The Grind City Media Interview: Ja Morant
You never know until you know. That’s just how things work in sports: You draft a player; you sign a big free agent; you make a trade for that missing piece. You do your due diligence, you research and you study and watch film and talk to coaches and teammates and friends and family, and then when you feel as good as you can feel, you make the call and acquire the player. And then all you can do is hope for the best.
The Memphis Grizzlies used the second overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft on Ja Morant, a 20-year-old point guard listed at 6-2 and 174 pounds. Morant had been terrific in two college seasons, as a sophomore becoming the first player in the history of college basketball to average at least 20 points and 10 assists per game over.
But how would that translate to the NBA? Morant, after all, wasn’t one of those highly-touted prep stars, and had played collegiately at Murray State University, a small school in Western Kentucky with about 7,000 undergrads. Morant had put together a meteoric ascension into amateur basketball’s upper echelon, but was it all a dream? Would Morant wither against bigger and better competition? Or could Morant’s game continue to scale new heights?
A little over one year later, the answer is clear: It scaled. Spectacularly.
Last week, Ja Morant was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. In his first NBA season, Morant averaged 17.8 points per game along with 7.3 assists per game, and essentially held down the fast forward button on a Grizzlies rebuilding project, forcing the next generation Grizzlies into the Playoff conversation right up until the last game of the season.
And while the production was undeniable, the way Ja did was nearly as impressive, with style and swag to spare. We saw dunks over players a foot taller, passes that threaded more needles than a seamstress, and a trail of ankles broken. There were Jaggles and headbands and dance moves, and for a city hungrily looking for something to believe in, Ja Morant showed up and made basketball fun again.
Grind City Media caught up with Morant last week to talk about his rookie season, playing basketball in a bubble, fun Ja versus business Ja, ramen noodle flavors, and motivation going forward.
GCM: First of all, Ja, congratulations! I know you’re probably getting a lot of that over the last 24 hours, but it was really unbelievable to get to see up close what you did this year, and for you to get that recognition for all the work you put in is totally deserving. So, just off the bat, congrats, man.
Ja Morant: Thank you, thank you. I appreciate it.
GCM: I asked you back in February if you thought you deserved Rookie of the Year, and you said, “We’ll find out.” When did it hit you that you might actually win the award?
Morant: To be honest? Draft night. When Adam Silver said my name, I told my family that I was going to get Rookie of the Year. And my play this first half of the season, and then in the bubble, I felt like it backed that up, and allowed me to back up my words.
GCM: Did you come into the season thinking there was going to be a big learning curve, going from college to the pros? How did you make the adjustments along the way?
Morant: I just studied a lot of film, and I watch a lot of basketball, so I felt like that gave me a head start. Also, my vets. Having a guard like Tyus (Jones) there with me, who’s been very solid his whole career, helped me a lot. And at the beginning I had way more vets than just Tyus. So, I think having those vets around and our coaching staff all played a big part in me adjusting very fast and allowing me to just go out there and play.
GCM: I used to ghostwrite the Rookie Diary in SLAM with all the different guys who came through, and every one of them told me the rookie wall is a real thing. At some point, usually like January, they would start to feel it physically. But I didn’t see you really slow down at all this season. How do you think you managed to avoid that?
Morant: Probably my preparation before the season. A big shout out to our staff for taking care of our bodies, helping us take care of our bodies, telling us exactly what we need to do. Then also we had that big break because of COVID, so I feel like all that played a part.
GCM: I know you don’t really like talking about yourself, so I figured I’d ask you about the team a little bit. I talked about this with Coach Jenkins a few weeks ago: What happened do you think with this team around December/January? After a slow start to the season, suddenly it felt like you guys were able to hit the switch and you guys got to another level.
Morant: I feel like we got hungrier, but we also were just learning from our mistakes from the past games. A lot of those games that we lost in that stretch, we were up and just didn’t hang on to the lead. I feel like we just learned from that as the season went on. We found out what exactly Grizz basketball was, and we just went out there and executed our game plan.
GCM: And how do you define Grizz basketball?
Morant: It’s just us. First, it starts on the defensive end for us. Just going out there and fighting and competing, playing together. We let our defense fuel our offense, so we were getting stops, and that meant we were able to get out and run, and play in transition, where I feel like we were very dangerous, especially being young. We have a lot of guys that can run the floor. And then the unselfish part started to kick in to where we were having 30 assists as a team. That helped us a lot.
GCM: It was impressive when you guys were in your groove and sharing the ball and getting up and down the floor. But then you had that long break, like you said, for COVID. Once you got to Orlando, what was the bubble like for you?
Morant: For me it was just trying to adapt. The bubble was kind of different. You really just get locked into basketball, but I’m sure people now know exactly what Paul George was saying. You really don’t have too many outlets out there to get away from basketball, so there definitely was times that I wasn’t feeling it at all. I can say depression played a part in it. Missing my daughter—everybody knows I’m a big family guy. But I had to snap out of it because it was a business trip for me. It definitely was different, but I felt like our whole travel party made the best of it, whether it was going golfing or fishing or all of us just sitting by the pool. We just tried to make the best of it as we could.
GCM: It must have been sort of bittersweet having your twenty-first birthday and having to celebrate it there.
Morant: Yeah, I didn’t think I would have my twenty-first like that, but it happened.
GCM: It also felt like in the bubble you guys really stepped forward and spoke out about a lot social issues and things going on in the country right now. Do you feel like you guys are at a point now where you are more willing to talk about stuff like that?
Morant: I feel like everybody feels at this point we need to step up, because nothing is really changing, and I feel like everybody is sick and tired of it all. You see a lot more guys stepping up. As for me, I’m tired of it. I speak up, I say things. There’s no way these things should be going on and people are not receiving justice. We’re going to continue to fight, continue to use our platforms to speak up. I feel like we did well with our message showing that we were a unit and what we were wearing on our shirts and our masks. I applaud our Grizz people for allowing us to speak up.
GCM: You’ve talked a lot about people not respecting you, from high school to when you were in college up to now. Do you still feel underrated at this point? I mean, you just got 99 percent of the Rookie of the Year vote.
Morant: I wouldn’t say underrated, but I feel like I still don’t get all the respect I deserve. But I really don’t care about it honestly. I feel like all that comes with guys who are trying to be great and move themselves. I’m pretty sure there’s some other top players in the league who feel the same way. As for me winning Rookie of the Year, I still hear “He don’t deserve that,” or “He’s lucky,” or “So and so played this amount of games.” I don’t care. My name’s on that award. That’s all I care about.
GCM: Your name is on that award forever. No one’s taking it from you.
GCM: I saw you celebrating last night with your daughter on the clip that went out on Twitter. It reminded me there’s business Ja and then there’s fun Ja. Is that fair to say?
Morant: (laughs) Yeah, definitely. If I’m not inside those four lines on the court, I’m trying to have as much fun as possible. I always just try to bring positive and good vibes everywhere I go. I guess you could say it’s the business Ja and the fun Ja.
GCM: I heard you say on TNT that you’re going to put in work all offseason because you’re in love with the grind. How do you stay in love with the grind?
Morant: I just love the game of basketball. I feel like that’s the number one thing. You could have people who actually play basketball, but they probably don’t love it. I actually love it. I want to be the best, so that’s how I attack each and every day. That how I attack when I’m on the court, if it’s a workout or whatever. I’m trying to be the best player I can be, so whatever it takes to be the best, I’m willing to do that, because like I said, I love the grind.
GCM: Before we get out of here I wanted to talk to Fun Ja for a minute. Are you guys building an LA Fitness at the crib? I saw when you accepted the award, you’ve got a whole basketball court, a pool, and I heard you’ve got a film room?
Morant: Yes, I got a weight room set up in one of my garages. I’ve got a movie theater room where I can watch film and stuff upstairs. We actually got the NBA-size court which some saw on the announcement and then we actually redid the pool because it wasn’t deep enough. It was only like four feet deep.
GCM: Should Jaren (Jackson, Jr.) release the music he’s been working on?
Morant: Definitely. Most definitely.
GCM: You’re one of the few people that’s heard it. What does it sound like?
Morant: Oh, I’m a fan. I actually received another song yesterday. I’m a big fan of it. We go through and listen. We talk about our favorite ones—not just me and Jaren, but other teammates, also. I feel like he can drop some right now just to show a little sample and then he can put the rest up later.
GCM: Put out the mix tape.
GCM: Who does it sound like? Give me an artist that you would compare him to.
Morant: I don’t know, because Jaren has his own little style. It’s hard to compare him to a rapper now. I don’t listen to too many rappers.
GCM: You said you were a ramen noodle guy. What’s the best ramen flavor?
Morant: I think I eat the beef flavor the most, but I have chicken and shrimp, also.
GCM: Oh, so you’re the guy that eats the beef ramen?
Morant: Yeah (laughs).
GCM: Because chicken and shrimp are probably the most popular.
Morant: (laughing) Yeah, I don’t know, man.
GCM: It doesn’t matter to you.
Morant: If I have to be the bad guy because I eat beef ramen noodles, then I’ll be the bad guy.
GCM: You mentioned guys playing golf and fishing in the bubble. You’re from the country, so I’m going to assume you know about fishing. Who was the best fisherman on the team?
Morant: Probably Jonas. That’s who I went out there fishing with most of the time. There were a couple of others, but the times I was out there I think Jonas probably caught the most. I know you said I’m from the country, but I just used to watch my people fish. I was a little young. Jonas actually forced me to fish out there. He handed me a fishing rod and said, “Here you go.” He dropped it in the water before he handed it to me, so I had no choice but to fish. Then I caught a fish.
GCM: Did you want to touch the fish when it came out of the water, or did you make somebody else grab it?
Morant: Nah, somebody else grabbed it.
GCM: I feel you on that.
Morant: I held it up for my picture.
GCM: Last thing, did you ever hear from Aron Baynes?
Morant: Nah, I haven’t.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Lang Whitaker 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.