We’re just eight weeks into the season, but if votes were tallied right now, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant would most likely be a runaway winner for Kia Rookie of the Year.
It’s early, of course, but Morant has done it all in his young career. He leads all rookies in scoring (19.1 ppg) and assists (6.6 apg). He’s gone toe-to-toe with superstars and hasn’t flinched, he’s had game-winning shots, and he’s drawn raves from virtually every opposing coach.
And if he wants to hold off the rookie pack (and you-know-who Zion Williamson will be back soon enough), he’ll need to finish strong.
Luckily for him, closing out strong has become one of his strengths. Among all NBA players, Morant ranks sixth among fourth-quarter scorers, averaging 8.5 ppg while shooting 51.6% overall. Only five players -- James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Giannis Antetokounmpo -- score more in the fourth quarter. That’s some good company.
Morant seems to thrive in big moments, and the Grizzlies succeed when Morant has the ball in his hands to create for his team.
Against the Lakers on Saturday, Morant scored nine points and had three steals in the final quarter, but LeBron James and L.A. hung on for the 109-108 win. Morant had several big plays, including a sick fake for a layup, a ridiculous up-and-under layup and finally a cutting layup to bring Memphis within one with less than 30 seconds left.
The Lakers hung on, but it left Morant pleased by the effort.
"I think it just flat out shows (our growth)," Morant said. "That no matter what, we can be in ball games and win ball games. We weren't able to close out tonight, but tonight showed what type of team we are and who we want to be. I'm never satisfied with losing, but I can say I'm satisfied with how we played. We played together and competed to the end and just came up short."
Wednesday night, Morant had another chance against the other L.A. squad, and again the lanky point guard came alive late as the Grizzlies nearly pulled off a big upset of the LA Clippers.
After being held scoreless in the first half, Morant scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter, including an around-the-back move on the break and a deep 3-pointer that ignited the crowd.
Morant made a mistake late with the game tied at 119, giving the ball up with 5 seconds left on the shot clock, which ultimately led to a poor 3-point attempt. The Clippers would capitalize, getting the 121-119 win on a Montrezl Harrell tip-in with 2.3 left.
Morant couldn’t help the Grizzlies avoid the five-game losing streak, but he once again showed he’s not afraid of big moments and even if the effort isn’t resulting in wins, he’s gaining a reputation as the Grizzlies’ go-to player down the stretch.
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1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant, known for his hard-charging drives to the rim, had a scare in Monday’s loss to the Pacers. In that game, he crashed into a cameraman on the baseline after a layup attempt was blocked by Myles Turner. Morant got up gingerly and would have to be helped off the court by teammates. He would return to the game, and didn’t seem to show signs of the injury Wednesday night. When asked the next day if he would consider his all-out style of attacking the rim, Morant brushed off the question. “I’ve been playing like this all my life. It got me here and I’m gonna continue to play like that. I’m willing to lay my body on the line for my team.”
2. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Herro had another solid week, averaging 17.3 ppg on 40.7% shooting. He’s continuing to get big minutes, and Herro’s work in spot-up situations has helped him see significant change, as noted by the Miami Herald’s Anthony Chiang. “It’s really what we’ve been working on every morning before practice is catch and shoot,” Herro said. “Obviously, the hard work is starting to pay off. But just continue to get those reps in and expect to get even more efficient.”
3. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
If you ask him, the undrafted Nunn is your Rookie of the Year. And there’s no doubt. “I definitely feel like I’m the Rookie of the Year,” Nunn told Shams Charania of The Athletic. “It’s early, but the way I’ve been performing, definitely, I’m in the running for that. And hopefully, I continue this throughout the season and win that award." Nunn struggled in both of Miami’s losses this week, putting up six points on 3-for-10 shooting in Philly, then scoring just nine on 3-for-11 shooting on Wednesday in a loss to the Rockets. That’s not exactly Rookie of the Year numbers, but like he said, “It’s early.”
4. Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors
Paschall finished the week strong, scoring 25 points and grabbing seven rebounds to lead Golden State to a 104-90 win against Chicago on Wednesday. It was his sixth game of 20-plus points, second only among rookies to Ja Morant (9) and Kendrick Nunn (7).
5. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks
Barrett’s return to Canada, where he grew up watching the Raptors, didn’t got as well as he’d hoped. After missing Sunday’s game with an illness, Barrett scored 16 points in Wednesday's loss, but struggled from the field, going 5-for-17 (2-for-8 on 3-pointers) and had four turnovers. “I had too many emotions,” said Barrett, who received a warm ovation from Raptors fans. “I was so happy all day. Literally the whole time before the game I was trying to calm myself down for two hours.”
Just missed the cut:
Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies: Over his last 10 games, Clark is proving his efficiency, shooting 68.2% overall and 53.8% on 3-pointers. He continues to lead all rookies in FG% and is sixth among all players (63.6%).
DeAndre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks: Atlanta is mired in an eight-game losing streak, but Hunter continues to show why the Hawks got him at No. 4. In a matchup with Toronto last week, Hunter put up 26 on 10-for-17 shooting, hitting 6 of 10 3-pointers while also handing out four assists.
Ky Bowman, Golden State Warriors: Bowman has been handed the point guard duties, and has produced with the increased playing time. He started two of the Warriors' last three games, logging 15.3 ppg, 4.3 apg, 2.0 spg while shooting 45.9% overall and 46.2% on 3-pointers. As long as he sees 30-plus minutes per night, he should be in the discussion to climb up the Ladder.
Coby White, Chicago Bulls: White’s up-and-down season continued this week. The guard caught fire with 28 points on 12-for-19 shooting, hitting 4 of 9 3-pointers in Chicago’s 116-115 win against Charlotte. The next two games? Ten total points total on 3-for-20 shooting (1-for-12 on 3-pointers).
PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets: After five straight single-digit scoring games (all losses, coincidentally), Washington bounced back to score 17 on 7-for-11 shooting in Charlotte’s 102-101 win over the Pistons.
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(All stats through Wednesday, Nov. 27)
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