Ja Morant is exhausted.
Sweat drips from the tip of his nose as he looks down at the floor, wondering what more he could have done. The hall where he sits is eerily silent - most players have already left for their hotel rooms, avoiding the dreaded media availability that a star like him must endure more often than not. He reflects back on moments from the game that just ended - 26 points, 13 assists, just 3 turnovers...and a 15 point loss to the Boston Celtics. 42 minutes played are the number he grimaces at more than any - without his true backup Tyus Jones, Ja has played the most minutes of his young career in a two-week span. He just turned 21, but he feels about 20 years older after this experience. He’s lost Jones, his partner in crime Jaren Jackson Jr., and Justise Winslow - who was also supposed to help lighten he load.
Now? A traditional big in Jonas Valanciunas and the most self-confident player in the NBA, for better or worse, Dillon Brooks are the ones expected to carry the burden next to Morant. Ja sighs the sigh of a much older man. The flaws and youth of his Grizzlies are on full display against title contenders while those chasing them benefit from fortunate bounces, teams resting their best players, and - perhaps most importantly - better health than what Memphis currently is enduring. That is the word for how this has all ended, after all - endure. He’s missed his baby girl’s first birthday, and celebrating his 21st with his family and friends. There are folks suffering far more than him...but it’s human to long for those you love when they are far away.
Morant looks up and sees only himself in a mirror across the hot hallway deep in the bowels of the Disney campus arena. And in this moment - though he will never admit it - he feels more alone than he has in some time.
Back in September, I wrote about the emancipation of the Memphis Grizzlies when it comes to the burden of expectations. Those words were posted on this blog almost a calendar year ago now as part of a preview of the NBA season we are still currently in - a reminder of the unprecedented times in which we live. The most important part of the piece is below...a reminder of where the team started last fall compared to where they are now.
...Now that Memphis is no longer a prisoner of the moment, they can make decisions that are specifically about the future. They can prioritize maximizing the skill sets of Morant and Jackson and not bench their young stars over committing turnovers or fouls or making mistakes. Jenkins can find his footing as an NBA head coach without the weight of playoff hopes holding him down rotation wise and schematically. Kleiman and company can pursue value in trades for Iguodala and Crowder...maybe not value in 2020, but in 2022, or 2024. Picks that can be used for future moves up and down draft boards, or for missing pieces to a Grizzlies contender later on in the new decade that is approaching.
Of course both Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder have already departed Memphis and Justise Winslow has arrived to (hopefully) be a key contributor to the Grizzlies starting next season. But the two sections in bold should be in the front of minds of fans everywhere when hearts get so frustrated. The goal of this season when it began back in the fall of 2019 was to see the development of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. We have seen that, just not in the way we expected. Jaren showed growth as a leader and as a player in the bubble, taking over games in key spots and helping to steady the team when things felt like they were getting away from them. His torn meniscus certainly ends the campaign on a sour note, but it doesn’t change the fact that Jackson Jr. has stabilized his status as a Memphis cornerstone moving forward.
With Coach Jenkins, we often forget how young he actually is. He turns 36 next month and is the youngest coach in the NBA bubble. That’s been evident at times - he seems to struggle with holding players accountable (like Dillon Brooks) and seem averse to risking timeouts via coaches challenges. He’s been outcoached in almost every game the Grizzlies have played...but what were we expecting? He’s been coaching against some of the very best the NBA has to offer - Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens, Nick Nurse, Billy Donovan, Quin Snyder, Gregg Popovich - and even Alvin Gentry, who may be on the hot seat for the New Orleans Pelicans, has 16 years of experience as a head coach and coached his first full 82 game season in the year 2000.
In 2000 Taylor Jenkins was 16 years old. He is showing growth as a leader in his own right, displaying a willingness to listen to his players and turn what he learns in to action via statements about racial justice throughout the bubble experience. He has struggled with rotations, but when three key contributors are missing and you’re starting Anthony Tolliver, who - no disrespect - is on a minimum contract and way outside what his role should be, because of the floor spacing he provides? Chances are not even Pop could thrive with the current personnel.
That’s not to say he can go without being criticized. It’s simply a reminder that, like Jaren, Coach Jenkins’ best days are ahead of him.He probably never should have started Brandon Clarke, and Tolliver shouldn’t be starting either. But the options beyond what he has chosen are also fairly flawed. There are no right answers - just different shades of wrong.
Ja Morant is doing all he can as his team goes through growing pains in front of the NBA world. His top-5 games in terms of minutes played have come in Orlando, and while he still turns the ball over at inopportune times and can struggle defensively he has almost single-handily kept Memphis’ play-in hopes on life support. He’s had some help - Grayson Allen has been the most consistent lieutenant to the floor general Morant, for example. And another goal for this season has been to find long-term fits alongside Ja and Jaren. Perhaps Allen has helped his prospects in that way. Same with Tyus Jones in absence, who the once elite second unit of the Grizzlies miss sorely and likely desperately hope will be back for the do-or-die game against Milwaukee on Thursday.
On the flip side, on the wing players like soon-to-be restricted free agent De’Anthony Melton and newly re-signed Dillon Brooks have seen their long-term value and place in Memphis potentially take a hit. How much struggling in this unique setting matters long-term will be interesting to watch unfold, but there’s no denying Melton (who some said could be in for a 4 year $50 million pay day potentially) and Brooks (whose gunning and launching of ill-advised shots has flown in the face of the unselfish Grizzlies “standard” Coach Jenkins talks about so much) are not seen as highly as they once were.
Is that fair? Probably not - the injuries impact players and coached both. But when Jaren went down, beyond Grayson no one has been able to somewhat consistently help fill the void. And here the Grizzlies stand - on the precipice of missing the playoffs entirely despite having a 3.5 game advantage on the field just two weeks ago.
That’s disappointing...but that disappointment should stay in the bubble and be left there whenever the Grizzlies come home. For when next season starts (hopefully around Christmas), those that trudged through this adversity will have earned much-deserved scar tissue after battles with the some of the best coaches, players, and teams the NBA has to offer. While it hurts in the here and now, the tearing down of metaphoric muscle will yield bigger gains in the long run. The mental errors and physical limitations - as long as they are learned from and addressed in the offseasons to come - will provide valuable experience. The struggles of players within schemes will lead to adjustments, and a better understanding of what type of player needs to be with Jaren and Ja moving forward.
The Grizzlies, remember, are an unfinished symphony. The same can be said of their leader Ja Morant. The story of this next generation is just beginning. And from these tough times tougher hearts and minds will emerge.
Ja Morant is exhausted.
Sweat drips from the tip of his nose as he looks down at the floor, wondering what more he could have done. A scream from across the locker room snaps him out of his trance-
“BIG 12 has the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2023 Western Conference FINALS, YA HEARD ME!”
Ja laughs as Jaren Jackson Jr. storms over and picks Morant up in a big bear hug, much like a certain Spanish center once would do to his point guard in a bygone era. Ja smiles, happy for his teammate who just played the game of his life in a Game 7 against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers - the same Lillard and Blazers that cooked the Grizzlies’ 8 seed hopes three years before. Ja is happy for his friend - Jaren’s 36 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks led the way on this night. Morant didn’t play his best game - only 15 points, but 12 assists (6 on Jaren three-pointers) helped carry the day for Memphis in front of a raucous Portland home crowd.
Jaren puts Ja down and pats him on the back, giving him that trademark smile that needs no words to accompany it. Coach Jenkins, who just congratulated the squad, is off to postgame media availability and the PR team needs Ja to come along, as well as Jaren. Ja finishes getting ready, hugs another teammate or two, then looks up in to a locker room mirror.
He sees a team celebrating - one that had its foundation laid before most of them were there, as part of the most unique season in NBA history. All the adversity that he endured, seemingly by himself at times, was well worth it. And as he leaves the room alongside the other cornerstone of this new era, he sees his little girl running up to him for a celebratory hug and kiss.
And in this moment - though he will never admit it - he feels more satisfied than he has in some time.