Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have taken the NBA by storm this season.
After flirting with the playoffs his rookie season, and making them by knocking off the Golden State Warriors — in San Francisco — in the play-in tournament in his second season, Morant has taken the full leap to superstardom in 2021-22, becoming an All-Star starter and first-team All-NBA candidate while leading the Grizzlies to a top-three seed in the Western Conference playoff picture.
But is that enough to make Morant, whose Grizzlies face the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night, the most desirable point guard on a rookie contract in the NBA?
To answer that question, ESPN reached out to 15 league scouts and executives and asked them to rank six star point guards who are still on their rookie deals — the Charlotte Hornets’ LaMelo Ball, Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, Cleveland Cavaliers’ Darius Garland , Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young and Morant — in terms of who they’d want moving forward.
It was a question that engendered plenty of debate, and a lot of hemming and hawing over how people would ultimately decide to rank them.
And while Morant received four of the 15 first-place votes, it was Doncic who got the other 11 and took home the top spot in the survey:
Doncic was the only player who didn’t receive a lower vote than second among the six players. Morant, meanwhile, had eight second-place votes, two thirds and a fourth to settle in at a comfortable second-place finish.
After the top two is where things got interesting. While Young was the only other player to receive a second-place vote — he got three of them — he also received eight third-place votes, placing him a clear third. Young also picked up fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place votes.
Ball and Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, were ultimately separated by a single point, with Ball’s extra fourth-place votes doing enough to offset Gilgeous-Alexander’s extra third-place votes to put the young Hornets star fourth and Gilgeous-Alexander fifth, with Garland coming in sixth.
Given how incandescent Doncic has been to begin his NBA career — winning Rookie of the Year and then being named to both the All-Star and All-NBA first teams the past two seasons — he went into this process as the heavy favorite to take the top spot.
The fact he wasn’t a unanimous choice, however, is a credit to the way Morant has captivated not just fans but those inside the league as well.
« Ja has shown the ability to take a team to the next level, » a Western Conference scout said. « He’s shown great leadership, plus his jump, as far as development, has been pretty remarkable. »
It also, in the eyes of some, was a knock on Doncic’s slow start this season before working his way back into first-team All-NBA consideration.
« I would probably put Luka ahead of Ja big picture, but I’ll put Ja ahead because of Luka’s conditioning [worries] every offseason, » an Eastern Conference scout said. « Luka’s more talented, but I like Ja’s approach more. »
Other panelists, meanwhile, dropped Morant because of just how great his situation is in Memphis, and how, for some of the other options — like Gilgeous-Alexander — the lack of infrastructure hasn’t hindered success.
« It’s weird to say this, but I don’t think [Morant] is quite as good as his public perception, » an East executive said. « If you put Shai on that Memphis team, he could potentially be doing a lot of the same things. »
More often than not, however, the first choice was clear.
« Luka is by himself, » a West executive said, « a generational talent, while Ja is having an unbelievable season. »
The most polarizing player on the list was Young, whom several panelists struggled to place. « The fact he didn’t make the All-Star team last year was a joke. He definitely doesn’t get the respect he deserves, » a second West executive said.
For many of those polled, trying to decide between Young, Ball and Gilgeous-Alexander — especially the latter two — was difficult in part because of their varying skill sets.
Ball’s brilliant, creative passing skills are his calling card, and the combination of that and his youth were cited multiple times as giving him some untapped potential to move up this list in the future.
« He might wind up being the best of the bunch, » a second West scout said, « but he’s not ready to play winning basketball yet. »
Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, is shooting 28% from 3-point range this season after shooting 42% last year and is playing on a Thunder team in the early stages of a rebuild. The remaining five guards are playing on teams hoping to make, at minimum, pushes to advance out of the play-in tournament.
« Shai is clearly last to me, because I don’t think he makes [teammates] better the way other guys do, » the East scout said. « He scores and I like his size for the position, but the other guys can really pass, and he’s the least talented in that area. »
As for Garland, he wouldn’t have been on this list six months ago, but his stellar season — part of an impressive year across the board in Cleveland — vaulted him up into consideration. His lack of a track record of success — he played fewer than 60 games each of his first two seasons before his massive leap in 2021-22 — was often cited as the reason he checks in at the bottom of this list.
« He’s been a pleasant surprise, » a third West scout said, « but I don’t think he’s really a guy that, like these other guys, you can build your franchise around. »