The future has arrived for the Memphis Grizzlies...and his name is Ja Morant.
The smile, the explosive highlights, the personality and honeymoon stage with Memphis...it is all so fresh and bright and new. That energy is apparent, and quite honestly refreshing. In no way will Morant and his running mate Jaren Jackson Jr. make Grizzlies fans forget about the pairing of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but that isn’t the point. All parties involved were ready to move on, and thanks to the lucky bouncing of some ping pong balls Memphis has a new reason to accept their post-Gasol and Conley reality.
The best superstar prospect outside of Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA Draft class, Morant is in a perfect place for him to learn how to play professional basketball. That’s not to say the young Grizzlies will win a bunch more games than expected - they’re actually going to likely lose a good bit early on, in large part because of Morant’s assumed learning curve as he transitions from Murray State to the NBA. Yet part of the allure of this season is the opportunity to watch him grow and develop, and considering the lack of real postseason aspirations for this crew he should be allowed to do that rather freely.
Imagine how jealous Jordan Adams and Tony Wroten must be.
Ja Morant set the NCAA Men’s Basketball world on fire last spring, propelling his Murray State Racers to a conference championship and an upset victory over Marquette in which he posted a triple double (17 points, 16 assists, 11 rebounds). The young man was quite literally a walking highlight reel, a small-town South Carolina baller that somehow played with both violence and joy at the same time. His aggression and activity as a facilitator made him truly elite, and the consensus All-American pretty quickly became the consensus 2nd overall pick in this draft class.
He’s not Zion, but he is a hell of a consolation prize.
Taylor Jenkins made it pretty clear at the Grizzlies Media Day availability on Monday. While the two starters on the wings may be in flux at the moment, the starting bigs (Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas) along with the starting point guard, Morant, are pretty much set. That’s not really too surprising - Morant may well be the team’s third best player without having played a single NBA minute yet. For it to be so definitively stated before camp officially starts shows confidence in what Morant can likely do at this level from the beginning, and perhaps more importantly is a statement as to what the Memphis front office sees in Ja.
It may not be perfect every night, but giving him the keys to the kingdom from day one should be a confidence booster for Morant.
2019-2020 Best Case Scenario
Alongside his fellow young Grizzlies and with a touch here and there of veteran poise from the likes of Jae Crowder, Ja Morant shines early and often. He shows that two of the main concerns about his game entering the draft - inconsistency on the perimeter shooting, defensive lapses - were fair, but overblown, as he shoots a steady 35% from beyond the arc and defends his position at an average level, compared to other rookie point guards in recent years.
Even better, though, is that his strengths - passing and explosive finishing - are even more elite than advertised. He finishes in the top five in the NBA in assists at 8.9 per game while scoring 15 points per contest. Ja Morant is named Rookie of the Year for a Grizzlies team that finishes 6th in the lottery draw, but more importantly the Memphis roster grows under the leadership of Morant and looks primed for a very bright future.
2019-2020 Worst Case Scenario
A perceived weakness in his game - turnovers - becomes an even larger issue than initially expected. He may well struggle as a shooter and defender, but the one skill most everyone that follows the NBA felt would translate almost immediately is his passing. Ja only posts six assists per game while averaging 3 turnovers, meaning he is truly behind the curve with the speed adjustment from Murray State to the Association. Because of the inept facilitation, his other flaws become only more exacerbated. He not only misses out on Rookie of the Year - he doesn’t even make the NBA All-Rookie Team.
The Grizzlies spiral, and folks ask if Memphis does indeed have their point guard of the future after all.
As with every young Grizzly this season, the expectation should be for Ja Morant to be a better basketball player in April than he is in October. How much better depends on the development skills of Taylor Jenkins and his staff, as well as the adjustments Ja can make to the athleticism and speed of the NBA game. Expecting the passing of Morant to be near elite almost immediately is fair, but beyond that patience should be the virtue for Ja. Mike Conley struggled considerably early in his NBA career, and he went on to be one of the greatest Grizzlies of all time.
Ja Morant has a higher ceiling than Mike Conley.
He is more physically capable, but he must be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. He must be put in positions to be successful without pressure to be perfect. Jenkins and the coaches should prioritize Morant creating early and often in games, emphasizing patience in getting his own shot, so he can get in to a rhythm and build confidence. Losing - and lots of it - can shake a young player to his core if it isn’t handled properly.
Given the current environment in Memphis, as long as Ja is allowed to build chemistry and trust with his teammates as they work through the growing pains ahead, he should be able to grow at a steady rate on his way to a 1st Team All-Rookie Team season.