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Ja Morant and the rise of a 'top-five' point guard

The Grizzlies' young star continues to evolve and deliver on his self-proclaimed status as one of the NBA's elite.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Ja Morant is averaging a career-best 26.5 ppg this season.

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The team winner of the 2019 draft lottery did not see employees burst into unbridled joy and hug each other and pound tables and immediately open the phone lines for ticket sales, not like the team that secured the No. 1 pick.

Yes, there’s a difference, at least according to the scoreboard two years later: The New Orleans Pelicans chose first while the Memphis Grizzlies won.

That unforgettable and emotional scene on a night in May was understandable then. The Pelicans, reeling from years of neglect and juggling an unhappy Anthony Davis who wanted out, earned the right to select Zion Williamson, the unanimous People’s Choice as the grand prize of that Draft. At team headquarters, there was euphoria caught on camera, and all of New Orleans contemplated holding a second Mardi Gras in celebration.

Meanwhile, a bit further up the Mississippi on Beale Street: There was actually some debate — not heavy, but still — whether the Grizzlies should choose RJ Barrett at No. 2.

It all seems so distant now, so surreal, so unfathomable each time Ja Morant takes flight at the rim and drops another soul-stealing dunk on someone’s cranium. Or perhaps showcases a 360 layup instead.

Here in Memphis there is much jubilation over a player who, in terms of being an attraction, is second only to Graceland — and only tourists go there, anyway. He is defining how a box-office player should look and deliver on a nightly basis.

Morant is still a shade under 175 — he evidently steers clear of the blue-ribbon barbecue joints around here — yet constantly challenges the biggest players and usually comes away with the bucket and their ego.

Or, just take the word of teammate Dillon Brooks, who is admittedly biased yet perhaps on-point when he says: “He’s up there with Steph Curry. He’s playing out of his mind.”

What makes Ja Morant so special?

If what we’re seeing from Morant isn’t fleeting, isn’t some cruel tease before he parachutes back to the basketball planet, then he is the closest thing to being this generation’s Allen Iverson. Just observe the similarities: A smallish point guard who, sight unseen, might be chosen last in a playground pickup game is among the most fearless players in the world. A player who’s only 22 years old is hell-bent on carrying his team, however heavy the haul and thin the shoulders, and showing tremendous growth in his third season.

“He is elite at getting to the rim,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He has a motor that constantly puts pressure on the defense. He brings that fire mentality every game, and it’s all because of his spirit, that fearless spirit.”

And, for what it’s worth: A player with swag who cuts a culturally cosmetic image — when Morant goes airborne, not only do arms and legs go flying in all directions, so does his amazing hair — is earning style points from the young and impressionable while being deemed irresistible by the TV cameras and networks that carry NBA games.

The entire package is quite attractive, and it has the Grizzlies believing they hit jackpot in 2019 when they lost to New Orleans and “settled” for the No. 2 pick. Because it doesn’t take a basketball scientist to know what Memphis, or anyone else, would’ve done with No. 1 at the time.

It’s a sobering situation, by comparison, with the Pelicans two years later. They’re currently sitting in the basement of the NBA, flatlined mainly by the body betrayal of the generational player who was supposed to save them.

Williamson has played in only 85 of a possible 156 games because of injuries and also methods put in place to prevent more serious injuries. The franchise is caught in a pickle with him: The Pelicans need to play him, yet they also need to protect him. This isn’t a slap at his talent, though, as Williamson has shown to be quite the force whenever healthy. And maybe one day, the red flags about his body composition and potential for injury will subside.

But here and now, he’s hurt, and who knows what his future holds. So until further notice, the Pelicans didn’t win that Draft lottery. They merely chose first.

Meanwhile: Ja Rules in Memphis.

“He’s up there with Steph Curry. He’s playing out of his mind.”

– Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks

Quite simply, this is a star-turn for a player looking for that first All-Star appointment. He’s the only player top 10 in points (26.5) and assists (7.3). What’s particularly impressive, still, is his ability to squeeze inside and score in traffic. Morant is averaging an NBA-best 15.8 points in the paint per game, something that is rare for a point guard — and totally unusual for someone with his frame.

His 3-point shooting is streaky yet improved overall (34.5%), and Morant shows no hesitation to take that shot, regardless of the game situation. That’s proof of his growing confidence in it.

“I decided to be aggressive this year, take what the defense gives me,” he said. “That was my focus. I’ve been very effective with that.”

The real purpose this season is to announce himself as a premier player in the league, an obligatory next-step for someone who won Kia Rookie of the Year and embraces the urgency and pressure to build upon that.

“I’ve been saying, when people ask me, that I’ve been top five all along,” Morant said, reiterating claims he began to make last season.

He realizes how some might take that the wrong way, how that might sound a bit rash for a player to elevate himself among the league’s top-tier point guards — others with a longer history of greatness. To that, Morant shrugs and softly says, “I mean, that’s how I feel.”

Actually, it’s the unapologetic mindset needed here at the highest level. You cannot walk among the best unless you feel you belong, and more importantly, deliver as such. Plus, there aren’t five guards playing better than Morant is right now.

So far this season, he has: Hit the Lakers up for 40 points, 10 assists and three steals; dropped 30 on Curry and the Warriors, 33 on the Wolves and, most recently, 32 on the Hornets (where he had 19 in the first quarter). Next up are the Suns and Chris Paul on Friday (8 ET, NBA League Pass) in what may qualify as a passing of the point guard baton.

Ja Morant, one of the NBA’s hottest young stars, takes on legendary point guard Chris Paul.

“He’s just taken huge steps all around,” said Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins, putting special emphasis on Morant’s evolving leadership role. “He’s finding his voice.”

In retrospect, the Grizzlies were lucky to be in position to draft him in the first place. Take a historical stroll and you’ll realize the Grizzlies’ good fortune was astonishing. Starting with the 2019 draft, the NBA reweighted the lottery as a way to discourage intentional losses. The odds were more evenly split among the 14 teams. Therefore, under the new rules, the Grizzlies had a 19% chance at a top-three pick. Under the old rules? Just 9.9%.

Also, it gets better: The teams with the three worst records and therefore best odds — Knicks, Suns and Cavs — didn’t get either of the top two picks as the Knicks got No. 3 overall (and took Barrett).

Wait, it gets crazier:

Back in 2015, the Grizzlies, in what was a panic move designed to help them get over the playoff hump, traded their 2019 No. 1 pick to Boston for what amounted to a year of Jeff Green. They were bounced in the Western Conference semifinals by the Warriors for their troubles. At least they had the foresight to apply a top-8 draft protection on the pick. And wouldn’t you know, the Grizzlies, based on their 33-win finish in 2018-19, were slotted to draft No. 8 overall based on the odds. Close call there.

So, to recap: The Grizzlies were unexpectedly blessed by the NBA lottery tweak in the first year of that change, and somehow blessedly beat the odds to get into the top-three picks, and blessed not to convey said pick to Boston, and were “blessed” not to get No. 1 overall.

Bless their soul.

In the four previous times this franchise scored the No. 2 overall pick, the Grizzlies used it on Mike Bibby, Steve Francis, Stromile Swift and Hasheem Thabeet. None lasted very long or left any considerable impact before leaving. Francis in particular refused to report and forced a trade in which the Grizzlies received nothing of value, while the Thabeet selection — he was taken a spot ahead of James Harden — set the franchise back.

The arrival of Morant was timely in that the Grizzlies were on the decline from the “Grit N Grind” flavor molded by Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley. In fact, Conley was dealt to the Utah Jazz a mere 16 days after Morant officially walked through the door, so the exchange from one top-flight point guard to another was ceremonial and necessary.

Listen in as Ja Morant is Mic'd Up against the Blazers.

The bonus with Morant is two-fold: Not only does he bring obvious talent, but also the entertainment value. He’s one of a select handful of players who sell tickets and increase ratings almost by themselves. That combination is massive in a small market like Memphis and paramount for a franchise looking to build a winner with staying power.

It’s all made possible by a player who refuses to settle.

“People don’t know what to expect from you the first year; sure there’s some level of expectation but the league doesn’t know you yet,” Borrego said. “The challenge is to come back better. You might be able to fool the league for a couple of weeks, a couple of months but eventually the league’s going to catch up to you so you better keep evolving and growing.

“You can see the hunger and drive, that he spent time in the gym last year and this year. There is a mentality that says, hey, ‘I got to prove it again and again.'”

The logical next step is an All-Star berth, and All-NBA appointment and, at some point, Kia MVP chatter. Those are the individual destinations. Obviously, the Grizzlies must rise in the standings and be taken seriously in springtime in order for Morant to reap the full benefits of stardom.

It’s all a process and an evolution for a young player. Yet by virtue of his inspiring start to this season, Morant is putting himself on that respectable pace.

Ja Morant was taken with the second pick in the 2019 draft. He feels he’s a top-five point guard. In both cases, maybe he’s being sold a bit short.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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