25-under-25: Ja Morant at No. 9

25-under-25, Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant is the Memphis Grizzlies‘ latest superhero but with great power comes great responsibility.

I am watching Into the Spider-Verse and thinking about Ja Morant. I am watching Into the Spider-Verse and thinking about how with great power there must also come great responsibility. I am watching Into the Spider-Verse and thinking about great expectations and leaps of faith. I am thinking about how Mike Conley, Jr. gritted and grinded so Ja Morant could run and climb and swing on webs.

Cartoons can pull off what people cannot. Cartoons can pull off the impossible. Ja Morant’s athleticism is animated. The drafting process is invisible. There is only color and movement — an immersive experience. I am watching Into the Spider-Verse and sitting on my couch. I am watching Into the Spider-Verse and wishing I was in a movie theater. The film stands up in my living room, but it would be overwhelming on the big screen and in 3-D. I obviously slept on this movie when it first came out. I obviously took some things for granted once upon a time.

Did you know that in the film’s early action sequences the animators drew Miles Morales at 12 frames per second, while Peter Parker moved at 24 frames per second? By the end of the film, Miles Morales also moves at 24 frames per second, which means he moves with the speed of an animated reality. And here is where the thin thread connecting Miles Morales and Ja Morant catches a snag: I can’t imagine Ja Morant being sped up. I can’t imagine his thin frame moving faster than it already does. I can’t picture him leaping higher or farther than he already does. I can’t fathom him possessing more confidence than when he sank a 3 over James Harden and barked: “Tell that motherf***er about me!”

That was after a make. But even Ja Morant’s misses are devastating.

Throughout Into the Spider-Verse, the running joke is that Miles Morales trips over his own shoelaces. His dad, his teenage peers, and his Spider-Men peers all tell him to tie his shoes. Miles Morales, like Peter Parker before him, is locked in a battle against pubescent clumsiness. Sometimes he trips or falls in the film and recovers with an acrobatic flourish, but Ja Morant, at least right now, is all flourish. The whole schtick with Spider-Man is as old as Hamlet. He fights closeted nerdiness and trepidation as much as he fights any supervillain with a goblin attached to his name. Ja Morant’s aesthetics are all Spider-Man, but he’s much more of a junkyard dog.

Ja Morant has infinite talent but what kind of basketball star will he be?

This internal attribute makes Ja Morant much more of an everlasting Jimmy Butler, or maybe a young Russell Westbrook, than a James Harden or Kyrie Irving. In other words, there is both liberation and hate pulsing through his veins. If Memphis were The Sandlot, Ja Morant would be both Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez and the Beast, and his disregard for the likes of Anthony Davis or Kevin Love at the end of his dunk attempts suggests his ultimate competition is with himself. But he is not Miles Morales or Peter Parker at his core. He is something else much more cold.

On the show Justified, Raylan Givens slams on the brakes of his car, causing his passenger and captive to slam his head onto the dashboard. Givens then tells the criminal whose name is Jody: “You know what your problem is — you got no self-awareness.” Jody winces in pain; he is not having a good day. Then Raylan Givens continues: “You think trying to do right by your children excuses everything, even killing men.” Jody offers his reasoning — his justification for his actions. Raylan calls Jody out for shifting the blame onto the victims he perceives as nothing more than drug dealers deserving of whatever comes their way.

Raylan then delivers the following creed: “You run into an a**hole in the morning, you ran into an a**hole. You run into a**holes all day, you’re the a**hole.” Jody is an asshole, but Raylan Givens is as well. A thin line separates them, and whatever issues with self-awareness Jody has, Raylan Givens most likely shares those issues. At times, Raylan Givens appears to sense that about himself. At other times, he does not. Maybe another way to think about it is that even if Raylan Givens can lay out all his internal baggage his only way of dealing with his internal self is to don a cowboy hat, holster a gun, and shoot straight with no questions asked.

Is that standing atop a skyscraper and taking a leap of faith? Or is that sticking to what a man knows about himself and the world?

Ja Morant is currently in the process of posterizing the NBA establishment. He is a young gun. If he were on Justified, his name might be Boone or some other such nonsense signifying him as a pioneering newcomer that is really just more of the same. There is always more of the same, and that is why the guarantee exists that one day Ja Morant will not be so effortlessly on the rise and fun to embrace. At some point, he will grow complicated. He will cross a line, or the franchise will stumble. One of the two will grow into a cactus, and he could start to resemble a Chris Paul or a Paul Pierce, which is to say what makes him competitive today might make him bitter tomorrow when his body or his teammates are no longer up to the challenge. Until then, though, he is a live-action comic book offering more than enough onomatopoeia to make one forget this is all standard revenge fare — that Grit ‘n Grind sacrificed to gravity so Miles Morales might land, and swing, in Memphis.

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