MikeCheck: As Grizzlies prepare for Conley’s return, Morant already blazing prolific trail amid franchise’s point guard transition
Before they step onto the FedExForum court for their first face-to-face matchup Friday, Ja Morant and Mike Conley will first step into roughly the same size basketball sneakers.
They both wear 11 ½ Nikes.
Physically, Morant is already proving to be a tailor-made fit to lead the Grizzlies into a bright future as one of the NBA’s most dynamic and explosive young point guards. Back in June, within moments of being selected by Memphis with the No. 2 overall pick, Morant expressed his respect for the franchise’s previous catalyst who occupied the position for a decade.
Yes, the shoe fits. But filling the role is an enormous task.
“Obviously, I know I have some big shoes to fill,” Morant said when he arrived in Memphis as the Grizzlies were consummating a blockbuster trade to send Conley to Utah. “But I’m just excited. It just makes me happy to see that Memphis has trust in me and believes in me.”
Morant has rewarded that trust and belief with a prolific start to his rookie season as he guides the Grizzlies (4-7) into Friday’s emotional matchup against the Jazz (8-3). The game marks Conley’s first return to Memphis to face the team that drafted him fourth overall 12 years ago, which launched the most successful stretch in franchise history. He’s the Grizzlies’ leader in points, assists, steals and games played, having led Memphis to seven playoff appearances and the 2013 Western Conference Finals.
While both Conley and Morant downplayed their specific matchup at point guard, neither could understate the magnitude of Friday’s game and what the meeting represents. As the Grizzlies transition with Morant into an exciting new era built around a talented young core, Conley’s addition in Utah fortifies the Jazz as a legitimate contender for an NBA championship this season.
“Basically, everybody’s been asking me about it,” Conley told Utah reporters this week when asked how much he’s thought about his return game in Memphis. “I’ve just tried to lock in and stay on a day-to-day basis, keep it locked in on what we’re doing here. But it’s around the corner, and I can’t hide from it. I’m excited, anxious (and) nervous going back with a different team.”
Morant was determined to maintain perspective when asked how he felt about facing Conley.
“I’m looking forward to playing the Utah Jazz,” Morant said. “It’s a team game. I’m not singling nobody out. I’m just going to go out and do whatever I can with my teammates to come out with a win.”
I’ve just tried to lock in and stay on a day-to-day basis, keep it locked in on what we’re doing here. But it’s around the corner, and I can’t hide from it. I’m excited, anxious (and) nervous going back with a different team.Mike Conley
Morant and the Grizzlies are looking to build on their best week of the young season when they open a four-game homestand that continues against Denver, Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers. Memphis closes out November with six of its next seven games at home, which is among the reasons there’s plenty of optimism for what’s ahead for this team and its electrifying facilitator.
With victories earlier this week in San Antonio and Charlotte, the Grizzlies posted consecutive road wins on the same trip for the first time since 2017. Morant is coming off his best outing of the early season, when his game-winning layup with 0.7 seconds left secured a 119-117 win over the Hornets. In what was essentially the South Carolina native’s first NBA homecoming game, dozens of Morant’s relatives, friends and former classmates were in the Spectrum Center to watch him finish with 23 points and 11 assists in 30 minutes.
It was just Morant’s 10th NBA game. The points, assists and minutes were all season highs in a regulation game for Morant, who notched his first double-double as a pro. Last season, he became the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists during his sophomore year at Murray State.
In Wednesday’s outing in Charlotte, Morant became the youngest player in Grizzlies franchise history to record a double-double in points and assists, doing so at age 20 and 95 days. Coincidentally, he edged Conley by seven days for that distinction, with Conley notching his first points-assists double-double in 2008 – four months into his rookie season in Memphis.
Perhaps most impressive about Morant is that he’s hardly ever impressed with his game. As part of his methodical and painstaking process of self-evaluation after every contest, Morant typically grades himself on a 10-point scale. He never gives himself better than a seven.
“There’s always something (to find),” Morant said of retreating to the game room inside his home well into the night to break down his performance on film. “It’s rare that I’ll ever say I had a perfect game. As soon as I get into the house, I’ll turn it on. And it depends on the night, but there’s no telling when I’m going to sleep. I watch the game. I normally grade myself right after the game to see what I did bad and what I could have been better at. It’s like, ‘Alright, I’m studying this.’ So if I threw a bad pass, I’m looking like, ‘Well, what did you see in this possession right here?’ Or, if it was like I went for a layup between two guys, I’m looking for who was open.”
He’s always around watching, studying, talking about it with his teammates. He embraces coaching. He embraces what he sees on the film. He embraces when he’s on the bench. He embraces what he’s learning in the games.Taylor Jenkins
It’s that never-ending quest for improvement – and near perfection – that’s endeared Morant to his teammates and coaches in Memphis. And it’s already garnered huge respect from major stars around the league. Morant leads all rookies in scoring (18.3) and assists (5.8) while positioned fifth in field goal percentage (.462) and sixth in steals (1.0). And he’s been as clutch as they come already this season.
Through 10 games, Morant has already made a potential game-saving block on Kyrie Irving in what led to an overtime win Oct. 27 against the Nets. He also dished the game-winning assist that same night to set up Jae Crowder’s three-pointer to beat the buzzer. Morant also ranks among the NBA’s leaders in fourth quarter scoring, alongside the likes of James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
And Morant probably also leads the league in film study, already an advanced student of the game.
“The great thing about him is that he’s mature beyond his years, he’s got a high basketball IQ and he loves the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said of Morant. “He’s always around watching, studying, talking about it with his teammates. He embraces coaching. He embraces what he sees on the film. He embraces when he’s on the bench. He embraces what he’s learning in the games.”
Jenkins believes Morant’s biggest area of growth so far this season has been on the defensive end of the floor, where he’s learning the nuances of assignments against some of the NBA toughest players. Jenkins has coached as an assistant in San Antonio, Atlanta and Milwaukee, having worked with some of the league’s elite young talent along the way. But he admits it’s rare to come across a rookie as eager to learn through intricate film study as Morant has been during these initial months.
“With rookies coming in, there’s so much on them on and off the court to learn,” Jenkins continued. “But to see Ja come in and take the initiative to say, ‘I’ve got all this time on my hands, this is my fulltime job now, so how can I get better?’ And that’s with the film he’s watching of himself, but also he’s scouting opponents. And every single game, he’s getting better and better in so many different areas – decisions making, when to attack, when to pass, how teams are guarding him. Defensively, how to be better at pick-and-roll, how to be better one on one, how to manage better in the game.”
The ball is going to be in (Morant’s) hands – and that’s the best thing when you come into the league. He gets to make mistakes and build his confidence. That’s the similarity I can see (between us). Just continue to build confidence and be who he is. Have fun being a rookie and going at guys like he was going at me. I’ve been in that position before.Kyrie Irving
Morant is a relentless learner and a tenacious talent.
And that equates to having a dominant impact on the court. After the game against Brooklyn, when Morant made the biggest defensive play of the night, Irving said his rookie counterpart has the right mix of talent and temperament to handle the responsibility of running a team. Irving entered the league as the No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland in 2011 after an abbreviated freshman season at Duke.
Much like Irving then, Morant has been handed the keys from the outset to drive a franchise forward at the most demanding position on the floor.
“When I was in Cleveland, they said they just weren’t going to hand me the ball like John Wall and Derrick Rose,” Irving said of his rookie indoctrination. “The ball is going to be in (Morant’s) hands – and that’s the best thing when you come into the league. He gets to make mistakes and build his confidence. That’s the similarity I can see (between us). Just continue to build confidence and be who he is. Have fun being a rookie and going at guys like he was going at me. I’ve been in that position before.”
In the very next game after facing Irving, Morant was on the floor against another prodigy who entered the league and was expected to lead a franchise from Day One: LeBron. Navigating the NBA as a rookie is a turbulent ride. For every highlight play in a win, there’s a handful of turnovers in a string of losses.
Morant is averaging four turnovers a game, which ranks as one of the highest rates in the league.
But count James as a fan of how Morant is approaching the process of finding his way.
“He seems like a really good one,” James said. “He’s super explosive, super intelligent. He’s going to continue to get better and better as he continues to read and play against different defenses in our league. He seems like he loves the game. My kids love him, love his game. So I think he’s pretty good.”
Morant welcomes the feedback, but doesn’t allow the lofty praise to distract from his attack mentality no matter who he’s lined up against on the court. Aside from attending a Chris Paul camp in North Carolina as a youth, Morant said he didn’t come into much contact with NBA players growing up.
Now, he’s getting feedback from the league’s elite players after just about every game. That was the case earlier this month when Morant spent a few moments with Russell Westbrook after the Rockets played Memphis. Westbrook sat out that game but found Morant as the players were exiting the floor.
A few moments later, Harden praised Morant’s aggressive mindset and approach to the job.
He’s super explosive, super intelligent. He’s going to continue to get better and better as he continues to read and play against different defenses in our league. He seems like he loves the game. My kids love him, love his game. So I think he’s pretty good.LeBron James
“He’s a beast man – keep going,” Harden said of Morant, who finished with 23 points, six assists, five rebounds and a steal in the Nov. 4 loss to Houston. “As a young guy in this league, some guys tend to be nervous. He has no nervousness, no nerves at all. He’s on full attack mode. Mistakes are going to happen, obviously. He’s young, but I love his aggressiveness. He’s confident in shooting the basketball and getting into the paint, which allows his teammates to create opportunities. It’s a bright future for him, and he just needs to keep going.”
Slowing down isn’t an option for Morant.
Well, except for when he hits the rewind button during late-night film sessions in his game room.
“It’s been like that since high school, honestly,” Morant said of his meticulous studies. “My dad got me into watching tapes and just studying it and studying it. And that allowed me to become a better player and know what to fix in my game.”
As a young guy in this league, some guys tend to be nervous. He has no nervousness, no nerves at all. He’s on full attack mode. Mistakes are going to happen, obviously. He’s young, but I love his aggressiveness. He’s confident in shooting the basketball and getting into the paint, which allows his teammates to create opportunities. It’s a bright future for him, and he just needs to keep going.James Harden
When Morant arrives for team practice and film review the day after games, he’s already prepared for what Jenkins and the coaching staff are about to say. Sometimes, he even beats them to the critique.
“So if it’s a breakdown of me on the defensive end if I missed a coverage, or on the offensive end when I needed to make the extra pass, before (Jenkins) even plays it, I already know what it is,” Morant said with a laugh. “So I’m like, ‘Yeah, Coach. I know what you’re about to say.’ I’ll already be ahead on what I need to do the next time.”
It’s not just Morant’s blazing speed, timing and athleticism that keep him a step ahead.
It’s his study habits, too.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.