Film Study: How Ja Morant leads the Grizzlies' improved offense

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann NBA.com

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Jul 22, 2020 12:41 PM ET

Rookie Ja Morant has been key to the Grizzlies' rise in the standings this season.

In their first season in 12 years without Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the Memphis Grizzlies have taken a surprising step forward. After finishing 15 games out of a playoff spot last season, the Grizzlies will begin the seeding games in Orlando with a 3 1/2-game lead for eighth place in the Western Conference.

Improvement has come on the offensive end of the floor, where the Grizzlies have seen the league's fifth biggest jump in points scored per 100 possessions (from 105.6 to 108.9). And it's come with a huge change in style of play. From last season, the Grizzlies have seen the league's biggest jump in pace (possessions per 48 minutes), the league's biggest jump in fast break points per game, the league's biggest jump in second chance points per game, and the league's biggest jump in points in the paint per game.

Grizzlies pace & misc. offensive stats, last two seasons
SeasonPaceRankFBP/GRank2CP/GRankPIP/GRank
2018-1997.13012.31611.22946.321
2019-20103.2717.9413.8856.31
Diff.6.115.512.5110.01
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes

The first two numbers account for a large portion of the third. So does the relentlessness of Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant. The point guard's desire and ability to get into the paint fuels the Memphis offense. He's scored or assisted on 51% of his team's points in the paint while he's been on the floor.

The Grizzlies' paint production is still both a collective and multi-dimensional effort. Morant ranks sixth among individuals with 18.4 drives per game, but the Grizzlies rank just 12th as a team. Yet they've still scored 3.1 more points in the paint per game than any other team.

Let us count the ways in which they do so ...

The Morant Attack

Morant ranks 12th in the league with 9.4 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game, according to Synergy play-type tracking. The 0.87 points per possession he's scored as a pick-and-roll ball-handler rank just 36th among 49 players who've averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game. But Morant's ability to get into the paint and find creative ways to finish is the foundation for what the Grizzlies do in the half court.

 
See how Ja Morant finds his way into the paint off pick-and-rolls.

Play 1. Morant gives up the ball to get it back with a new dribble. Damian Lillard goes over Jonas Valanciunas' screen and trails the play, and Morant attacks Hassan Whiteside's drop coverage. With a pass fake and a Eurostep, he throws off Whiteside's timing and finishes with a scoop high off the glass.

Number to know: Morant's 7.4 points per game in the restricted area are the second most among rookie guards in the last 10 years, trailing only Ben Simmons' 9.3 per game from two seasons ago.

Play 2. Morant again gives the ball up early in the possession. But he gets it back on a dribble hand-off from Gorgui Dieng. CJ McCollum goes over the screen and Morant uses a huge dribble to put Caleb Swanigan on his heels before rising up for a soft runner.

Number to know: Morant ranks 14th with 211 non-restricted-area shots in the paint. The 45.0% he's shot on those ranks 26th among 95 players who've attempted at least 100.

Play 3. Brandon Clarke doesn't make contact with the high screen, but Morant gains separation from Cory Joseph himself by putting on the brakes. He goes the other way and sinks a double-clutch floater in the lane.

Number to know: 74% of Morant's shots have come in the paint. That's the 10th highest rate among 137 players (and behind only Simmons among guards) with at least 500 total field goal attempts.

Play 4. Markelle Fultz trails Morant around two screens and Morant floats a shot over Nikola Vucevic's drop coverage.

Number to know: Non-restricted-area paint shots account for 23% of the Grizzlies' total field goal attempts and 41% of their total shots in the paint. Those are both the highest rates in the league, with the former being the highest rate by a wide margin. The 44.6% they've shot on non-restricted-area paint shots ranks second.

Play 5. Morant uses a "pistol" screen from Kyle Anderson along the right sideline and splits the defenders with a low, through-the-legs dribble. Fultz gets his hand on the ball, but Morant regains control and finishes with his left hand.

Number to know: Morant has shot 28-for-52 (53.8%) on clutch shots, the third best mark among 28 players who have attempted at least 50. That breaks down to 28-for-45 (62.2%) on clutch 2-pointers and 0-for-7 on clutch 3-pointers.

Play 6. Trae Young "ices" the screen from Anderson to keep Morant from getting to the middle of the floor. So Morant rejects the screen, gets John Collins leaning the wrong way with a yo-yo dribble, draws a foul, and finishes.

Number to know: Morant's free throw rate of 33.1 attempts per 100 shots from the field ranks 18th among 137 players with at least 500 total field goal attempts.

Dimes to the Roll Man

The Grizzlies rank fourth with 9.2 points per game from roll men, according to Synergy play-type tracking. Among 45 players who've averaged at least two roll-man possessions per game, Clarke (1.48) and Valanciunas (1.24) rank second and 12th in points per roll-man possession. Dieng scored 1.26 points per possession (11th) as a roll man with Minnesota, but hasn't been as efficient in his 12 games with Memphis.

The Grizzlies have four players in the top 50 in assist ratio (Tyus Jones ranks fifth), but Morant's pick-and-roll passing is pretty advanced for a rookie.

 
See how Ja Morant creates opportunities for his teammates.

Play 1. When McCollum ices Valanciunas' screen, Morant rejects it and draws help from Whiteside. Whiteside is able to get back in front of Valanciunas, but not before he has his feet in the restricted area. A pump fake gets Whiteside in the air and allows Valanciunas to finish.

Number to know: Clarke and Valanciunas are two of the three players (Indiana's T.J. Warren is the other) who have shot 70% or better on at least 200 attempts in the restricted area and 50% or better on at least 100 attempts elsewhere in the paint.

Play 2. McCollum goes under the screen on Clarke's initial hand-off back to Morant. But Clarke flips the screen, McCollum gets caught behind it, and Carmelo Anthony steps up. Anfernee Simons initially sinks to tag Clarke's roll to the rim, but Morant looks him off, Simons takes a step back toward Josh Jackson on the wing, and Morant hits a wide-open Clarke under the basket.

Number to know: Clarke's field goal percentage of 62.3% ranks fifth in the league and would be the highest mark in NBA history for a qualified rookie, surpassing the mark set by Steve Johnson (61.3%) in 1981-82.

Play 3. McCollum again goes under a screen from Clarke, this one an off-the-ball cross-screen. So Morant stops where he is and McCollum is now on the wrong side of the pick. Anthony again steps up to help and Morant tosses a lob to Clarke rolling down the middle of the lane.

Number to know: Clarke has shot 74.4% in the restricted area, the best mark for a rookie with at least 200 restricted-area attempts in the 24 years for which we have shot-location data. Five of the six instances of a rookie shooting 70% or better on at least 200 restricted-area attempts have come in the last three seasons.

Play 4. Like McCollum in the last two plays, Joseph wants to go under screens for the rookie. So Morant takes Joseph down to the corner before using Dieng's screen to get into the paint. Alex Len bites for what looks like a running hook and Morant drops the ball off to Dieng for an easy dunk.

Number to know: Morant has assisted on 34.8% of his teammates' field goals while he's been on the floor. That's the eighth highest rate among 226 players who have averaged at least 20 minutes in 25 games or more.

Play 5. Alex Caruso goes over Valanciunas' screen and Morant draws JaVale McGee away from the basket with a "snake" move around the pick. That clears a path for Valanciunas.

Number to know: Morant has 95 assists to Valanciunas, 12th most from one player to a single teammate. No other teammate has more than 28 assists to the Grizzlies' starting center.

Play 6. The Magic defend this Morant/Valanciunas pick-and-roll pretty well, but the big man rolls into decent position against Vucevic and finishes through contact with a spin move.

Number to know: Despite taking a league-high 56% of their shots in the paint, the Grizzlies rank 25th in free throw rate (23.4 attempts per 100 shots from the field), having seen the league's second biggest drop from last season (27.2, seventh).

Young Legs in Transition

The Grizzlies are one of four teams that rank in the top 10 in both the percentage of their possessions that have been in transition (18.1%, fifth) and points scored per transition possession (1.12, 10th). Brooks (3.2) and Morant (3.1) lead the team in transition possessions per game, but the pace picks up when the reserves are on the floor.

When Tyus Jones and De'Anthony Melton have been on the floor together, the Grizzlies have forced 15.6 turnovers per 100 possessions and registered 23.2 fast breaks per 48 minutes. Those are both the highest on-court marks among 37 Memphis two-man combinations that have played at least 300 total minutes together.

As an individual, Melton has averaged 4.3 fast break points per 36 minutes, eighth most among 286 players who have played at least 750 total minutes this season.

 
See how the Grizzlies create opportunities when in transition.

Play 1. Anderson grabs the rebound and immediately gets the ball to Morant, who takes off. He gets Trevor Ariza on his heels and blows by him with an in-and-out dribble into a crossover.

Number to know: The 1.15 points per possession Morant has scored in transition rank 17th among 40 players who've averaged at least three transition possessions per game.

Play 2. Clarke contests Ariza from behind (and maybe gets away with a foul). The rookie doesn't have a head start when Melton grabs the rebound, but Clarke beats every Blazer to the other basket and Melton rewards him for running the floor.

Number to know: The Grizzlies have been 10.4 points per 100 possessions better with Melton on the floor (+6.2) than with him off the floor (-4.2). That's tied for the eighth biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential among 218 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team.

Play 3. Off a made free throw, Anderson quickly inbounds to Morant, who immediately passes ahead to Brooks. The Kings aren't ready and Brooks beats Harrison Barnes off the dribble.

Number to know: Brooks is one of five players who have shot worse than 50% on at least 100 attempts in the restricted area.

Play 4. Morant helps on the glass and passes ahead to Jones. Brooklyn stops the initial push, but Valanciunas beats Jarrett Allen down the floor and finishes over the smaller Nets.

Number to know: Jones leads the league in assist/turnover ratio at 5.18.

Play 5. Before Jones even has control of the rebound, the Grizzlies are on their way. Jones passes ahead to Josh Jackson, who has Morant running ahead for a dunk.

Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Grizzlies rank fifth with 5.0 passes ahead per game. Jones ranks eighth among individuals with 2.0 passes ahead per 36 minutes.

On the Glass

League-wide, as teams have chosen to prioritize transition defense, offensive rebounding percentage has gone down quite a bit over the last eight years. But there are still points to be had on the offensive glass, especially if you have a huge guy who's stationed near the basket most of the time anyway. Among 226 players who've averaged at least 20 minutes per game, Valanciunas ranks ninth in offensive rebounding percentage, having grabbed 11.1% of available offensive boards while he's been on the floor.

And the Grizzlies don't seem to have a team rule against guards crashing the glass when they see fit.

 
See how the Grizzlies attack the offensive glass.

Play 1. Morant misses a floater, but Valanciunas is able to bump Whiteside under the basket and tip the rebound back to Morant for a put-back.

Number to know: The Grizzlies are tied with Boston for the league's second biggest jump in offensive rebounding percentage, from 24.7% (27th) last season to 27.4% (13th) this season.

Play 2. This time, Morant, quick to his second jump like fellow rookie Zion Williamson, gets to his own offensive board before the two nearby Blazers.

Number to know: The Grizzlies' three-guard lineup of Morant, Melton, Brooks, Anderson and Valanciunas has grabbed 55.1% of available rebounds, the fourth highest rate among 91 lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together.

Play 3. A pick-and-roll with Josh Jackson gets Kent Bazemore switched onto Valanciunas. He's unable to take advantage on his initial catch on the block, but has an easy time with the offensive rebound when Jaren Jackson Jr. misses a long 3-pointer.

Number to know: Valanciunas accounts for two of the four instances in which a player has recorded 14 or more second chance points in a game this season.

Play 4. Valanciunas is too big and strong for Nemanja Bjelica under the basket and tips in another miss from the perimeter.

Number to know: According to Synergy, Valanciunas has shot 63.0% on put-back field goal attempts, the seventh best mark among 26 players with at least 75 attempts.

Play 5. With smaller Suns trying to keep Valanciunas off the glass as Brooks isolates against DeAndre Ayton, Morant crashes from the top of the key and times his leap perfectly.

Number to know: 43% of the Grizzlies' minutes, the the highest rate among the 22 teams still playing, have come from rookies and second-year players.

Spacing Issues

Despite their relentlessness in pushing in transition, attacking in the pick-and-roll, and crashing the glass, the Grizzlies rank 20th offensively. That's a big improvement from ranking 27th in offensive efficiency in each of the previous two seasons, but they've still got a long way to go.

There is a distinction between shots in the restricted area and shots elsewhere in the paint. Though the Grizzlies rank second in field goal percentage in the latter, the former are still worth a lot more. And while Memphis ranks first in the percentage of their shots that have come in the paint (56%), they rank just 14th in the percentage of their shots that have come in the restricted area (33%).

But their offensive issues are mostly about the perimeter. The Grizzlies are one of four teams that rank in the bottom 10 in both 3-point percentage (35.2%, 21st) and the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (34.1%, 27th).

Their relative success in the paint has them ranking higher offensively than the other three teams - Golden State, New York and Orlando - in that group. But the Grizzlies' shooting issues give them a fairly low ceiling in regard to how good they can be on that end of the floor.

The lack of shooting also limits the space that Morant has to operate and is one reason why some of those drives don't get all the way to the basket.

 
See how the Grizzlies handle spacing issues within their offense.

Play 1. Morant goes baseline when Lillard ices a screen from Valanciunas, and he gets around Whiteside with some creative ball-handling. But he's met by four players on the other side of the paint, because neither Jackson nor Anderson is spacing the floor. Brooks is still open somehow, but he misses the catch-and-shoot 3-pointer.

Number to know: The Grizzlies have just two of the 116 players (Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr.) who have shot the league average (37.0%) or better on at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts.

Play 2. When McCollum stays under two screens for Morant, the rookie has nowhere to go. The Grizzlies remain stagnant and Morant misses a pull-up 3-pointer.

Number to know: Morant has shot 34.9% on pull-up 3-pointers, better than the league average (33.0%) and the 33rd best mark among 80 players who have attempted at least 75. But his 1.5 pull-up 3-point attempts per game ranks just 75th in the league.

Play 3. Brooks gains an advantage when he goes back door against Bazemore's top-locking defense. With four defenders in the paint, he kicks out to a wide-open Anderson in the right corner. But Anderson hesitates, the Kings are able to reset, and the advantage is lost. Bogdan Bogdanovic bails them out with a foul on Brooks' late-clock isolation.

Number to know: The Grizzlies have the league's second lowest effective field goal percentage (39.4%) in the last six seconds of the shot clock, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Play 4. On a "wedge" action (Anderson sets a screen on Valanciunas' man as Valanciunas goes to set a screen on the ball), Morant gets into the paint. But LeBron James is there to meet him, because Anderson hasn't cleared all the way out to the opposite side (and/or wouldn't be a threat if he did).

Number to know: The Grizzlies have scored 9.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Anderson on the floor (101.8) than they have with him off the floor (111.5). That's the worst on-off-court differential in regard to team points scored per 100 possessions among 218 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes for a single team.

Play 5. When Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sinks to tag Valanciunas' roll to the rim, Anderson is open in the left corner and Morant makes the right read. It's just the wrong guy in that spot.

Number to know: Anderson has shot 13-for-51 (25.5%) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, the 13th worst mark among 285 players who've attempted at least 50.

Play 6. On Valanciunas' initial post-up, Avery Bradley isn't punished for turning his back on Morant to double the ball. On the re-post, Danny Green is able to sink into the paint, because Melton is trying to set a screen for a guy (Clarke) who's made 21 3-pointers all season.

Number to know: Valanciunas has averaged 3.2 post-up possessions per game, 11th most in the league, according to Synergy. The 0.98 points per possession he's scored on post-ups ranks sixth among 21 players who've averaged at least 2.5 post-up possessions per game.

Building Around the New Foundation

There was hope that, when the season resumed, Justise Winslow would give the Grizzlies some better (or more willing) shooting, while providing the same defensive impact as Anderson. But Winslow suffered a hip injury on Monday and won't make his Memphis debut until next season.

With their four full-time starters on the floor, the Grizzlies have scored an anemic 90.1 points per 100 possessions in 126 minutes with Anderson as the fifth guy and 115.4 per 100 in 425 minutes with someone else as the fifth guy. Alas, in 413 of those other 425 minutes, the fifth guy was a guy (Jae Crowder) who's no longer on the team. Crowder was traded at the deadline, Winslow never played after arriving in the trade, and Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a knee injury in the second game after the All-Star break.

So the restart is an opportunity for Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins to reinvent his rotation. He could still start Anderson (who would be needed to guard James if the Grizzlies make the playoffs as the 8 seed), but extend the minutes of his reserve guards (Jones and Melton have each averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game) to provide more pace and offense. He had already started playing Morant and Melton more together after the trade deadline. Josh Jackson, who averaged 16.6 points in five March games, remains a wildcard.

No matter who's on the floor, the Grizzlies will need transition and second-chance opportunities to stay afloat offensively. For the season, 27.6% of the their points, the league's second highest rate, have been either fast break points (15.9%, third highest rate) or second chance points (11.7%, 13th highest).

As they move forward, the Grizzlies will need to add more shooting around Morant. The rookie will also have to become a more willing shooter himself, because now that the league has seen him for close to a full season, going under screens could be more of the default game plan. In 10 of the 12 plays shown above in which Morant got into the paint via a ball screen and scored himself or dished off to a teammate, his defender went over or iced the screen and trailed Morant into the paint.

Morant's ability to get into the paint will continue to be the foundation for what the Grizzlies do offensively. Just 59 games into his career, it's already taken the Grizzlies further than anyone expected.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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