The Whiteboard: Ja Morant is scoring in the paint at a historic rate

Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

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Ja Morant went off for 25 points in Monday’s big win over the Chicago Bulls and, in what has become a season-long trend, did most of his damage in the paint. Morant finished with 14 points in the paint, just a touch below his season-long average of 14.7 points in the paint per game. That marks places him among the league leaders this season (trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo Nikola Jokic) and puts him on a potentially historic trajectory.

Since the NBA began logging play-by-play data in 1996-97, making it possible to track stats like points in the paint, just 15 players have finished a season averaging at least 14.0 points in the paint per game — Shaquille O’Neal, Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Nikola Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Montrezl Harrell, LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andre Drummond, Al Jefferson, Karl-Anthony Towns, Clint Capela and Andre Bynum.

You may notice that most of the players on thay list are big men, both physically and in terms of the positions they play. You may also notice some significant names that don’t appear on the list. Morant is on pace to average more points in the paint per game this season than post-players like Tim Duncan, Yao Ming, Blake Griffin, Chris Webber, DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid, Kevin Garnett or Zach Randolph ever managed.

In fact, if you look at all the players who have averaged double-digit points in the paint per game over the last 26 seasons, sorted by height, you can see how much of an island Ja Morant is on right now.

Small players don’t usually score in the paint the way Ja Morant does

Only two other players, 6-foot-6 or shorter, have ever even managed 13 points in the paint per game before — Zion and Westbrook. Zion has three inches and around 100 pounds on Morant and Westbrook’s season, although is led to a higher total, is arguably less impressive for a variety of reasons.

Westbrook’s 2019-20 season, where he averaged 15.0 points in the paint per game, came at the age of 31 and was an enormous outlier — his previous career-high was 11.3 in 2017-18 and he dropped to under double-digits in each of the two seasons since that high-water mark. In addition, that mark came in just 57 games, both because of injuries and the pandemic-shortened season, a somewhat smaller sample size.

Finally, Westbrook put up those 15.0 points in the paint per game on middling efficiency. That season he shot just 50.6 percent within eight feet of the basket. Morant is shooting 57.9 percent within eight feet of the basket this season, an enormous difference. In my Ja Morant write-up for FanSided’s Fandoms of the Year, I made a throw-away joke about him being a fully realized version of Westbrook. It was tongue-in-cheek at the time but it’s looking more and more serious.

Morant’s mark is much more significant than Westbrook’s in that it comes on dramatically increased efficiency and it’s an upward trend that is building so early in his career. Most of his scoring in the paint is coming off drives and his numbers there are in historic territory as well. He’s on pace to become just the fourth player to average 20 or more drives per game since the stat began being tracked in the 2013-14 season and his points per drive (0.669) are head and shoulders above anyone else.

This aspect of his game is won’t last forever. The threat of injury is always hovering around his explosive drives and at some point, that athleticism will fade and he’ll have to adjust. But in the meantime, he seems destined to make some history as one of the most prolific-paint scoring guards ever

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