trae Young says he’ll surpass Stephen Curry as shooter within year

Trae Young and Shaquille O'Neal
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Stephen Curry is the best shooter of all-time.

He’s also 32. Eventually, someone will surpass the Warriors superstar as the NBA’s best current shooter.

Could it be Hawks guard Trae Young, who’s famous for his deep range? Appearing on Shaquille O’Neal’s podcast, Young said he’d top Curry as a shooter within a year.

The context tells a more-complete story, Shaq and co-host John Kincade pressing Young into a meaningless statement:

  • Shaq: “How many years before you overtake Steph Curry as the best shooter in the league? Put you on the spot. Put you on the spot. Let’s go.”
  • Young: [Laughter] “I mean, Steph has done crazy things, crazy numbers.”
  • Kincade: “Yeah, but he’s old as hell, right, though? I mean, c’mon. C’mon”
  • Shaq: “Trae, Trae, Trae.”
  • Kincade: “C’mon, Trae.”
  • Shaq: “Trae, don’t give it that politically correct. One year? Two years? How many years? Say it.”
  • Young: “Ehhh, you – I mean”
  • Shaq: “Say it.”
  • Young: “I don’t know. I don’t know, Shaq. I’m trying to…”
  • Kincade (talking over Young): “C’mon he’s old as hell. Come on, Trae. Say it.”
  • Shaq: “Say it, Trae. Two years? Go ahead and say it, Trae.”
  • Young: “OK. A year.”
  • [Clapping and celebrating by hosts]
  • Young: “That’s just me being, I work too hard.”

Young doesn’t lack confidence when asked even neutral questions. By the time Shaq and Kincade applied their pressure, Young’s response became meaningless. Young clearly didn’t want to say something so bold.

For good reason.

Young shot 36.1 percent on 9.5 3-pointers per game this season, both career highs.

Curry hasn’t take so few 3-pointers per game in five seasons. Aside from his five-game season this year, Curry has never shot below 41.1 percent from beyond hte arc.

Eleven years younger than Curry, Young will probably surpass Curry as a shooter at some point. That could be when Curry enters the twilight of his career with Young in his prime. It might not be until Curry retires. But it’ll probably happen.

It also probably won’t happen soon, as even Young seems to know.

Bookie: Derrick Jones Jr.-Kevin Durant video-game result leaked, tilted betting

Kevin Durant and Derrick Jones Jr.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Heat forward Derrick Jones Jr. beat Nets star Kevin Durant in an NBA video-game tournament.

Their matchup was televised Friday night on ESPN. But Jones said they played and record the game earlier, according to a since-deleted tweet by Ira Winderman of the South Florida SunSentinel.

That pre-taping has opened the door to a scandal.

Cool Media PR:

The NBA 2K Players Only Tournament over the weekend caused a headache for sportsbooks because it was pre-taped, and information was ultimately leaked.

“We initially made Durant the favorite to win the tournament, but he was taking very little action over the course of the first 24 hours,” Robert Cooper, Odds Manager at SportsBetting.ag, said. “When we posted the first-round matchup lines and the bets were completely one-sided toward Jones Jr., it became obvious that someone knew the outcome of the game.”

That’s a major allegation.

The NBA is embracing gambling, trying to draw the related revenue while remaining secure. That’s easier said than done, and this episode should serve as a grave warning for the league.

Before going forward, this situation alone is serious. There ought to be major questions facing everyone involved.

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey, likely lottery pick, declares for NBA draft

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Kentucky sophomore Ashton Hagans declared for the NBA draft yesterday.

Now comes the main attraction from Lexington.

Tyrese Maxey:

Maxey will likely be a lottery pick, though that requires significant projection to justify.

The guard sometimes looks like a premier scorer. He handles the ball well and create his own shot. He shot well from outside before Kentucky and made 83 percent of his free throws last season. But he connected on just 29 percent of his 3-pointers. That 3-point percentage must – and could – increase majorly in the NBA.

Maxey’s inside game is more advanced. He can change speeds, and his floater is effective.

He’s also a solid defender who plays hard. His approach to the game is commendable – and it has to be. Maxey is not an especially explosive athlete. That gives him a narrow needle to thread as he enters the NBA.

At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Maxey could settle in at either guard position. His potential is highest at point guard, where he’d have the ball in his hands more. But he must distribute better – another skill he showed flashes of but didn’t sustain consistently.

2020 PBT Awards: Rookie of the Year

Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson and Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant
Sean Gardner/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

That Zion somehow lived up to — if not surpassed — his over-the-top hype is “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” stuff. He is (barring injury) going to be the best player out of this class. That, however, is not what Rookie of the Year is based upon, it’s the best rookie of this past season. Morant wins that based on one simple stat: 59 > 19. Or, to use a coaches’ cliché, availability is the greatest ability. Williamson was injured much of the season while Morant averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists a game, turning a team that was expected to be one of the NBA’s worst into a playoff team (as of when play was suspended). Morant is special too, and he had the better season.

Dan Feldman

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Ja Morant is my runaway winner. I want to reward the rookie who produced the most this season. That was clearly Morant, who led the Grizzlies into playoff position – a rarity for a rookie point guard. He was electric. Zion Williamson was even better, but in just 19 games, he didn’t come close to matching the overall contributions of Morant in 59 games.

The actual close race was between Williamson, Nunn and Memphis big Brandon Clarke for the rest of the ballot. Even in his limited availability, Williamson still significantly altered more games than the other two.

Kendrick Nunn gets credit for carrying a much bigger load than Clarke, who was exemplary in his more-limited role.

Keith Smith

1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

2. Zion Williamson, Pelicans

3. Kendrick Nunn, Heat

Had Zion Williamson been able to play the rest of the season, and if he dragged New Orleans past Memphis and into in the playoffs, I may have given him the nod. As it stands, it’s Ja Morant’s award to win. Not only was his play terrific all season, but he had Memphis as the surprise of the year. No one had the Grizzlies as a playoff team, and when the season was suspended, they had a 3.5 game lead. A lot of that is owed to Morant. Kendrick Nunn is a distant third, but his first year in the NBA has been one of the biggest surprises in recent memory for a single player. A G League player who had to scrap his way into the league and a full-time starter, Nunn earned this third-place finish.