Ja Morant‘s time is now.
This season was supposed to be Zion Williamson’s time, and Morant has been in that shadow before.
Morant and Williamson were teammates years ago on the South Carolina Hornets, a smallish AAU team in the home state of both stars, the kind of program that didn’t have massive shoe company money or play in those circuits. Morant was entering his sophomore high school season, Williamson was just about to be a freshman — and Williamson’s legendary athleticism was just about to explode on the scene. With Morant feeding him Zion got noticed for his dunks, and we know the story from there: Williamson became an Internet sensation, Drake was wearing his jersey, he went to Duke and became the No. 1 pick.
Morant’s fluid athleticism kicked in later, so much later that he didn’t get college offers from the major powers and ended up at mid-major Murray State. Morant was good but didn’t look like an NBA franchise-changing player. At least until his sophomore year of college, when Morant found his game, shot up draft boards, and scouts struggled to project how the skinny, athletic kid would do when it was Kevin Love sliding over in help defense and not some undersized kid from Austin Peay.
Ja Morant was this close to breaking Twitter:
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) December 21, 2019
Now is Morant’s time.
With Williamson sidelined by knee surgery, it is Morant who is running away in the Rookie of the Year race. It is Morant whose exploits have become SportsCenter favorites. It’s Morant and his Grizzlies who have become League Pass darlings.
— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) January 4, 2020
Morant, still the overlooked mid-major kid in his own mind, shrugs it all off.
“[The Rookie of the Year race] is not my focus right now at all, I’m not worried about the hype, I don’t pay too much attention to it,” Morant said recently.
It’s not an act. The years in the relative shadows of smaller AAU programs and mid-major gyms taught him to be humble, keep his head down, and work hard. Now, even when the fans are noticing him and voting him 10th among West guards for the All-Star Game, it catches him off guard.
“Speechless, honestly,” Morant said of his reaction to the fan vote. “I didn’t see it until my family sent it to me.”
Other teams are noticing him, too — Morant is now the first name on the scouting report for every team going against Memphis.
“Watching the first game when we played them, he has great control with his speed and, he kinda got everyone involved early then tried to take over late. That’s kind of rare for a rookie,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said recently of Morant.
Which gets to what has most impressed the Grizzlies about Morant — he’s a fast learner. Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins described Morant as a “super coachable kid.”
“Now you see teams are throwing a lot at him, I’m sure he’s on top of every scouting report,” Jenkins said. “He’s seeing different coverages throughout any single game, different matchups, he’s having to learn on the fly, and I think from a game-to-game standpoint he really dives into how teams are covering him and how he can be effective, not just as a scorer but more as a playmaker…
“It may be a new matchup, a new coverage, but he learns on the fly pretty fast. He and I have dialogues during games sometimes ‘Hey, they’re in center field right now,’ or ‘they adjusted the blitz,’ or ‘they’re in red.’ It may take a few possessions to figure out, but he’s in constant dialogue with myself and more importantly with his teammates about how to attack.”
Morant came into the league a guy who liked the film room.
“When we first sat down he said, ‘I love to watch film, I love to talk the game, learn the game,’” Jenkins said. “When we ask who he wants to go up against every night he says ‘whoever I can learn from.’…
“I think the most impressive thing with him is he just gets better, steadily. Game after game, month after month…. the assist totals, his paint finishing, but also now he’s starting to shoot the three ball better. As a three-point shooter he’s shooting with more confidence, he’s getting back defensively. He’s a kid who gets better every single day.”
Which is scary because he already looks like a franchise cornerstone. Morant already sees his game compared to that or Russell Westbrook and the other elite athletic point guards around the league. The league’s best players are taking notice.
“Most of the top guys in the league said they was in my corner if I needed anything to ask… after the game some of the guys are telling me to stay humble, keep going,” Morant said when asked what players are saying to him after games.
“I just go out there and try and be me, obviously, to stay with what I do and continue to be Ja. Try to control the pace and be in control. I’m an unselfish guy so I’m looking for my teammates.”
Morant is averaging 17.8 points and 6.9 assists a game — counting stats that could be higher if Jenkins and the Grizzlies didn’t intentionally keep his minutes around 30 a night. Morant is seventh in total minutes played among rookies. Ask the Grizzlies about it and the talk is about the long-term, that Morant is a guy who needs to get stronger to avoid injury, how the team is teaching him to use some finesse around the basket, and how Memphis is not looking to run its young star into the ground to chase an eight seed.
The Grizzlies are thinking long term.
“I think he’s just scratching the surface…” Jenkins said of Morant’s potential. “When we studied him coming out of college this was going to be a guy who came in super hungry, competitive, he’s all about the team and how he can impact winning.”
The Grizzlies are challenging him to improve his body, become a better defender, and become more consistent from three. They like how he’s responded to the challenge.
“When you see that athleticism and combine it with that vision — what he can see late, early — it’s impressive. You tack on the skill of three-point shooting and the competitiveness and the unselfishness, we’ve got an impressive young man there.”
And his time is now.