When the bright lights come on, some players take extra energy from the situation, with the combination of adrenaline, responsibility and confidence morphing into superstar performances.
At just 22 years old, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant is quickly establishing himself as one of those bankable A-list hoopers as he continues to show that not only is he ready for the big stage….he’s built for it.
Sure, we’re only one week into the new NBA season, but Morant has been building towards this level of play since he first stepped onto an NBA floor, electrifying crowds with his athleticism and sheer determination to turn opposing centers into screensavers at the rim.
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The 2020 Rookie of the Year truly announced himself in the playoffs last season, first taking out the San Antonio Spurs and then Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors in the Play-In Tournament, before a virtuoso performance in their five-game series against the Utah Jazz.
With the stakes rising with each game, so did Morant’s level of play, highlighted by a 47-point explosion in Game 2 — the most playoff points scored by a player 21 or younger, breaking LeBron James’ record (45 points on 2006).
He also became the fourth player in NBA history to score 100+ points across his first three playoff games, joining the likes of Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan. Not a bad start to your playoff career.
All of this seems to be taking people by surprise, well everyone except Morant, who sees a young Grizzlies squad destined for great things. Not just in the future, but right now.
Sporting News spoke with Morant over the offseason and he made it clear that the taste of postseason action was just the start of something big.
“Obviously we want now, we all work together, we all hungry and we’re trying to show everybody else how special we are,” he said.
Adding a seemingly bold proclamation over the summer. After averaging 19.1 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in Year 2, Morant told Michael Scotto of HoopsHype that he sees himself as a top-five point guard in the league, entering his third season.
“Steph [Curry]. I’m a big Chris Paul fan. I’d say Dame [Lillard] and [Russell] Westbrook,” Morant said. “It’s tough. The point guard position is so loaded. Some guys have to get left out,” he said.
Can we honestly say he isn’t playing better than any of the guys he listed, perhaps aside from Curry?
Morant’s start to the season would have you thinking he’s the No.1 point guard in the league.
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After dropping 37 points in their season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers — a new franchise record, he followed it up with a 27-point, eight assist outing against the LA Clippers.
In their third game of the season against the Los Angeles Lakers at STAPLES Center, in a game that featured LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, Morant was the best player on the court, dropping 40 points, 10 assists and three steals in a nail-biting loss.
Only three other players in NBA history have reached those marks in a game at 22 years old or younger — LeBron James Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas (3x).
“My goals for this season are, number one, to be better than I was my last two seasons,” Morant said in the off-season. “To be an All-Star and make an All-NBA team are my other two goals this season.”
A maiden All-Star berth and an All-NBA selection seem well within reach for Morant in his third season and according to Clippers star Paul George, he is walking in the footsteps of the last player to hoist the MVP trophy at 22 years old.
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“He’s just explosive, electrifying,” George said. “I’d compare him to like D-Rose. I guarded him my rookie year, the Indy-Chicago, and guarding Ja is very similar to how D-Rose was.”
From the highlight-reel dunks to the ability to change speeds, George, a four-time All-NBA defender marveled at Morant’s ability to keep defenders guessing.
“It was just how quick and his ability to change direction, move his body in-air,” George said. “He made it tough for us. He put a lot of pressure on us.
“He’s just explosive. He’s explosive. You know the direction he wants to go. He wants to go left, we knew that, but he’s just so good and so fast, he still gets to it.”
The gaps in Morant’s game are starting to close. With teams focused on halting his dribble penetration and daring him to shoot, Morant is knocking down 44 percent of his 3-point shots on six attempts per game and when he gets into the paint — he is nothing short of devastating.
Over half of his shots this season have come at the rim, where he’s converting at a ridiculous rate of 71.4 percent, per NBA.com Stats. When he’s not creating his own shot, he’s making things happen for his teammates, taking advantage of the extra attention defences are paying him, dishing out 8.0 assists per game, which puts him ninth in the league.
As Morant’s stock continues to soar, so does that of the Grizzlies franchise. Armed with a talented young group alongside Jaren Jackson Jr, Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies are no longer a League Pass darling but must-see TV.
This season they have seven nationally televised games, with Morant forcing them into the spotlight as one of the best shows in the league.
His ascension to becoming a household name, is especially important for a small-market team like Memphis that hasn’t had a player of his cache…maybe ever.
The Grit and Grind Grizzlies won the hearts of the city with their hard had approach and cohesiveness, with Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, going down as franchise legends, while Pau Gasol, the only other Grizzlies player to win Rookie of the Year, blossomed into a star in Memphis, earning one All-Star selection before heading to the Los Angeles Lakers in his prime.
In a recent interview with The Athletic’s Joe Vardon, Morant, who is eligible for a max rookie extension next summer, re-affirmed his commitment to the Grizzlies.
“Me, I’m not a big fan on the leaving,” Morant said. “As long as I’m here, I’m here; that’s my focus. Regardless, I’m going to make the best of any situation, continue to just go out with my teammates, win games, play in front of our fans and do whatever I can to continue to bring love.”
Not even scratching the surface of his potential, the Ja Morant show in Memphis is just getting started.
Get your popcorn ready!