MikeCheck: Morant ramps up workload in return to practice, but will miss fourth straight game as Grizzlies face Jazz
SALT LAKE CITY – Sidelined by back soreness the past week, Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant took a significant step on the path to a potential return when he participated in Friday’s full practice.
But the reigning Western Conference rookie of the month will have to wait at least one more game.
We’ll see some more how he responds, but everything is progressing well. Like with all guys coming back from an injury, we don’t want to jump too far ahead and get him back too soon.Taylor Jenkins
Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins confirmed after the team’s workout in Utah on Friday that Morant has made steady progress in his recovery. But Jenkins said the team’s medical staff wants to continue to see how Morant’s body responds to the increased practice workloads before determining how much closer he is to returning to game action.
Morant will miss his fourth consecutive game Saturday against the Jazz.
“He looked great and is responding well,” Jenkins said of Morant, who spent parts of practice in his normal role at point guard with the Grizzlies’ starting unit. “We’ll see some more how he responds, but everything is progressing well. Like with all guys coming back from an injury, we don’t want to jump too far ahead and get him back too soon.”
The Grizzlies have remained vague on a timeframe regarding Morant’s possible return, but his increased activity in workouts this week have provided encouraging signs. Morant has not played since a home loss to the Jazz on Nov. 29, when his back soreness flared up from an initial injury he sustained four nights earlier after falling into a baseline cameraman in Indiana.
The team announced then that Morant would be evaluated “week to week” as he received treatment and rest for back spasms that stemmed from the collision. Before the Grizzlies opened their current four-game trip with Wednesday’s loss in Chicago, Jenkins indicated he was “hopeful” Morant might be available to return at some point during the 10-day road swing.
After facing the Jazz on Saturday, the Grizzlies wrap up the trip with Monday’s stop to play the Warriors before finishing up Wednesday against the Suns.
The Grizzlies have erred on the side of caution with injuries this season, especially with the roster’s younger players. In addition to Morant, fellow rookie Brandon Clarke has missed the past two games with oblique soreness and will also sit out Saturday against the Jazz. Memphis has been without veteran forward Kyle Anderson, who has been dealing with heel soreness the past week. Anderson participated in stages of practice sessions, but is doubtful for Saturday.
Jenkins said it was important for Morant and Clarke to make the trip in order to maintain access to the training staff and to continue to bond with their teammates. The Grizzlies (6-15) have remained competitive in games, but have struggled to scratch out wins without two of the league’s most productive rookies.
Morant, named the conference’s rookie of the month for October/November, leads all rookies as well as the Grizzlies in scoring (18.6) and assists (6.4). Clarke leads all rookies in rebounding (6.4) and field goal shooting percentage (.630) this season. Based on recent indications from practice, Morant appears closer to returning to action than Clarke.
“Obviously, we’re hopeful,” Jenkins said of seeing the two rookies back sooner rather than later. “But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We’re not going to get too far ahead and put a (potential return) date out there, and then force ourselves into a box.”
Still, their teammates have been impressed with how engaged Morant and Clarke have been during practices, film sessions and in games from the bench. Morant took over during the initial moments of a timeout huddle to address the team as the Grizzlies were making a second-half run against the Bulls. Earlier that day, the No. 2 overall pick in last June’s draft won a three-point shooting competition against teammates during the Grizzlies’ morning shootaround.
But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves. We’re not going to get too far ahead and put a (potential return) date out there, and then force ourselves into a box.Taylor Jenkins
Clarke has stepped in during walk-through sessions this week as the coaching staff installed new plays and strategy. Clarke and Morant have been sitting out, but they haven’t checked out.
“It’s what keeps you positive, knowing you’re still part of the team,” Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks said of Morant and Clarke. “Knowing that in practice, you’re still getting reps and looks. It’s a key thing because positive energy and stuff like that helps your (recovery) along faster. Just by thinking you’re going to come back soon, understanding and watching the game from a different lens, it helps you when you get back because you’re more prepared.”
One of my coaches used to always say, ‘You’re not trying to play 10 games; you’re trying to play 10 years.’ So you’ve got to prepare to make sure your body is good for the big picture.De'Anthony Melton
Backup point guard De’Anthony Melton has emerged as a key part of the rotation over the past week while Morant has been out of action. Melton, who replaced Tyus Jones as the fill-in starter during the second half of Wednesday’s game in Chicago, remembers how difficult it was to cope with the back injury that kept him out of summer league play and all of the preseason.
Melton said Morant has handled the process with patience and proper perspective.
“The best advice I give is just know when you’re ready. It’s your body, it’s your back,” Melton said. “One of my coaches used to always say, ‘You’re not trying to play 10 games; you’re trying to play 10 years.’ So you’ve got to prepare to make sure your body is good for the big picture.”
Ultimately, that’s the view the Grizzlies are taking, too, with their mending rookie tandem.
“There’s nothing better than being around your teammates as you’re going through an injury,” Jenkins said. “Spirits are good, and it’s good to have them around our coaches and performance staff. As we’re installing new things, whether it’s game-planning or big picture-wise for the team, the more they’re around, the more they’re absorbing information as rookies.”
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