One simple fix can unlock Ja Morant’s full ceiling

Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) dunks against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2020; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) dunks against the San Antonio Spurs during the second half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite an early injury setback, one small biomechanics fix has been apparent for Ja Morant, and it could ensure we see him become the player we think he can be.

There wasn’t much to nitpick for Ja Morant‘s 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year campaign. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft checked several major boxes you want to see from a young lead guard, scoring 17.8 points per game, posting a commanding 7.3 assists per game, displaying willingness to pull up from beyond the 3-point arc, and most importantly, showing quality leadership traits while steadily improving throughout the season. That resulted in a red-hot end to the pre-COVID season for the Memphis Grizzlies, nearly earning the team a playoff spot and appearing to significantly accelerate their rebuild.

However, if you watched closely, there was one problem you could identify for Morant. It wasn’t a skill he lacked, or a red flag in his on-court demeanor. Instead, the player who commonly gets Derrick Rose comparisons showed a very concerning health risk that could limit his ceiling significantly. Morant is an athletic dynamo whose explosiveness is his chief athletic calling card; but in his rookie season, it was landing, not jumping, that was cause for concern.

Morant’s highlight dunks kept him in the headlines last season, and for good reason. The young 6-foot-2 guard posterized plenty of victims as a rookie, and he showed that he can get to the rim nearly at will. The problem, though, was what happened after the dunk or crafty finish. Morant showed a near-constant inability to control his body as he landed from jumps in traffic, and it put him in some very concerning landing spots at the end of these highlight dunks.

More than a few of Morant’s highlight dunks and finishes ended with him sprawled on the court, making you think his ACL was a cloud of dust in the center of his knee. Morant couldn’t control his momentum, and his landing mechanics were nonexistent, often meaning he was landing on one leg, twisting his body and getting easily thrown off balance towards the baseline. You might remember the following play against the Indiana Pacers sparking discussion about whether NBA cameramen are too close to the action — but Morant doesn’t go hurtling into the sideline if he can absorb this contact, and doesn’t have a scary, twisting one-legged landing after colliding with Myles Turner.

These one-legged finishes are also present when Morant isn’t taking contact — a habit of finishing dunks by kicking out one leg and landing in an unstable position could also be seen in Morant’s more innocuous open-court finishes.

Now, you may be wondering what the big deal is here. Sure, he’s a little off-kilter when he lands, but who isn’t when they get thrown around by NBA centers, and guys go flying all the time! But the issue surrounds the biomechanics of Morant’s landings. When you land straight-legged on a single leg, that’s a classic injury mechanism for an ACL rupture and many other major knee injuries.

The ACL is responsible for controlling the tibia’s position in relation to the femur at the knee joint. When you land from a jump, that means that the ACL is keeping the tibia from sliding forward and laterally in relation to where the other half of the knee joint lands. In a situation like the one that Morant routinely put himself in, that knee joint is absorbing all of the body’s weight coming down on it, and the natural reaction is going to be for that knee to bend. With a stiff leg landing, the knee musculature isn’t in a prepared position for the knee to bend to slow the body down, and that puts the ACL in the primary position to absorb that force. Introduce any rotational force to that equation, and you end up like former Warrior Brandon Rush, whose career was effectively ended by an ACL rupture suffered in a very Morant-like dunk attempt.

The concern with Morant was that if he didn’t fix his landing biomechanics, he would be predisposed to a significant knee injury by virtue of putting his knee in a compromised position, over and over again. And while it may never happen — not all risky behavior has consequences — we saw with Derrick Rose, who had a similar landing mechanics issue, that eventually the consequences find their way to you.

Landing mechanics changes don’t happen overnight; they take years of concentrated biomechanics focus, which is a tough ask even under the Skynet-level supervision of NBA medical staffs. But prior to his ankle sprain, Morant appeared to have taken significant steps toward solving the problem. Routinely this year, Morant has taken the extra step of either gathering himself heading towards the rim:

Or hanging on the rim for an extra second or two to ensure he finds a safe spot to come down:

These habit changes, combined with improving his core strength and balance as he continues to physically mature, are going to be paramount to making sure Morant is healthy enough to make the most of his many gifts on the basketball floor. He’s already established himself as one of the most entertaining young players in the league, and his early scoring outbursts this season seem to hint at him one day competing for scoring titles.

While his ankle injury is certainly a setback, it seems unrelated to this larger jump-landing issue. The more consistently Morant can avoid these awkward landings, the better — it means there will be more Ja Morant for us to watch and enjoy.

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