Initially, the 2019 NBA draft class wasn’t expected to produce a top point guard prospect. Well, have the tables turned over the past few months as Murray State’s Ja Morant has had a meteoric rise up draft boards. And in this latest update to my personal big board, Morant set a record for the highest jump of 12 spots right in front of Trae Young last season.
Morant has also been breaking the internet this week with two insanely athletic highlight dunks. In the Ohio Valley Conference, Morant’s Racers are running away from the competition early as they look to reach March Madness once more with this new hype train leading them.
Big Board 2.0 dropping today with Ja Morant up to No. 3 overall. Does Morant fit in PHX, or is he more of a bargaining chip for an All-Star trade?— Evan Sidery (@esidery) January 18, 2019
Jones: "If you add an 18 or 19 year old with a 20 and 21 year old, you have that 'point guard of the future' but the future is now." pic.twitter.com/DjSVuVEEcQ
Even though Morant’s level of competition isn’t the best compared to his other counterparts in the 2019 draft class, he showed out big-time going toe-to-toe versus SEC opponents Alabama and Auburn. In those two games alone, which ended in tightly contested losses, Morant tallied 63 points (23-43 FGA), 17 rebounds, and 12 assists (15 turnovers).
So far this season, Morant is averaging 23.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 10.6 assists while carrying an elite true shooting percentage of 63.6. For reference, no other college player has averaged at least 20 points and 10 assists through a full season spanning the entire Sports-Reference database.
When I tried to come up with player comparisons for someone of Morant’s caliber, a supreme athlete who can jump like a bunny at the rim while surveying the floor well for playmaking purposes, some interesting ones crossed my mind: De’Aaron Fox, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. You have probably heard plenty of the Westbrook comparison already since Morant is a nightly triple-double threat, but his blend of speed and athleticism gives me flashbacks to Fox and Wall.
When you stack up Morant’s current production to Fox and Wall’s freshman seasons at Kentucky, they definitely are compatible:
Morant per 36: 23.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 10.7 assists (+2.1 AST/TO), 1.6 steals
Fox per 36: 20.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.6 assists (+1.9 AST/TO), 1.8 steals
Wall per 36: 17.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists (+1.6 AST/TO), 1.8 steals
Morant is relatively young for his class being a sophomore and having just turned 19 in August. He can certainly fill up all parts of the box score, but is he a smooth fit alongside Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and the rest of the Suns’ young core?
When Vice President of Basketball Operations spoke exclusively with Bright Side Night donors earlier this month, the point guard situation came up quickly. Jones’ response wasn’t a surprise, but he might have tipped in his hand in preferring not to bring on another young prospect aboard.
“If you add an 18 or 19 year old with a 20 and 21 year old, you have that ‘point guard of the future’ but the future is now,” Jones said when he spoke about having better control over free agency and the draft to fill their PG hole rather than trades.
It makes sense what Jones is saying. The Suns have seven players age 23 or under — Kelly Oubre Jr., Booker, Mikal Bridges, Josh Jackson, Ayton, De’Anthony Melton, and Elie Okobo — so would adding in another young piece stunt their hopeful progress for 2019-20? After sitting through Jackson’s development, considered one of the most NBA ready prospects who instead has taken multiple years to refine his game, maybe majority owner Robert Sarver and Jones aren’t patient enough to have another round of this with Morant or whoever else.
If the Suns don’t win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, which seems like an all-out war between 4-5 teams right now over the final half of this season, I’m leaning heavily in the direction of them deciding to trade their pick. After another disappointing season for Phoenix where it now stretches their playoff drought to nine years, will they really want to draft another rookie with the possibility of stretching that embarrassing stretch to a full decade?
No, I personally don’t, and I imagine neither do Jones and Sarver. That opens up the mystery box to what could be done with the rights to Morant, if we want to play this hypothetical game.
When surveying possible point guard targets via trade on draft night, many of them really don’t qualify as “blockbusters” but ones that would help push the envelope forward with the Suns’ painstakingly long rebuild. Names like Jrue Holiday and Mike Conley instantly come to mind, as does the Wall albatross contract.
Scratch off Wall for disastrous reasons with his long-term salary commitment plus lengthy injury history, so that leaves Holiday and Conley. Ironically, both New Orleans and Memphis are 1.) in need of a rebuild and 2.) have point guards who won’t fit their rebuilding timeline.
Could something like Ryan Anderson’s expiring contract plus the rights to Morant be enough for either New Orleans or Memphis to bite? Realistically, Phoenix would have to toss in one of their wings, most likely T.J. Warren, but that package seems more than fair for both sides. Offloading Anderson, Warren, and their pick (rights to Morant) would allow Phoenix to have just over $40 million in cap space when factoring in the cap holds for Oubre Jr. and Richaun Holmes. That’s more than enough to absorb a returning All-Star point guard and a top-notch power forward option via free agency.
For the Suns to retool around Booker and Ayton properly, they will need many players capable of playing solid defense and also hitting catch-and-shoot opportunities consistently. Morant fits as the playmaker who can get everyone else involved, but his subpar defensive instincts and high usage could result in a murky fit next to the equally high usage Booker.
We’ve seen it via flashes here and there, but the most optimal route for Phoenix to go would be to find a backcourt partner who doesn’t take the ball out of Booker’s hands much while also being a capable defender and facilitator. At least on the surface, Morant doesn’t really fit that mold. On the flip side, veteran options like Holiday and Conley would mesh well into that role while also helping push their timeline forward into the 2020s.
For example, if this were to come to fruition, here’s how the Suns’ rotation would look:
Starters - Holiday or Conley/Booker/Bridges/?/Ayton
Bench Mob - Melton, Jackson, Oubre, Holmes, Okobo
If Phoenix believes the future is really now, then that signals it’s time to make some aggressive moves in 2019 to fulfill this statement.
Sure, you could also make the case that Morant would ease the burden off Booker while opening up more spacing for others, but that’s relying on all of the Suns’ above-average young defenders (Melton, Bridges, Oubre) take the step to elite in Year 2. Like we have started to really lock in on with Warren’s fit started to become an issue with his lack of defensive ability, Phoenix could lock themselves into that again with Morant.
From what I can gather, the Suns seem like a team where it’s totally Zion or bust for them. If they don’t get lottery luck for the second consecutive season, get ready for them to take plenty of phone calls on their top pick this summer.
After this Morant versus veteran point guard debate, my second installment of my lottery big board is below, outlining how certain players fluctuated from their original spots, plus included a quick synopsis on each prospect. If you want to check out Lottery Big Board 1.0, click here.
1. Zion Williamson, Wing/Big, Duke (-)
Nothing much to say here. I’ll stand by my previous statement that Zion is the best college prospect since Anthony Davis. Really, there should be no debate with that. He’s better than Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons were at the same stage. Throw this guy in an NBA uniform already.
2. R.J. Barrett, Wing, Duke (+2)
Barrett’s poor play versus Gonzaga hampered him early, but he’s bounced back behind improvements shooting from the perimeter and toning down his ball hog-like tendencies. They still flash from time to time, but he’s definitely the second-best prospect in this class. After Williamson and Barrett, this class really begins to fall off. Barrett’s star potential has high variance, though. He could either be the next jumbo playmaker who takes over, or he turns into a Harrison Barnes or Andrew Wiggins type who never progresses much past this point.
3. Ja Morant, Ball Handler, Murray State (+12)
No need to explain more here on Mr. Morant. Scroll back up for more on why I think Morant could be viewed as more of a trade chip for Phoenix rather than their PG of the future.
4. Nassir Little, Wing, North Carolina (-2)
Very disappointed to see the lack of development out of Little. He flashed so much on the AAU circuit, but head coach Roy Williams still doesn’t want to start him. Until he plays with more consistency on both ends, there’s a better chance he continues to slide rather than rise back up in Lottery Big Board 3.0.
5. Cam Reddish, Wing, Duke (-2)
Reddish has been hot and cold trying to figure out being the No. 3 option behind Williamson and Barrett at Duke. His defense has taken steps forward, but his knack for coasting and only being a spot-up shooter gives me concern about his mentality. Could he develop into a No. 1 alpha scoring type in the right situation? I believe the jury is out on that.
6. Kevin Porter Jr., Ball Handler, USC (-)
KPJ has been battling a thigh injury plus disciplinary actions from his head coach, but the flashes of brilliance showed early. If you haven’t seen Porter Jr. play before, he’ll remind you an awful lot of James Harden with his mannerisms. I can’t see Porter Jr. sliding as he will be firmly entrenched in the top 5-8 range leading up to June.
7. Jarrett Culver, Wing, Texas Tech (+10)
Culver has actually tied Young for the second-highest rise on my boards behind Morant. This double-digit increase is from Culver thriving even more in a high usage role since Zhaire Smith left. Culver not only is displaying a three-level scoring package, but his defensive upside is there, too. Don’t be surprised if he ends up in the top five, to be honest. I know Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson has him at No. 3 overall, but I’m not there just yet.
8. De’Andre Hunter, Wing, Virginia (-3)
Hunter’s slide really is due to huge jumps from Morant and Culver. Hunter still is a steady 3-and-D wing who could eventually form a nice pairing next to Ayton in Phoenix’s frontcourt. Make sure to watch some Virginia basketball, because Hunter is one of the main cogs to their success.
9. Bol Bol, Big, Oregon (-3)
After flashing Kristaps Porzingis-like upside early on, Bol is now out for the season with a foot injury. Even though it wasn’t deemed serious, this is a concern when factoring in Bol’s frail body with his wiry length. Not much muscle mass is on the 7’3” Bol, so his jumper and rim protection ability will have to really show out during the pre-draft process for teams to stop really worrying.
10. Romeo Langford, Ball Handler, Indiana (-)
Langford is a smooth operator with the ball in his hands, but he’s been inconsistent with his perimeter shooting. Even though Langford’s defense has seen an uptick under head coach Archie Miller, he still stays in his same spot from 1.0. Many others have him closer to the top five, but I’m still in wait and see mode with Langford.
11. Keldon Johnson, Wing, Kentucky (-)
Johnson, like Langford, stays at No. 11 but it’s hard to ignore how fun Johnson is to watch on tape. He’s everywhere on the defensive end, plus he’s been better shooting the NBA-range shots. Keep an eye on Johnson, because he could be a name who personally rises on my board if he continues to showcase his tenacity on both sides of the court.
12. Darius Garland, Ball Handler, Vanderbilt (+1)
Garland is out for the season with a torn meniscus, but the upside I saw on tape in high school will keep him in the lottery. Honestly, I wouldn’t be blown away if Garland ended up ahead of other names by the end due to him not even playing. Now, scouts will go and look at his other game film and they’ll see a primary playmaker who can hit contested step backs or pull-up off the dribble. Garland has a modern scoring package needed from today’s point guards.
13. Sekou Doumboya, Wing, France (-4)
Would you look at that, another injury on this big board. Doumboya is the youngest player here at age 17, but the raw talent will attract some executives six months from now. He’s a lanky wing who can bring the ball up the floor. Also, Doumboya could turn into a secondary rim protector on the next level, if he lands in the right spot for his development. This year’s mystery prospect remains one for the time being as he recovers, but, early in the year, he flashed top-10 upside.
14. Rui Hachimura, Big, Gonzaga (-2)
I saw Hachimura in person earlier this year versus Tennessee at Talking Stick Resort Arena. His scoring ability will surely draw people in, but his defense really is concerning. His blown rotation was the reason why Admiral Schofield made the game-winner, and it’s continued to pop up in games throughout the season. If Hachimura is just a scoring forward who struggles with basketball IQ on defense, how will that affect his stock? Early on, there was huge hype with Hachimura, but it’s cooled off since then.
Outside looking in: Brandon Clarke, Wing/Big, Gonzaga (-); Luguentz Dort, Ball Handler, Arizona State (-1); Jaxon Hayes, Big, Texas (-)
That does it for Lottery Big Board 2.0, everybody. If you have any draft-related questions for me, drop it in the comments section below and I’ll answer. My next update will be right before March Madness, so stay on the look out for it!