The moment that our protagonist gets handed the keys to the car is a pivotal point in any hero’s journey.
Take Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for example, when Ferris first climbs into Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari. Actually, that one ends horribly for the car in particular, so maybe it’s not the best example.
The point, though, is this: The hero gets the vehicle and often quickly takes things to another level. Confidence, swagger and productivity all spike.
For Ja Morant, the keys to the proverbial car were conveyed on or about 11:49am EST on June 19, when it was announced that incumbent Grizzly Mike Conley had been dealt to Utah. That’s the moment that Morant took over. And it’s the moment that, for the purposes of this article, the landscape of your fantasy draft changed.
Let’s begin with...
You’ve probably seen these by now, but as a sophomore last season at Murray State, Morant hurled the following stat line out into the universe: 24.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 10.0 apg, 1.8 spg, 0.8 bpg and 1.7 3s, shooting 49.9 percent from the field and 81.3 from the line. (He did average 5.2 turnovers, which is a little scary, but we’re not there yet.)
In the midst of all of this, Morant became the first college basketball player to average 20 points and 10 dimes since… ever. Or at least since assists were added as an official stat in ‘83-’84.
It’s worth noting that those types of stratospheric numbers alone aren’t a guaranteed harbinger of NBA success. Since 1992-93 (per College Basketball Reference), there have been six college players to average better than 20 points and eight assists in a single season. Those players are:
1. J.J. Barea (21.0 ppg, 8.4 apg for Northeastern in 2005-06)
2. Kay Felder (24.4 ppg, 9.3 apg for Oakland in 2015-16)
3. Marques Green (21.3 ppg, 8.0 apg for St. Bonaventure in 2002-03)
4. Curtis McCants (22.0 ppg, 8.3 apg for George Mason in 1995-96)
5. Ja Morant (see above)
6. Trae Young (27.4 ppg, 8.7 apg for Oklahoma in 2017-18)
Out of those six players, one of them (Young) is already well on his way to being a star. Two of them are or were role players (Barea, who is pretty good, and Felder, who was out of the league this past season). And two of them (Green and McCants) never played in the NBA.
So yeah, 20 and 10 on paper doesn’t necessarily mean much. But when you take 20 and 10 and combine it with the eye test, you’ve got something. That’s because the eye test tells us that
Ja Morant is Going to Be Difficult to Stop
If you haven’t watched much in the way of Morant’s work, take a minute to familiarize yourself. Can you not very easily envision this kid carving up NBA defenses during the regular season? He can beat his guy off the dribble with ease — I’m especially impressed by his ability to drive left — plus he’s got the height (6-foot-3) and the hops to be an explosive finisher at the rim. I also think his outside shot, even if not great, will be good enough to allow him to contribute there as well (he shot 36.3 percent on 3s this past season).
He also has excellent court vision, and I expect him to be an asset — or at least not a drain — on percentages, as he shot 48.5 percent from the field in college, and 81.0 from the line over two years. And I’m relatively confident that he’ll get enough attempts close to the basket to keep his FG percentage at least respectable.
He has none. Actually, that’s not true. If you’re turnover-averse, this won’t be something you enjoy, as Morant (in the words of Rotoworld colleague Raphielle Johnson on a recent podcast episode) has a tendency to try to hit home runs with his passes, and as a result averaged 5.2 turnovers a game this past season. That is a lot (it’s the same number that Trae Young averaged as a freshman at Oklahoma), and we’re just going to have to deal with it.
Also, to be honest with you, this is exactly what I want. It’s a sign of Morant being aggressive. I can’t live with a player killing me in more than one of the “sub-zero” categories (FG, FT, turnovers), but if it’s only one — and that one is turnovers — then I really don’t care. As a rookie, I think Morant is going to be spectacular and occasionally befuddling but overall ridiculously fun to have on fantasy teams. Which brings me to my final topic:
Where Should We Draft Him?
This is where you can take any preconceived notions you have about rookie point guards not producing big fantasy stats and toss them in the commode. I don’t even need to reach far for an example, because I just mentioned one a couple of paragraphs ago: Trae Young. Over his final 43 games last season — basically the last three months of the year — the Hawks PG/my hometown basketball savior posted 22.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8.6 apg, 0.9 spg and 2.4 3s, shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 85.1 from the line with 3.7 turnovers a game, landing as the No. 53 player in 9-category leagues during that run.
Morant and Young are obviously different players, but they have some similarities in the sense that these are both guys who come in and run the entire show — and I think Morant has similar upside to Young as a passer.
To more directly answer the question that I put in large bold font above, in a recent Rotoworld mock draft — just prior to the NBA Draft, and prior to the Conley trade — I got Morant at pick No. 67. Now that we know we don’t have to wait on Conley to leave town, I’d go considerably higher — closer to 50 for now — and I’ll weigh whether I’m gonna move him up the draft board even more as the season approaches. As for specific numbers, I’m roughly envisioning something in the range of 18 points and eight assists with plenty of steals, some 3s and maybe even a handful of blocks (remember, he averaged 0.8 per game in college).
I know some people are worried about the Grizzlies being bad and shutting guys down later in the season, but when it comes to a 19-year-old point guard (turns 20 in August) who needs the on-the-job experience, I’ll take my chances. Trae Young (I promise this is the last time I’ll mention him) played 81 games for a not-great Hawks team last year. I’ll approach guys like Kevin Love carefully when it comes to a shutdown. Morant? Different story.
The bottom line is this: Mike Conley is gone. The Grizzlies got no point guards (i.e., Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver) back in that trade. Delon Wright is a restricted free agent who may or may not be back in Memphis. The only other notable PG currently under contract in the Memphis universe is… Jevon Carter? And the Grizzlies just hired a 34-year-old head coach in Taylor Jenkins, who has already referred to Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. as a “dynamic duo.”
Could things change for the worse in free agency? Sure. The Grizzlies might bring in a veteran mentor to annoyingly poach minutes from Morant.
But the reality right now is this: Ja Morant has the keys to Cameron’s dad’s car.
I call shotgun.