Last year, the Memphis Grizzlies made the final steps of moving on from the Grit and Grind era when they traded away Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. It was already never the same after Tony Allen and Zach Randolph weren’t re-signed in the summer of 2017. However, the decision to trade Gasol and Conley brought a lot of questions and worry.
Though the Grizzlies already had Jaren Jackson Jr. going forward, what was the future outlook of the team? How much would the owed pick to Boston affect the team? Could the franchise ever reach the heights of the “Core 4”-led era? There was so much uncertainty, and a little bit of fear, about the organization’s future.
And then? Insert Ja Morant.
When the Grizzlies drafted Morant with the 2nd overall pick last season, there was joy throughout the city. Everyone has gravitated towards his dazzling play and charisma, giving the fanbase a sense of optimism. The Grizzlies had two young players to build around, and though the process wasn’t supposed to be quick, there was still hope for a bright future.
Everything that’s happened in the past year was totally unexpected. Obviously no one anticipated the 2019-20 season needing to finish in October 2020; nonetheless, to the bubble of Orlando comes the NBA. Also, no one really thought the Grizzlies would be in the pole position for the 8th spot. A huge part of this surprise is Ja Morant’s brilliant rookie campaign.
Ja is charismatic, explosive, and a phenom. He could legitimately be a cornerstone that takes the Grizzlies to heights that have never been reached. He also could very well become the franchise’s GOAT.
Ja Morant differs from the Core 4 on the court with his style of play. He’s daring, willing to meet anyone at the rim, whether you’re Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, or Aron Baynes. He also plays at a faster pace, a staple for the modern NBA. Though — aesthetically — the difference seems like night and day, Ja isn’t entirely too different from them.
Morant has established himself as one of the league’s premier dynamic playmakers with his saucy dimes. The positions are a bit different, but he and Marc Gasol pass with similar pizzazz.
Gasol’s nimbleness is on display with his passing, as each dime is precise, soft, and exquisite. Likewise, Ja’s precision with his passes is fantastic for a guard his age. He does an excellent job of adjusting mid-air to find his teammates. He also passes really well with one-handed dimes with each hand. At any moment, he’ll drop a dime worthy of his ja-ggles (or ja-noculars).
Ja Morant and Mike Conley are both excellent floor generals, even though their styles are quite different. Let’s put it in quarterback talk real quick: If Conley’s the game manager that feeds his running back and makes big plays when needed, then Ja’s the one that kills opponents with his arm and legs — like a Lamar Jackson.
During the height of the GNG days, Conley did a great job of managing the game. Those Grizzlies teams relied heavily on controlling the pace, and that starts with Conley. Once they dragged opponents into the mud, he would find Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on the block to do their damage. His assist numbers don’t indicate his playmaking abilities too well, since Randolph, Gasol, and Rudy Gay all were assist-killers. However, Conley was an excellent floor general that could put the team on his back in crunchtime.
Though he plays the game with a bit more flair and aggression, Morant exhibits the similar traits as a leader on the court from the point guard position. Already at a young age, he does a great job of dictating the pace, willing to go all gas and no brakes just as easily as he could slow it down in the half court. His assist numbers will probably be higher, but you can see the similarities between the two as facilitators. Morant has already shown that he’s an excellent clutch-time scorer, ranking 7th in 4th-quarter points (7.3) and shooting 55.9% from the field — 1 of 4 players in the top 20 that shot 50+ percent in fourth quarter (Giannis Antetokounmpo, De’Aaron Fox, and Zion Williamson).
Like Gasol, Randolph, and Conley at their apex, Morant could be an elite player that’s consistently a top-25 (potentially, top-10) for a long stretch of his career. And the hope with Morant is that he matches, or exceeds, the accolades Marc Gasol acquired during his time in Memphis.
The intangibles Morant possesses are so similar to Tony Allen and Zach Randolph.
Morant isn’t scared to talk shit on the court; he has zero regard for your status in the league. In his third career NBA game, he flexed on Kyrie Irving after blocking his potential game-winner. While there was a Rookie of the Year race was a discussion, Morant wanted to silence the Kendrick Nunn noise, he made a statement in a December win over the Heat, letting both Nunn and his teammates know that the award is his to lose. He wanted the world to tell James Harden about him after hitting a 3. In the middle of the Andre Iguodala drama, he wasn’t quiet about his opinion towards him and MVP Stephen Curry.
He’ll show his opponents how small they are, and even stare down the ball as well.
Tony Allen did a lot of the same stuff on the court. He’ll trash-talk his opponents by letting them know how great he is on defense. He’ll let them know when the ball is going the other way and flex on his opponents. And, of course, the world knows that he’s “First-Team All-Defense.”
They exhibit an infectious swagger that the team, fans, and city rallies around. It makes any night at FedExForum a fun time.
Zach Randolph had this aura about him. He was almost Undertaker-like with his larger-than-life presence. The crowd would roar when his name was called in pre-game introductions. Whenever he got the ball in the low post, there was a buzz in the Forum, knowing that he’s fixing to destroy a helpless defender with his bruising body or smooth jab-step and fadeaway. Everybody knows ... you don’t mess with Z-Bo.
Ja Morant has a similar aura around him, and it’s expanding even beyond Memphis. No player in Grizzlies history had opposing arenas oohing and ahhing at his every move, and he might’ve already set a franchise record in those kind of plays in the Grindhouse. In the Forum from day one, the crowd booms when his name hits in pre-game introductions. When Ja isos a defender, or when he rises up above the rim, there’s that same buzz that Z-Bo drew in the low post.
Those traits will make him the leader of the Memphis Grizzlies, like Randolph and Allen this past decade. Combine all of this with his potential, and you have a player that could be on a Mount Rushmore of Memphis athletes of all sports.
From the beginning, Ja Morant has made Memphis home.
He’s become big in the community, doing shopping sprees and big donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis. Though he never went to school there, he’s sent his recruiting pitches to Memphis recruits to come to the 901 — Landers Nolly, Jalen Green, and Mac McClung, to name a few.
Over the past month, private runs have made waves in the 901, including current Tiger players Alex Lomax and DJ Jeffries, hopeful Tigers Moussa Cisse and Kennedy Chandler, former pros like Lester Hudson, and Ja Morant. Through that, Ja Morant has also taken Kennedy Chandler — former Briarcrest High School hooper and a 5-star point guard — under his wing, guiding him in his journey to becoming a NBA player.
The investment Morant has made in this city is similar to the Core 4. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen were awesome on the court in their own ways, but what made them so special to this franchise is how good of people they were.
Whether it’s paying electric bills for the community, contributing to centers for Sickle Cell treatment, investing in these mentor programs throughout the organization, or becoming friends with a teenage St. Jude patient — my girlfriend, Allie Allen.
Their impact in the city left a legacy that’s bigger than sports, and Ja Morant is on his way to follow the road paved by them.
There’s a famous phrase that resonates in this city...if you embrace Memphis, they’ll embrace you right back. Like the Core 4, Ja Morant has embraced Memphis, and the city has embraced and adored him back.
One year later, Ja Morant has exemplified the Memphis Grizzlies culture that the Core 4 set. And that, for reasons bigger than basketball, is an exciting part of this nxt-gen journey.