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Out of his former teammate’s shadow, Ja Morant’s time is now

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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.

Well…

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.

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.”

They do.

And his time is now.

Kobe Bryant’s death a unique tragedy

Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson
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Magic Johnson – one of the NBA’s brightest stars – stood behind a podium, smiled and shook the world. Johnson had HIV and was retiring from the Lakers, he announced. Confusion, speculation and, most prominently, grief followed. Everyone thought he’d die. Charles Barkley said, “It’s kind of like somewhat of a death of a brother.” Larry Bird called it “probably the toughest day I’ve had since my father passed away, and I’ve been very depressed and sort of been out of it.” Pat Riley called for a moment of silence before a game.

More than 28 years later, Johnson mourned Kobe Bryant.

Bryant’s death yesterday was the tragedy everyone believed Johnson’s diagnosis to be. Sudden. Crushing. Unbelievable. All the same emotions came pouring out. Except this time there was no mistaking the finality.

Johnson has continued living, thriving, inspiring. He’s a renowned businessman, beloved celebrity and fantastic ambassador for basketball. It’s the type of retirement expected for Bryant, because why wouldn’t it be?

The NBA has grown accustomed to its titans aging gracefully. Unlike baseball, the NBA hasn’t existed long enough for multiple generations of old-timers to pass away. Unlike football, the NBA doesn’t subject its players to such traumatic physical tolls.

Just two MVPs in all of NBA history had died, Wilt Chamberlain (age 63 in 1999) and Moses Malone (age 60 in 2015), and those deaths felt far too soon.

Bryant was only 41.

Just four All-Stars died younger. Don Sunderlage was in a car crash at age 31 in 1961. Maurice Stokes suffered a head injury during a game, became paralyzed then – after teammate Jack Twyman cared for him for 12 years – died at age 36 in 1970. Pete Maravich had a heart issue while playing pickup basketball at age 40 in 1988. Reggie Lewis suffered a heart attack during what should have been the midst of his career at age 27 in 1993.

Lewis – like Len Bias (who died of a cocaine overdose at age 22 in 1986) and Drazen Petrovic (who died in a car crash at age 28 in 1993) – never got to fulfill their potentials. That creates its own kind of anguish.

There is no analogue to Bryant’s death.

Bryant’s accomplishments – one MVP, five championships, two NBA Finals MVPs, 11 All-NBA first teams, two All-NBA second teams, two All-NBA third teams and 18 All-Star appearances – place him among the very greatest of all-time greats. No player anywhere near that stature had ever died anywhere near this young.

Bryant could be charming and ruthless, sometimes simultaneously. His play and conduct earned him loyal fans and harsh critics. The never-ending Kobe debates seemed only to inflame the passion of his supporters.

Few adored him like fellow NBA players. They admired his skill and determination. He responded by mentoring many. It’s difficult to overstate just how cherished Bryant was in this league.

Few understand the cold realities of the NBA like Austin Rivers. He grew up with his father, Doc Rivers, frequently gone playing and coaching. As a result, they aren’t particularly close. Now an NBA player himself, Austin speaks of their distant relationship with far more acceptance than wistfulness. He’s too focused on competing to do much else.

Yesterday, Austin cried on the court:

Then, explained how little he cared about the Rockets losing a basketball game:

Others shed tears in arenas around the country. The NBA could have cancelled yesterday’s games. Playing while grieving proved difficult for many.

There was just no good way to handle the loss. Mere moments of silence felt insufficient.

The Spurs and Raptors began their game yesterday with shot-clock violations in honor of his No. 24. Other teams exchanged a shot-clock violation and eight-second violation in honor of his other number. Trae Young wore No. 8.

Other tributes popped up around the world. Bryant was a global icon.

He was also a loving father. As incredibly wide as this tragedy lands, it also cuts unimaginably deep. Bryant’s daughter, 13-year-old Gianna, also died in the helicopter crash.

Appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live in 2018, Bryant just lit up when discussing her:

Bryant’s death is devastating – for those touched closely and, because of its unparalleled nature, even those not. Nobody was ready for this.

It’s a punch in the gut. The basketball world – which expanded far larger than imaginable in 1991, when Johnson made his announcement, because of people like Bryant – remains in a daze.

In wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, Kendrick Perkins seeks forgiveness from Kevin Durant

Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Kendrick Perkins
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Kevin Durant once called Kendrick Perkins his favorite teammate of all-time.

A couple weeks ago, they were beefing on Twitter,exchanging barbs that didn’t look as friendly as previously.

Kobe Bryant’s tragic death has Perkins reflecting.

Perkins:

Good for Perkins. Amid all the sorrow, Bryant’s death creates an opportunity for people to re-assess their priorities. Grudges almost always aren’t worth it.

Nick Kyrgios warms up for Australian Open in Kobe Bryant jersey (video)

Nick Kyrgios in Kobe Bryant jersey and Rafael Nadal
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Kobe Bryant was a great basketball player. His sport-specific skills – shooting, dribbling, positioning – were incredible.

But his competitiveness and work ethic transcended basketball. Those traits earned him admirers far and wide.

Tennis star Nick Kyrgios wore a Bryant jersey to warm up for the Australian Open:

CJ Fogler:

After his fourth-round loss to Rafael Nadal, Kyrgios – wearing a different Kobe jersey – shared his perspective on Bryant:

Kyrgios:

Basketball is practically my life, and I watch it every day, and I’ve been following it for as long as I can remember.

If anything, it motivated me. If you look at the things he stood for and what he wanted to be remembered by, I felt like, if anything, it helped me tonight.

I’m a Celtics fan, and so when I saw Kobe do what he does and break the hearts of so many Celtics fans, it was tough to see. But I don’t think they make them like him anymore. He was different. The way he trained, the way he did things, the way he played was special. It’s just sad.

Reports: Kobe Bryant’s helicopter was in holding pattern, advised of flying too low

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash site
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Kobe Bryant’s shocking death has left millions trying to cope.

For some, questions turn to the technical: How? How did Bryant’s helicopter crash?

RadarOnline.com:

“Hold outside Burbank, I have an aircraft,” the recording revealed the tower employee advising Bryant’s helicopter during the communication.

“He’s been holding for about 15 minutes,” a flight tower employee said about Bryant’s helicopter around 9:30 a.m.

Emma Parry and Chris Spargo of The U.S. Sun:

The pilot, Ara Zobayan, was told he was flying too close to the ground.

Per audio from before the crash, Zobayan said: “OK, we’ll continue holding.”

RadarOnline.com:

As the flight towers try to assist in the helicopter landing, they are cautioned about the “overcast” weather and their low flight level, meaning they were dangerously close to the ground.

“You’re still too low level for flight following at this time,” the flight toward warned the pilot on the audio.

Bryant’s helicopter was reportedly traveling north along the 118 freeway, turned west and followed the 101 freeway. After hitting heavy fog around 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned south and made a steep climb from 1200 feet to 2000 feet.

Moments later they reportedly flew into the mountain at 1700 feet and the vehicle was traveling at 161 knots.

There’s still more to learn, including whether the helicopter had mechanical issues. Perhaps, we’ll never get that answer. If we do, it won’t change anything.

Still, it feels natural to search for greater understanding of this inexplicable tragedy.