How Grizzlies’ Ja Morant’s off-the-backboard passes blur statistical lines: ‘I think it should be an assist’


While you and I and Charles Barkley and Deuce Tatum might have divergent views about the value of the midrange shot, we are surely of one mind when it comes to what constitutes a shot attempt. If any of us were to take on all the duties of an NBA statistician for a game, identifying when a field goal has been taken would be among the most straightforward of them.

Occasionally, however, there is an exception. A player who disguises his lob passes to look like floaters might be dinged with a missed shot that wasn’t, strictly speaking, a shot at all. The NBA rule book states: “To record a field goal attempt, one must be attempting to shoot the ball into the basket for a field goal.”

Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies has been racking up misses of questionable validity for two seasons. A playmaker equal parts shifty and surgical, recently described by RealGM’s John Wilmes as a “consummate trickster,” Morant has a propensity to pass off the backboard.

Morant said Friday that he didn’t start doing this until he was a professional. It is the product of the attention he attracts when going to the rim and conversations with Grizzlies big men about how to exploit it. 

“IQ comes into play,” Morant said. “If I’m driving and I feel like my man is coming to contest and block the shot and my big’s man is coming to contest, obviously my big will be wide open.”

Morant’s first option is to score. The angle, however, is not always right. 

“Sometimes, I just shoot it high off the glass where it drops right in front of the rim for my bigs to get the rebound and put it back in,” Morant said. “If you ask me, I think it should be an assist. But I’m sure it’s hard to judge whether or not I’m actually shooting or passing the ball like that.”

Some of these plays live in a gray area within a gray area. Keith Parish, who has a running Twitter thread about them, didn’t know what to make of Morant’s intent when he put the ball off the backboard during Game 1 of Memphis’ series against the Utah Jazz last Sunday. Parish, the host of the podcasts “Fastbreak Breakfast” and “Grit and Grinds,” was similarly unsure about a play against the Chicago Bulls in April, until Morant removed any doubt with an Instagram comment: “dat was a dime.” Tweeting from the NBA bubble last August, Morant and Brandon Clarke both lamented how their connection against the Toronto Raptors was recorded, using the loudly crying face and flushed face emoji, respectively.

Morant is 21 years old, but leads an unconventional team with the composure and confidence of a perennial All-Star. He tries 360 layups and has the most spectacular missed dunks in the NBA, but is unusually willing to make the simple, smart pass. On Wednesday he picked apart an elite defense in the pick-and-roll and finished with 47 points in the second playoff game of his career, without a reliable 3-point shot in his arsenal. It is appropriate that the player who leads the league in “Kobe assists” has blurred the line that separates them from actual assists.

The way Morant weaponizes the glass should make Tim Duncan jealous, regardless of whether or not it shows up in play-by-play data. According to NBA spokesman Mark Broussard, though, the league’s position is that no pass off the backboard should count as an assist. 

This would explain why Brooklyn Nets guard Mike James did not get any statistical credit for perhaps the most sensational sequence of the regular season, which was punctuated by an off-the-glass alley-oop from him to Kevin Durant. Go down the rabbit hole, though, and you will find inconsistencies. In his first preseason game for the Atlanta HawksTrae Young got an assist for setting up John Collins the same way out of a pick-and-roll and said that they’d been working on it in practice dating back to summer league. Young and Collins duplicated this in January in Brooklyn and pulled it off on a fast break against the Oklahoma City Thunder in March, both plays earning Young an assist. 

In April, an errant pass from Young led to an off-the-backboard alley-oop featuring Morant. This time, he ooped the alley. Kyle Anderson was credited with an assist. 

Assists are inherently subjective, as the longstanding definition — a pass that leads directly to a field goal — puts many plays in murky territory. In the fourth quarter of Game 2 between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday, Cameron Payne lobbed it off the glass to Deandre Ayton, Morant-style. It looks like a pass to me, but it is difficult to blame the statistician for recording it as a missed shot.

Unselfish player that he is, Morant has previously said he’ll take the misses as long as the Grizzlies get the points. When the game evolves, though, its statistics must evolve with it.





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