NBA Restart: 2019-20
NBA Restart: 2019-20

2019-20 Season Reset: Memphis Grizzlies

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright NBA.com

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Jun 5, 2020 2:25 PM ET

 

Ja Morant has keyed the Grizzlies' unexpected rise in 2019-20.

The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11 because of  the coronavirus pandemic . The season  will return on July 30  and NBA.com's writers are taking an updated look at each of the league's 30 teams.

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Record: 32-33, No. 8 in Western Conference

Season summary: The young, exciting Grizzlies find themselves in the midst of fighting for their first playoff berth in three seasons as they put together a successful 2019-20 campaign despite long odds. When the NBA season went on hiatus, observers missed out on seeing how this young Memphis squad would handle the adversity of chasing a playoff spot with the NBA’s most difficult remaining schedule. Despite their success to date, Memphis still hasn't yet reached its full potential. Josh Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, went from starting the season in the NBA G League to averaging 16.6 points in March and establishing himself as a rotation mainstay. Justise Winslow, acquired from Miami at the trade deadline, spent his first month with the Grizzlies rehabbing from a back injury. Winslow was just getting back to 5-on-5 work when the season went into hiatus. So, we haven’t seen a starting lineup featuring Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, Winslow and Jackson.

 
Ja Morant and Kyrie Irving waged a memorable duel early in the 2019-20 season.

Breakout player: Morant easily fits here as he captured Western Conference Rookie of the Month three times this season and is the runaway favorite to win the Kia NBA Rookie of the Year Award. In fact, Morant was unanimously predicted to win the award in a recent ESPN straw poll consisting of 70 NBA writers. The second overall pick of the 2019 Draft, Morant ranks among the top two among rookies in both scoring (17.6 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg) and ranked No. 9 among all players in clutch scoring. When Memphis traded franchise stalwart Mike Conley to Utah last summer, many expected the Grizzlies to finish last in the West. But Morant wasn’t having it. Employing an array of athleticism, vision, confidence and leadership, Morant has led the Grizzlies to a 3 1/2 game lead for the No. 8 seed in the West with Portland and New Orleans trailing at ninth and 10th, respectively. Morant made his presence felt early, too. In just his third NBA game, Morant matched up with six-time All-Star Kyrie Irving head-to-head and got the best of the veteran in that battle.

 
Ja Morant talks with NBA.com's Sekou Smith about his amazing rookie season.

Statement win: Mired in a five-game skid, Memphis started March with a signature 105-88 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 29 in what could’ve been viewed as a preview for a potential first-round series. Morant racked up 27 points and tied his season high with 14 assists while Brooks chipped in 24 points to go with Valanciunas’ 22 points and 20 rebounds. Up to that point, Memphis hadn’t won a game since the NBA All-Star break. 

Most exciting game: This came early in the season for the Grizzlies as Morant quickly established himself as the future of the franchise. On Oct. 27 vs. Brooklyn, in just his third NBA game, Morant scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to lead a Memphis rally, slashing in for the game-tying layup with just seven seconds left. That came before he rejected Irving’s attempted buzzer-beater to send the game into overtime. Then, in overtime, Morant dished a dime to Jae Crowder for the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to key a 134-133 Memphis victory.

Memorable moments: Seemingly all of them somehow involve Morant. In a December game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Morant launched from close to the free-throw line for a missed dunk over Kevin Love, who joked that the rookie “almost ended my career with this dunk.” There’s this play when Morant faked out two Golden State Warriors defenders. And who can forget what Morant did to Jerome Robinson in a blowout over the L.A. Clippers on Jan. 4? The list of Morant moments from this season goes on and on, but this one is probably everybody’s favorite. Morant set social abuzz Dec. 12 with a nasty dunk on Phoenix Suns center Aron Baynes in the final minute of the game. Morant routinely goes after bigs around the NBA, and we’re here for it.

 
Ja Morant gets up to posterize the Suns' Aron Baynes.

Team MVP: Morant is the first rookie in franchise history to tally 1,000-plus points and 400-plus assists. Morant has already broken Antonio Daniels’ rookie record for assists in a season (334 in 1997-98) with 409 assists. He’s the primary reason Memphis ranks No. 2 in the league in assists (27.0), after the team finished at No. 19 in that statistic last season. Morant’s clutch play is the main reason Memphis’ record is better than .500 in close games. With a usage rate of 25.8 percent, Morant ranked favorably among his peers in points created by assists. If Morant wins Kia NBA Rookie of the Year unanimously, he'd be in the company of  All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard and Blake Griffin -- all past unanimous winners of the award.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here , find his archive here  and follow him on Twitter .

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