It started pretty much immediately, just days week into the preseason schedule, when during the middle of a possession, Ja Morant drove down the lane and tried to dunk on Charlotte’s Miles Bridges.
Ja missed the dunk, but the generally shared reaction among Grizz fans was like the guy in the famous internet GIF:
Did that really just happen? The shortest guy on the floor just tried to posterize a small forward? The guy so skinny his elastic arm sleeve won’t stay up tried to boom on a big man?
As it turns out, it really happened, but like I said earlier, that was just the start. Since then, the Ja-dropping moments have been happening on the regular:
The putback dunk on PJ Tucker’s head against Houston.
The blocked shot while squared up one-on-one against Kyrie Irving in the open court, to send a game to overtime.
The game-winning, buzzer-beating layup in Charlotte where he attacked the paint and finished through a couple of bigs with his left hand.
There was the play against the Utah Jazz, where Morant caught the ball on the break and casually went left-to-right behind his back, leaving a defender in the dust.
The casual dribble between the legs in the halfcourt against Denver to draw defenders, before kicking to an open Jonas Valanciunas for a three.
That doesn’t even address the missed dunk over the entire Rockets team or well, the point is, almost every night, Ja Morant manages to make something happen that you didn’t think was going to happen. From pump-faking passes that spin defenders like tops to pushing the tempo to relentless levels, Morant has been revelatory thus far, weeks into his rookie season. As Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell recently said, Ja Morant is “the real deal.”
Through his first dozen games, Morant is averaging 18.4 points per game and 6 assists per game, each tops among rookies. He has already reeled off six consecutive 20-point performances and was the first Grizzlies rookie to post a 20-point and 10-assist game in over a decade.
“It’s humble confidence,” said Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins. “He’s super aggressive in all areas of the game. He is super aggressive in how he wants to get better. He has learned so much in 12 games now going back, watching film on how teams are guarding him and how he can set up his teammates and how he can make an impact. From the first day we met him, you saw his humility, but also his confidence that he can be great.”
“I’m humble but confident at the same time,” Morant clarified. “I won’t speak too much on myself, but I do believe in myself. I feel like if you don’t believe in yourself, then who will?”
Perhaps Memphis will? Because if they didn’t already, and if the laundry list of highlight plays hasn’t convinced the 901 to pay attention already, the Grizzlies stringing together wins early on has likely helped convert some nonbelievers. A friend of mine texted me on Friday night from a bar on South Main, where the whole place was glued to a TV as Ja lead the Grizz down the stretch to an upset win over Utah, at the time their third consecutive win.
He’s super aggressive in all areas of the game. He is super aggressive in how he wants to get better. He has learned so much in 12 games now going back, watching film on how teams are guarding him and how he can set up his teammates and how he can make an impact. From the first day we met him, you saw his humility, but also his confidence that he can be great.Taylor Jenkins
“I bet you we surprised a lot of people,” Morant said after the W. “We knew all along, once we just locked in and bought into what Coach [Jenkins] was saying and what we had to do. Everybody has that mindset to just go out and compete and play together. So, the last couple of games that’s what we’ve been doing and we came out with some wins.”
Morant presents a series of problems for opposing teams. While at first glance he doesn’t physically seem like an outlier, his unprecedented combination of quickness, leaping ability and imagination make him potent, night after night.
“[Morant] can get his own shot and get to the rim,” said Denver coach Mike Malone. “He scores 12 points a night in the paint. That puts a lot of pressure on your defense and if you go under and you dare him to shoot, he can shoot. He is shooting over 40 percent from the three-point line. Heck of a young talent who is only going to get better.”
“He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s very poised and he makes big plays,” said former Griz point god Mike Conley, after Morant went for 25 points and 8 assists in 30 minutes against the Jazz. “He’s special. He’s got the poise of a seasoned vet and that’s not normal. He can really be something really good in this league if he continues to take the game seriously like he has been. It will be fun to see where he goes.”
We don’t know where he’ll go, but we do know is Morant’s journey is unlikely to be a straight line; Ja will have to navigate the highs and lows of rookie life in the NBA, which means dealing with everything from uprooting your entire life and moving to a new town, to trying to persevere through a grueling 82-game schedule. Stuff that worked against college players is unlikely to work against NBA size and strength, as we saw when Morant got dumped trying to dunk on the Rockets. That means adjusting his game, and thus far returns have been encouraging. For all his speed and force, Morant also plays with a lovely dollop of finesse, somehow getting shots up that hang on the rim, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, before finally falling. He often finds the space to take floaters in the paint, though he hasn’t (yet) consistently been able to make them drop. Morant pins defenders behind him and keeps his dribble alive, a move known in the NBA 2K world as a “crab dribble.” His floor vision is already superb, and while he can improve his shooting from the field, probably the more pressing issue would be improving his free throw shooting (he’s around 75 percent on the season).
“Once he gets stronger and slows his pace down a little bit, he’s going to be hard to guard,” surmised Mitchell. “He’s hard to guard now, but once he starts developing, just experience, becoming stronger—I think he’s going to be stable for this franchise.”
He’s special. He’s got the poise of a seasoned vet and that’s not normal. He can really be something really good in this league if he continues to take the game seriously like he has been. It will be fun to see where he goes.Mike Conley
But all that stuff is down the road, and we know it’ll come, one way or the other. The truth is, right now, at this moment, Ja is already special. The Ja Morant experience is already fun and exciting, and just weeks into his NBA career I still find myself gasping at something he does at least once a game.
Nobody knows how high Morant’s ceiling can be. But his present is pretty darn amazing.
The best part? We get to watch it first-hand, in real-time.
So get your popcorn ready. It’s gonna be a heckuva ride.
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