NBA Season Preview: Will Ja Morant become the Memphis Grizzlies first superstar?

Memphis Grizzlies, NBA Season Preview

Going into his third season, the Ja Morant appears poised to make The Leap. Can he be the player the Grizzlies have never had?

On May 14, 2019, I spent the majority of my day thinking about a 6.6 percent chance. The NBA Draft Lottery was that night, and those were the odds that the Memphis Grizzlies would receive the number one pick, and in all likelihood, Duke super-prospect Zion Williamson. The odds were far greater that the Grizzlies would surrender their pick to the Boston Celtics. The pick was top-7 protected, and the Grizzlies were No. 8 in the draft order. They probably weren’t even going to even be players in this draft, but maybe, just maybe, we’d get some good fortune, and have our chance a potential franchise-defining player, one the Grizz could build around as they left the glory days of the Grit-N-Grind era behind.

It didn’t happen quite the way I was planning on, but that player did indeed arrive. The Grizzlies also had a 6.6 percent chance of surging to the No. 2 spot in the draft order, which they did, making them first in line for Murray State’s Ja Morant, an initially unheralded prospect who shot up everyone’s draft boards with an incredible second season in which he averaged 24.5 points a game and 10 assists.

Despite playing for a minor school, and not receiving much love coming out of high school, Morant’s brilliant play was undeniable, so much so that he became No. 2 pick in the vast majority of mock drafts, with only a handful preferring Duke’s other major prospect, R.J. Barrett. Whatever minor disappointment I felt about the Grizz missing out on Zion dissipated quickly. They were getting Ja Morant, a player with the potential to become a superstar, something that, if we’re being honest, the Grizzlies have never really had before.

Let me quickly apologize to Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, both Gasol brothers, and Tony Allen. I loved watching all of these players, I have great memories of all of them, and they were responsible for a memorable, prosperous era of Grizzlies basketball.

The best thing about the Grit-n-Grind years was watching a team that was greater than the sum of its parts go against the biggest names in the league, and often come out on top. They were able to upset the Spurs’ Big 3 in 2011, and two years later, they came back from a 2-0 deficit to knock out the famous Lob City Clippers. Watching those teams Get In The Mud and play the most talented teams in the league as ferociously as possible was a delight, but at the same time, there’s a reason why those teams were never quite able to win a title: someone else always had a trump card. If you look at who eliminated the Grizzlies each year during their seven-year stretch of playoff appearances from 2011 to 2017, the common denominator was that every time, the team who took the Grizz down had the best player on the court.

In 2011, they followed their upset of the Spurs with a memorably intense seven-game showdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unfortunately, the offensive firepower of young Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook proved to be too much to handle.

Four years later, the Grizzlies had a surprising 2-1 lead over the 1-seed Warriors, which included Mike Conley’s legendary Mask Game performance in Game 2, where he came back to put up 22 points after being injured for Game 1. Could an upset be brewing? It looked that way until the Warriors realized they could have Andrew Bogut guard Tony Allen, and that was that. The Splash Brothers also figured out the Grizzlies’ buzz saw defense, and cruised to three straight wins, and ultimately, the championship.

The Core Four of Conley, Marc, Z-Bo, and Tony stayed together for two more playoff appearances, both first-round exits at the hands of the Spurs. At that point, the Grizzlies were getting older, and despite how hard they played, and how much the fans loved them, it was back to the drawing board.

It was a painful process for Grizzlies fans, as the players who defined their franchise for the better part of a decade gradually left town, with Z-Bo signing with the Kings, Allen having a brief stint with the Pelicans, and Gasol and Conley gradually being traded. The one glimmer of hope came in the 2018 draft, where a long miserable season yielded the No. 4 pick, and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson, Jr., a highly raw prospect who nonetheless had alluring potential. As a rookie, Jackson was quickly able to impact the game with his punishing D, and while his offensive game lacked polish, he was an intense dunker who could hit the occasional 3-pointer. Still, the next Grizzlies’ era was going to need more to build around if they were going to build a contender. They needed a surefire prospect, the type of player who could immediately transform a franchise, as well as the perception of that franchise by the rest of the league.

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Enter Ja Morant

After a summer full of buzz about what Ja Morant might bring to the court, it didn’t take long for his impact to be felt. When the Grizzlies were on offense, the game revolved around him. Defenders were often fooled by his stunningly quick handles, and his drives to the hoop were like blurs. Despite his lack of size, his absurd athleticism led to an abundance of highlight-reel plays.

But what about the winning? At first, the Grizzlies were slow out of the gate, as you would expect a team defined by youth and potential to be, but after a 13-22 start, the young Grizzlies went on a tear, winning 11 out of 13 games to get back to .500. Morant was quickly finding chemistry with his new teammates, and a team no one expected to do anything was quickly in the hunt for a playoff spot. An intense race was heating up just as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and put the season on hold. When play resumed in the bubble, the Grizzlies slumped, and ultimately missed the playoffs. Still, they were well ahead of schedule, and Morant’s near-immediate adjustment to the speed of the NBA was the main reason for that.

Morant’s second year initially looked to be a lost one. He was injured in the third game of the season, and the Grizzlies stumbled to a 2-6 start without him. But while Morant’s injury may have cost him first All-Star selection, he rallied back and led the Grizzlies into playoff contention. In a crucial elimination game against the Warriors, Ja came through with 35 points, outlasting a determined Steph Curry and putting the Grizzlies in the final playoff spot.

While the Grizzlies would lose to the Utah Jazz in five games, Morant nonetheless played brilliantly, averaging 30.2 points and 8.2 assists, and keeping every game competitive. The Grizzlies weren’t quite ready to compete with a team as experienced as the Jazz, but they were undeniably tough, keeping every game except the closing Game 5 competitive. We got a glimpse of how great a team the Grizzlies might be in the future, and we also got a glimpse of what Ja might look like after making The Leap.

The thing to understand about Ja, and what he has come to mean to both the Grizzlies franchise, as well as the city is that it’s not just the stats or even the dunks, it’s the vibe. The dude just feels like a superstar; the type of player who all eyes are on whenever he’s on the court, the type of player defines a franchise, the type of player the Grizzlies have been looking for ever since the franchise began play in 1995, and the type of player every small market team hopes to land in the draft when they know they might not have much of a shot in free agency.

Ja is a magnetic presence, both for his intense play on the court, and his ample personality off of it (his Twitter account is one of the best in the league). He hasn’t quite been able to reach the heights of an All-Star selection or an All-NBA nod, but the strong feeling is that that’s exactly where he’s headed, and his excellent play against the Jazz strongly supported that notion. We just saw Trae Young cement himself as a superstar in his third season by leading the Atlanta Hawks on a deep playoff run. With Morant about to enter his third year, he looks poised to do the same.

The last time the Grizzlies finished second in the draft lottery — they’ve never won it — was in 2003. They went into the lottery tied with the Clippers’ for the sixth-best odds of winning the top pick. As they would later do in 2019, they ended up leapfrogging their way to No. 2. Normally, this would have been great news. Sure, they miss out on LeBron James, but they would have their choice of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Or, they would have, if their pick wasn’t just top-1 protected. This is to say, if it fell anywhere out of the top spot, it would go to the Detroit Pistons, who the Grizzlies traded it to six years earlier. The Pistons used the pick on European prospect Darko Milicic, who would go onto become one of the biggest busts in NBA history. One could argue the Grizzlies dodged a bullet there, but Milicic would end up playing for the Grizzlies from 2007 to 2009 (it seems all too appropriate that he was teammates with Kwame Brown on those squads).

The Memphis Grizzlies came this close to getting the chance to draft the greatest player in NBA history, only for it to fall just out of their hands. Since then, they’ve had plenty of memorable players and competitive teams, but never anyone who could credibly be called a superstar until they drafted Morant. Now, let’s be clear, the odds of him becoming the next LeBron James are a touch unlikely, if only because his legacy is so vast, it’s possible that no one will be able to match it.

But could Morant become a top-10 player? It feels like he’s on his way. A top-5 player? It feels possible. An MVP? He’ll have some stiff competition with Luka Doncic and Trae Young entering their primes, while Giannis and Jokic are still in theirs, but it doesn’t feel entirely out of the realm of possibility. With Morant on the verge of a breakout, he seems capable of doing things no other player in Grizzlies history has been able to accomplish.

Of course, when a small market team lands a truly special, franchise-altering player, the question becomes “how do they avoid screwing this up?” There’s immediate pressure to put a solid supporting cast around him, and the questions of “will he go to a big market/super team/both when he has the chance?” are always hanging in the air. Cavs fans watched a frustrated LeBron leave for greener pastures in Miami before ultimately returning and winning a title for Cleveland in 2016.

Likewise, while Giannis became the Bucks hero with his incredible performance against the Suns in this year’s Finals, it’s entirely possible that if Kevin Durant’s toe is one foot further back, he’s playing somewhere else right now. When a player is as good as Morant could be, every team wants him, which means there’s always going to be questions about whether the team he’s on now will be able to keep him long-term. That said, it’s a lot better to have a player like this than to not have one, and with Morant appearing poised for a breakout, the Grizzlies fan base can relish experiencing something they’ve never experienced before.

The Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies were with one of the most fun, tough, lovable, and rewarding teams in recent memory. That’s why it felt so unfair when it became clear that the team’s ceiling was well-short of an NBA title. They did everything right, but it didn’t matter because they didn’t have That One Player, and as such, they found themselves falling short when faced with the likes with Durant, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard. It was hard to say goodbye to the Core Four (the day they traded Conley was especially rough for me), but the reason to rip it up and start again was to try build a team that could go that step further, and find the one truly transcendent player who could get them there. From what we’ve seen so far, Ja Morant is that player. He’s a stunningly unique athlete, unlike any who has ever put on a Memphis — or Vancouver — Grizzlies uniform. Now, it’s time to see if he could do what LeBron and Giannis did for Cleveland and Milwaukee, and take Memphis to the promised land.

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