A leap is supposed to be short-lived defiance of gravity, but nothing feels remotely temporary about the jumps Ja Morant is making. Not his dunks, and certainly not his ascension to superstardom.
Forty-eight hours after setting a Grizzlies’ franchise record with 46 points, Morant bested himself with 52 points and a personal highlight reel in Memphis’ 118-105 win against the San Antonio Spurs. He needed just 30 shots, four 3-pointers, four made free throws and his usual store of hops to do it.
The performance punctuated the larger moment Morant is making this season. He has arrived with an eye-grabbing style that rarely goes a game without inspiring social media likes, shares and did-you-see-that’s. His hangtime seems limitless, his potential even more so.
Morant’s aerial exploits on Monday were borderline Kryptonian, as both big men and buzzers were vanquished in single bounds. Analytically appreciated rim protector Jakob Poeltl was reduced to poster material for Morant’s latest assault on the rim, a one-handed hammer that featured the extra split-second of airtime that only the greats can muster.
It should have been the play of the night. Its competition arrived 139 seconds later.
Steven Adams’ full-court inbound pass for a token end-quarter shot attempt found Morant. The newly minted All-Star didn’t want for gravity to bring the ball to him. Instead he leaped to meet it and, in one motion, caught, turned and shot the ball before he had landed and the halftime horn had sounded. Swish. Social media explosions and pandemonium in Memphis.
As well there should be. Morant isn’t just a generational talent in general, but specifically the kind with which Memphis had never been blessed. Heading into the 2019 Draft, he was widely considered the consolation prize to Zion Williamson, who has played 85 games since New Orleans drafted him No. 1 overall. The Grizzlies gladly scooped up Morant, though even they could not have foreseen the supernova he has become.
In a way, Morant is a long overdue turn of luck for the championship-less Grizzlies. Memphis has never owned the No. 1 overall pick. One of their closest encounters came in 2003, when their pick was top-one protected in a Draft headlined by LeBron James. In that year’s Draft lottery, Memphis’ envelope was only one of two remaining unopened. Land the No. 1 pick, and the Grizzlies land LeBron. Instead it showed up No. 2, and their pick went to the Detroit Pistons, leaving Memphis empty-handed altogether.
Four other times the Grizzlies had the No. 2 pick in the Draft, each time coming away with something less than a franchise-altering outcome. Mike Bibby. Steve Francis. Stromile Swift. Hasheem Thabeet.
The Grizzlies overcame those setbacks with the hard-working, blue-collar approach that bred the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” era led by Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley. That peaked with a conference finals appearance in 2013, then ultimately fizzled back into the Lottery.
Then Morant arrived.
To date, the Grizzlies (43-20) are one game behind Golden State (43-18) in the Western Conference for the No. 2 seed. It is a supercharged turnaround, with Morant serving as the nightly jolt of electricity that has become must-see TV.
Yet for all the mind-boggling career highs, league honors and Kia MVP talk, Morant still managed to make his latest viral night about everyone. The 52 points were his, but the postgame photos were a team affair. He is not only ready, but wanting to heap praise and collect confidence for his teammates, from backing Desmond Bane’s trash talking of LeBron James to defending Ziaire Williams’ miss in the final seconds of a loss to Philadelphia.
Those moments added up to Morant’s teammates urging him to go for 50 when he was closing in on the mark on Monday, and why they celebrated him so openly after the final buzzer.
— NBA (@NBA) March 1, 2022
Even when Morant was pulled away for the TV interview, he refused to make the moment solely about him, but instead ensured his daughter got some of the screen time and credit too.
“This is my baby, my motivation right here,” Morant said. “Only right to make history on a night she’s here to watch me.”
"Say bye-bye 👋"
Ja Morant and Kaari wish us all a good night! pic.twitter.com/LlchWZ2UNO
— NBA (@NBA) March 1, 2022
Such down-to-earth decisions have made Morant the rare viral megastar that refuses to outgrow himself or the city for which he plays. He is quick to credit the grit and grind in his own climb to the NBA’s elite, and he seems to relish making Memphis a trending topic on the NBA map.
More is coming. After getting his first taste of playoff basketball last season, Morant is eager for a full helping. Memphis is in extremely good shape to finish with home-court advantage in the first round, and could enjoy it through two rounds if it passes Golden State in the standings.
Despite their youth, the Grizzlies would hardly be welcome opponents to contenders of more established pedigree. Memphis boasts a top-5 offense and a top-10 defense, with its entire operation centered around a 22-year-old superstar who figures only to get better with seasoning.
Better than he was in this, his most recent spectacle? That seemed unlikely on Saturday, too.