WASHINGTON -- At just 22 years of age, Ja Morant has all the trademarks of an NBA superstar. He's an electric athlete whose speed and explosive finishes at the rim make for must-see television. He has ascended to become one of the NBA's best scorers, averaging 27.0 points per game entering Friday night, good for fourth in the league. He also does things basically no one else can, as a 6-foot-3 point guard who somehow also leads the NBA in points in the paint.
Morant is a one-of-one talent in today's NBA, yet the Wizards had the antidote in their 28-point win over the Grizzlies on Friday, at least for one night. They held him to a season-low 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting from the field. Morant had taken at least 17 shots in a game 41 times before in his career, but not once had he made four or fewer of them.
Now, the Wizards may have caught Morant on a bit of an off-night, as there were a few of his floaters that just kept on bouncing before rolling off the rim. But clearly they did something right to slow one of the game's brightest young stars and in doing so snapped a two-game losing streak to move to 6-3 on the season.
It was a collective effort for the Wizards. Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. gave shoutouts to basically their entire guard rotation. He mentioned Bradley Beal, Raul Neto and Aaron Holiday. Spencer Dinwiddie also tracked him on multiple possessions.
But there were two players in particular who seemed to do most of the heavy lifting. That would be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was assigned to Morant early and often on the perimeter, and Daniel Gafford, who built a wall on the backend.
"Pope does a great job. He gives us a little more size on the ball which for Ja is important," Unseld Jr. said. "We're down the floor in pick-and-roll, trying to play more 2-on-2 to eliminate some of the threes, you need that late rearview pursue and contest and he has the ability to skinny-up, keep pursuing and try to do so without fouling."
When Unseld Jr. said "skinny-up," he meant Pope can do a good job tracking guards off the dribble through traffic. And by doing that, he can lead opposing players where he wants them to go, right into the path of Gafford, who has become one of the game's best young shot-blockers.
Gafford blocked Morant twice in a span of two minutes in the third quarter. He caught him from behind in transition and then faced off with him in the lane. Gafford backpedaled, then stepped forward to swat Morant's shot away.
That sequence showed how Gafford has unique gifts as a big man, as his quick feet allow him to maintain balance while defending much smaller players.
Gafford explained his approach to doing that, especially when Morant comes off screens.
"The main thing was if he's not coming off to shoot the three, just play downhill and just stay between ball and basket. That's the main thing, make him finish over us," he said.
Morant took plenty of shots in the paint, he just didn't make them. Eight of his shots were in the lane, while three came from just outside of it.
Morant was attacking the rim early and then late did a lot of pulling up in the midrange for floaters. Gafford's presence may have caused him to think twice before closing to the basket.
The tone was often set, however, by Caldwell-Pope. At 6-foot-5, he is two inches taller than Morant and a pesky defender with veteran tricks of the trade. He said he learned of the Morant assignment at shootaround and didn't need to watch film to get ready. He already knows Morant's tendencies having played against him in the Western Conference the past two years.
"Defense, it gets my game going," Caldwell-Pope said of his exploits on that end.
He continued, describing what he likes about defending: "Just bothering people. Just being a pest. That aggravates the offensive player. He gets out of his game and now he's in his head because he's thinking about me. Or, he's worried about the pressure and what type of defense I'm gonna play. His game is a little off. I try to have fun out there on defense."
The Wizards wanted to add wing defense in the offseason and in Caldwell-Pope found a guy not only capable of making a difference in that area, but someone who embraces it.
In Gafford, who was acquired via trade in March, they have the best rim-protector they have had in years. Those two have become pillars for what is shaping up to be perhaps one of the better defenses in the league.
They just showed what they are capable of against Morant.