Lowe: Ten NBA things I like and don't like, including the electric Ja Morant


Let’s get a helping of 10 NBA things before the holiday, including a closer look at Ja Morant:

1. Hello, Ja Morant

Morant is real. In Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — cut the fouls, big fella! — the Grizzlies have two cornerstones. Brandon Clarke can defend all over the floor, and he is shooting 62% — nailing 3s and glorious pogo stick floaters. The Grizz are the good kind of bad: young, fun, fearless.

It starts with Morant, who is absolutely electric with the ball. When he gets a head of steam, he can finish right through bigger defenders:

The league is awash in water bug point guards who get inside the foul line at will. What separates the greats is the ability to explode through traffic to the rim instead of settling for floaters. Morant has that extra gear:

Morant is shifty in tight spaces. He has a knack for changing speed and direction with an abruptness that confuses defenders. He already is smart about weaponizing his speed as an off-ball cutter:

Teams are going under picks and daring Morant to shoot 3s. He is accepting some of those invitations and is 12-of-29 from deep — great early signs.

Like almost every rookie point guard, Morant has a long way to go on defense. He has the tools and grit to grow into a plus on that end. In his third NBA game, Morant swatted Kyrie Irving‘s game-winning attempt at the buzzer and talked all sorts of trash. He looks like a star in every sense.

2. Utah getting a little pull-up-y

The Jazz rank a shocking 23rd in points per possession, and the fundamentals of their offense have changed in ways that go against what Quin Snyder values. Utah ranks 20th in the percentage of shot attempts that come from 3-point range and 16th in the share from around the basket, per Cleaning The Glass data.

That leaves a lot of midrange shots and too many pull-ups — especially floaters from Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell. Midrangers comprise half of Mitchell’s attempts, by far the highest rate of his career.

Overall, Utah is jacking 25.6 pull-ups per game, seventh overall, and up from a league-low 19.1 last season. They have the shot profile they try to foist onto opponents. They also are throwing almost 40 fewer passes per game as compared to last season.

Some of that might be by design. In ditching Derrick Favors for Bojan Bogdanovic — and acquiring Conley — Utah went all-in on spread pick-and-roll. They don’t have to spend as much time passing and cutting to get the defense off-kilter before going into the main action. They can skip the foreplay.

Opponents are cagier defending Rudy Gobert‘s rim-running. Some teams appear to be sending help defenders into the lane a beat later than in prior seasons — and having those guys crash hard when they finally go. The gambit appears to be throwing off Utah’s ball handlers. Outside shooters aren’t coming open as early. The lob to Gobert is there, and then it isn’t. He is averaging 3.9 dunk attempts per 100 possessions, down from 6.2 last season, per Second Spectrum data.

That has left Conley and Mitchell wandering with live dribbles before settling for floaters.

Time should solve a lot of this. Conley and his new teammates will learn each other’s quirks, and Joe Ingles — slumping early — will get used to a new bench role. They are shooting horribly from midrange, and are probably due some good luck. Their two best lineups — the starting five, and the same group with Ingles in place of Royce O’Neale — are scoring well. Bogdanovic has been an easy fit. They have the league’s stingiest defense.

But this is worth monitoring. Ditto for Utah’s bench, which has been a disaster.

3. Devonte’ Graham can pass too

There is a tendency to brand guys like Graham — small at 6-foot-1 and an eager shooter — as bench gunners, but Graham’s play has been more subtle than that. He has looked the part of NBA starting point guard, with canny timing as a pick-and-roll distributor.

Graham has a good sense for when to slow down, pin his defender on his back, prod deeper and wait for the defense to expose something:

He also knows when to get off of it early — when a help defender is leaning away from a corner shooter:

Graham might be the season’s happiest surprise, even if he’s not surprised. After a strong practice late last season, Graham approached Charlotte coach James Borrego and declared, “I’m ready,” Borrego recalls. Borrego installed him as Kemba Walker‘s backup. He showed enough to earn the same job behind Terry Rozier.

Graham spent the summer strengthening his legs so he could put more power into the off-the-bounce 3s that would make or break his career, Borrego says.

And then, boom. Graham is averaging 18 points and seven dimes per game, and he has hit 41% on 3s. Charlotte has scored 106 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the floor, and a pathetic 93 when he sits.

Last week, Borrego inserted Graham into the starting lineup in place of Dwayne Bacon. Graham is not giving up that spot anytime soon. He has been better than Rozier (by a lot) and everyone else on Charlotte’s roster. The next step is getting more comfortable finishing in the paint, but Graham has arrived.

4. He’s got Bam Hands!

Has Bam Adebayo been Miami’s best player? Its most indispensable? Both?

Adebayo is averaging 13.8 points, 10.2 rebounds. 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Only six players have cleared the 13.5/10/4/1.5/1.4 barriers in the same season: Kevin Garnett, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Chris Webber, Karl Malone, David Robinson and Charles Barkley. They accomplished that feat over eight combined seasons. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is on pace to the join the same club.)

Did I do some cherry picking there? Sure. Do I care? No. Dude is having an awesome season, doing a bit of everything on offense: bringing the ball up and dishing dimes; rim-running for thunder dunks; hitting half his shots from floater/short jumper range; and serving as a release valve for Miami’s ball handlers.

On defense, he can guard anyone. That often means defending stretchy power forwards so Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk can stick with slower centers. Adebayo can switch onto point guards and hold his own against the apex predator wings (Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard) who rule today’s game.

And Bam’s hands. My god, his hands. Throw the ball into any crowd and Adebayo’s coming out with it:

PJ Tucker — not exactly a shrinking violet — actually thought he would snatch this rebound:

When the Heat get Justise Winslow back, I’m curious to see how often Erik Spoelstra plays with Adebayo as the only traditional big. The downside of having him defend power forwards now is that he isn’t around to protect the rim as he would be guarding centers. Lineups featuring Winslow, Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and two of the Goran Dragic/Kendrick Nunn/Tyler Herro/Duncan Robinson quartet could be fast and switchy.

5. Ersan Ilyasova, slippin’

I am a sucker for pick-and-pop big men who ambush defenses with occasional quick slips toward the basket. Ilyasova has been doing more of it while Milwaukee’s centers — the Lopez twins — spot up and clear the lane:

Dirk Nowitzki also was an expert at this. The idea is simple: When these guys set screens, they know their defenders are likely to lunge at ball handlers instead of waiting in the paint; dropping back concedes open pick-and-pop 3s.

That scheme does not account for Ilyasova rolling to the rim. A quick thread-the-needle pass leads him into a 4-on-3.

Brook Lopez also reacquaints himself with the paint now and then on slips, slow-motion pump-and-go drives and post-ups against mismatches. Variety is healthy for the Bucks. They’ll need it facing postseason defenses that can offer at least some resistance against Antetokounmpo.

But those same defenses are more likely to switch actions like this one. That is the essence of playoff basketball: two teams adjusting and countering until one wins or they reach a strategic stalemate — leaving superstars to settle the matter.

6. Foot-on-the-line maestros

We need analytics for this, but I’d bet good money Dillon Brooks and Danilo Gallinari rank in the top five in foot-on-the-line 2s — aka the dumbest shot in basketball, aka The Brandon Knight — and that Gallinari is one of the active career leaders.

(Yes, the broadcast initially counted that as a 3. They corrected it a few seconds later.)

This isn’t some great crime. Brooks and Gallinari are decent midrange shooters.

Gallinari is having another rock-solid all-around season, though his attempts at the rim have dipped to an alarming level — about 20% of all shots, in the fifth percentile for his position, per Cleaning The Glass.

But he is scorching from everywhere, herky-jerky-ing his way into his usual bundle of free throws and competing on defense. Gallinari is quietly setting himself up to be one of this summer’s premiere free agents. He is more plug-and-play than some starrier names. Would you rather have Gallinari or DeMar DeRozan?

Brooks is renewed after a lost season. He is running more pick-and-roll, and he is a physical, crafty ball handler with a floater game and some passing chops. He also is a delightfully irritating defender — one of the most foul-prone wings in the league, always getting under someone’s skin.

7. The quiet greatness of Paul Millsap

It sounds weird to say about a four-time All-Star, but Millsap might be the most underappreciated really good player of the past 10 years. He does whatever Denver needs in the moment. He senses when the Nuggets could use a jolt of energy and finds a way to provide it: bumping three dudes out of the way for an offensive rebound; prying the rock from some enemy ball handler; revving up the offense with an extra pass or an impromptu bone-crunching screen in semi-transition.

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