MIAMI – Murray State coach Matt McMahon remembers that feeling.
Wanting to treat his young son to a Grizzlies game last season, McMahon made the three-hour drive to Memphis for a late March matchup against the Golden State Warriors. It was at that game when McMahon met a few Grizzlies staffers who knew he was coaching the brightest point guard prospect in college at the time, a star destined to be a high lottery pick.
It was on that spring trip to FedExForum when McMahon insists that feeling hit him.
“The Grizzlies weren’t having the kind of year they hoped, but they also weren’t one of the NBA’s worst teams, record-wise,” McMahon recalled. “So they didn’t think they could get Ja in the draft. And I remember thinking right then, ‘You know what? This is where Ja will end up.’”
Where Morant will guide the Grizzlies from here remains to be seen as they look to bounce back from a season-opening loss in Miami. But what should be a promising building process continues Friday, when the Grizzlies (0-1) and their No. 2 overall pick make their regular season home debut at FedExForum against the Bulls (0-1). Playing in front of more than 30 family members, friends and former coaches who made the trip to Miami for his first NBA game, Morant mixed remarkable flashes with rookie-like uneven moments to finish with 14 points, four rebounds, four assists and six turnovers in Wednesday’s 120-101 loss.
“I’m not focused on the positives for me – just the negatives,” Morant said after the setback. “I felt like I could have been better in a lot of places to help my team out. I’m looking forward to (the next) practice, where we can get better, study film and go out there and fix mistakes. Then Friday, we can go out there and correct them in the game.”
That level of leadership and accountability reveals just how Morant, 20, is the new face of a new era for a franchise that underwent a major offseason transition.
That transformational summer also included Morant making a stop back at Murray State, where he received a key to the city, a hero’s welcome and a campus parade as the most decorated player to emerge from the mid-major program in rural Kentucky.
It was then and there where McMahon shared that story of his Memphis visit as he toured a group of guests through Murray State’s basketball facility. The coach’s suite was essentially a shrine that held framed articles, championship memorabilia and notable artifacts that chronicled the Racers’ success, including Morant’s record-setting two seasons in the program.
It was at Murray State where Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant became the first player in NCAA history to average more than 20 points and 10 assists per game last season. Then, a fortuitous bounce of ping pong balls in May’s NBA Lottery secured Memphis the No. 2 overall selection, which the Grizzlies used in June’s Draft on Morant after New Orleans chose Zion Williamson.
The Racers were fortunate to have Morant in college.
The Grizzlies were lucky to land him in the NBA.
“It’s pretty obvious he was a program changer for us,” McMahon said of Morant. “And he’ll be a franchise changer down there in Memphis.”
Lofty expectations, indeed. But Morant is rising to the demands as quickly as he skyrockets to the rim for highlight dunks that have peppered his play in games and practices. Having flashed an elite blend of court vision, athleticism and timing that had him ranked second in the NBA in preseason assists, Morant embraces the challenge of his NBA transition. The team’s performance in Miami, where the Grizzlies led through three quarters but were outscored 37-17 in the fourth, underscores the difficulties of this building process.
But I’m not going to force anything. I’m just going to be Ja and do whatever I can to help my team win. It’s NBA talent. It’s going to be different; the speed, spacing and everything. But at the end of the day, it’s still playing basketball. You just have guys out there who are just as talented as you and very skilled. So you go out and try to learn something from those guys and get better.Ja Morant
“Obviously, I came to prove myself,” Morant said of facing his initial NBA tests. “But I’m not going to force anything. I’m just going to be Ja and do whatever I can to help my team win. It’s NBA talent. It’s going to be different; the speed, spacing and everything. But at the end of the day, it’s still playing basketball. You just have guys out there who are just as talented as you and very skilled. So you go out and try to learn something from those guys and get better.”
Morant’s teammates and coaches have seen him get better and unpack something new and exciting from his game on a daily basis since training camp opened three weeks ago. He had 17 assists and only four turnovers through his first two exhibition games and finished the preseason averaging 11.3 points, 7.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 22 minutes.
Morant is navigating his team through a new system installed by first-year coach Taylor Jenkins designed to maximize the dynamic point guard’s playmaking. Jenkins is developing a “five-out” system in which the Grizzlies push the ball in transition, space the floor with capable three-point shooting and create lanes to attack the rim.
From his temperament to his talent, Morant has potential to be the key to unlocking it all.
“He’s a great leader with a great work ethic, and these are all things we knew about Ja when we did our homework on him,” Jenkins said of how Morant is adapting. “A big reason why he’s here is because we know that he can empower others, not just with his style of play, but with his infectious nature and his care for teammates. He’s got that young mentality and has fun with teammates, but he knows how to be serious and set the tone as well. I’ve been really encouraged by that, and know it’s only going to get better for him at that point guard position.”
That position is widely viewed the most the difficult spot to come into the NBA and play. There’s no easy path to success on a nightly basis in a league dominated from the position by perennial All-Stars in Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. The Grizzlies play the Nets on Sunday, when Morant faces a matchup with Irving after he scored 50 in his Brooklyn debut. And the depth of great talent at point guard rapidly grows deeper by the season.
Morant is the latest in a recent infusion of high-end point guards to enter the league, a group that includes Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox. Each brings a distinctively unique skillset to the position. Morant is distinguished by the proverbial chip on his shoulder since his days as an unheralded recruit, never lavished with attention from major programs.
A big reason why he’s here is because we know that he can empower others, not just with his style of play, but with his infectious nature and his care for teammates. He’s got that young mentality and has fun with teammates, but he knows how to be serious and set the tone as well. I’ve been really encouraged by that, and know it’s only going to get better for him at that point guard position.Taylor Jenkins
That combination of humility and internal drive fuels Morant to this day. It’s why he got emotional over the summer on that trip back to Murray State. The highlight of his visit came when he was rushed by hundreds of elementary school children who were let out of class early to chant and cheer him along the path as he walked through the campus.
Morant often mentions how he used to walk through campus with only a couple of people recognizing who he was when he first got to Murray State. And now, both his South Carolina hometown and his college community in Kentucky have awarded him declarations and keys to the cities. McMahon, the Racers coach, was among Morant’s supporters in Miami on Wednesday. Now handed the keys to an NBA franchise, there’s an even greater purpose driving Morant.
“Who would have thought I would have been in this position three or four years ago?” Morant said. “I’m always going to have that mentality. I’m always going to work hard every day, because I know what it took to get here. And now, I just go out and play my same game. I take every game seriously, but obviously I know these (regular season) games count. I’m going to go out and just be Ja and play like I know I can play.”
This time a year ago, Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. was in a similar position when he arrived as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft and set out on his first opening week of NBA play. Jackson and Morant have bonded since the moment the Grizzlies landed the No. 2 pick on draft lottery night. Jackson was in Chicago to help represent the franchise at the lottery.
And he’s seen Morant handle the process every step of the way since then – including this week’s bumpy start. Another key connection the Grizzlies’ young franchise cornerstones share is support and daily guidance from their fathers, with Jaren Jackson Sr. and Tee Morant having relocated their families to Memphis.
“He doesn’t need much,” Jaren Jr. said when asked what advice he’s shared with Ja. “He’s really good, so he doesn’t really need much from me. I just watch him grow every day. And when he has questions about anything, he can come to me and say whatever he wants. We’re really like brothers. He has a great dad at home. I’m sure his dad is giving him all the love and advice. So I know he’ll be ready.”
I’m always going to have that mentality. I’m always going to work hard every day, because I know what it took to get here. And now, I just go out and play my same game. I take every game seriously, but obviously I know these (regular season) games count. But I’m going to go out and just be Ja and play like I know I can play.Ja Morant
Morant entered the season with perhaps an even brighter spotlight on him than anticipated. With Williamson to miss up to two months with the Pelicans as he recovers from this week’s knee surgery, Morant is now the highest drafted rookie on the court to start the season.
But these are times when Morant reveals his greatest gift as a facilitator. And that’s his vision well beyond what’s right in front of him. Morant wouldn’t pass on an opportunity to assist his fellow South Carolina native and NBA rookie classmate. So Morant extended a message of support to Williamson on social media earlier this week.
The moment was meaningful because it was personal. Morant endured a minor knee procedure in the weeks leading to the draft, which factored in the decision to hold him out of summer league play as a precaution as he rested and prepared for training camp.
“That’s my brother – I always have love for him,” Morant said of Williamson. “I know a couple of people try to make it like there’s a (rivalry) between us. But you just hate to see that happen, especially to somebody who you kind of grew up with and played with. So I was just sending my prayers out to him. I just came off an injury too, with a (knee) scope, so I know that feeling, not being able to get out there. But I know he’ll come back strong.”
In the meantime, expect Morant to regroup at home Friday and establish a strong start of his own.
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