The leading paint scorer in the NBA isn’t who you think it is

How 6-foot-3 point guard Ja Morant turned into the NBA’s leading interior scorer

The modern NBA is obsessed with pace, space and 3-point scoring. In the midst of that revolution, a new type of attack guard is poised to exploit new opportunities in the middle of the floor, where defenses that have spread out to defend the 3 have left the rim less protected than ever.

While big men like Joel EmbiidAnthony Davis and Deandre Ayton are all averaging big numbers in the paint, they’re all also looking up at someone far shorter who is flipping the conventional wisdom on being a dominating paint scorer.

In his third year in the NBA, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant is making the leap — and that leap is taking place in the paint.

After averaging 18 points per game in his rookie season, and 19 per contest in Year 2, the 22-year-old Morant is suddenly averaging 25 points per game. He is currently the youngest player among the top 10 scorers in the league. He’s outscoring other young phenoms like Luka Doncic and Trae Young because of one main factor: Despite standing just 6-foot-3, Morant is one of the best interior scorers in pro basketball.

In case you think that’s an exaggeration, consider these two tidbits:

  1. No guard has ever led the league in points in the paint; Morant is currently doing so.
  2. The only players this century to average more paint production per game are Shaquille O’Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson.

Morant set the tone for his breakout season back on opening night in a home win against the Cavaliers. In that victory, 30 of his 37 total points came in the paint as he tortured Cavs defenders with a never-ending set of driving layups, dunks and floaters.

His rim attacks are mesmerizing in part because you never know what’s coming, and he often seems to make his own shot-type decision while hanging in the air. His ability to hang and finish is downright Jordanesque, and the combination of his quick, confident first step with his leaping ability is the key to his elite finishing skills.

Morant is scoring more than 9 points per game on driving layups and dunks alone, which is the most in the league, and again remarkable for a player of his age and his size. And by averaging 15 points per game in the paint, Morant is doing things that few if any guards have ever done in the teeth of the defense.

He is by no means the first attacking backcourt player, but even greats like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose never posted numbers like this, especially when they were 22.

Like Rose in his prime, he boasts scary speed with the ball in his hand, and Morant gets many of those dunks and layups in transition because he’s Usain Bolt in the open court.

Check out this example from earlier this month versus Phoenix: Morant grabs a rebound under his own hoop and starts a fast break. All five Suns defenders cross half court before Morant, but it doesn’t matter. Morant simply flies past Chris Paul and the whole Suns squad and slams the ball, punctuating an electric basket-to-basket attack that evokes peak Russell Westbrook. The entire process, from rebound to dunk, takes less than five seconds.

Morant leads the league with 27 transition layups and dunks this season, but make no mistake, a vast majority of his interior buckets have come in half-court settings, and ultimately his ceiling as a scorer will be defined more by what he can accomplish against set defenses. The good news is that he’s both more prolific and more efficient as a half-court scorer this season.

Like many of the best young guards in the league, Morant loves floaters. Whereas older point guards like Paul and Westbrook love to pull up and shoot from the elbows, younger point guards like Young, Doncic and Morant are much more likely to use teardrops than pull-ups. Only Young is averaging more floaters per game this season than Morant.

But unlike Young, Morant is a terrifying finisher, and as he attacks downhill, opposing bigs have to protect against those highlight-reel dunks, which opens up the floater game. One key development this season is that Morant is taking full advantage of that more than ever before. He is currently averaging 2.9 made shots in the paint zones outside the restricted area, most by a guard over the past 25 seasons, when the league started logging shot locations.

Morant has also shown significant improvement from outside the paint as well, shooting a career-high 36.8% on his 3-point shots, way up from the 30.5% he shot a season ago. If Morant can develop a reliable triple, it’s over. If there’s one thing that “held back” other great attacking guards over the past 20 years it’s long-range shooting. It’s a skill that evaded Westbrook, Rose and Wade in their primes, but it’s one that Morant could still master. Forcing defenses to respect his outside shot will open up even more driving lanes for Morant to exploit, making him even more dangerous in half-court settings.

He’s showing encouraging progress, but Morant has converted just 23.7% of his unassisted triples this season. That number has to improve if Morant really wants to reach his All-NBA potential. There’s still plenty of time.

Morant was born into a basketball world dominated by interior dominators like O’Neal and Tim Duncan, dominant two-way bigs who combined to win 10 titles. But by the time he arrived in the NBA, he was entering a league dominated by perimeter playmakers like Stephen Curry and James Harden.

Morant has the potential to merge these approaches, using his speed and his handles to make moves on the edges, but also leveraging his hops and his finishes to dominate the paint in a way that Grizzlies fans — accustomed to the ground-bound grit-‘n’-grind styles of Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph — have never seen before.

Credit: Source link