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Ja Morant, the once and future king

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He was a transcendent as a rookie and will have to be even more so going forward for the Grizzlies to achieve their greatest aspirations.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As I saw an exhausted and injured Ja Morant walk off the court this past Saturday for the final time this season, I couldn’t help but think of 2015’s Creed, which easily makes my personal top ten movies list.

There’s a quote in Creed that has stuck with me ever since I saw it all the way back in 2015. And as strange as it may seem, the quote didn’t come from Sylvester Stallone’s iconic Rocky Balboa (although he has many memorable lines of his own) or Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed. Rather, it came from First Take’s Max Kellerman of all people, who excitedly exclaims, “Rickie Conlan won the fight, but Adonis Creed won the night” in the aftermath of the film’s final fight in which Creed goes the distance in a memorable and emotional loss to the undefeated Conlan.

To be sure, the film echoes the original Rocky in that regard. Like Rocky was against his Creed’s father in the very first film before him, Creed is extremely talented, but he isn’t quite ready to earn the championship belt. Yet even as he falls just short of overcoming incredible odds, he makes it clear to the rest of the world—including Conlan himself—that the belt will soon be his.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As the short-handed Memphis Grizzlies finally fell short in a thrilling back-and-forth elimination game against the Portland Trail Blazers, there were no negative feelings from either the Grizzlies themselves or their fans. Why would there be? They were never supposed to be in a position to make the playoffs in the first place, with only a combination of injuries and extremely bad luck keeping them from being a participant. And Ja Morant, as incredible of a young player that he is, isn’t supposed to outplay the NBA’s current best point guard in Damian Lillard at the peak of his prime.

But he did. In the biggest game of his life against a team that was far more talented than his depleted own, Ja Morant outplayed Lillard with a career-high 35 points and 8 assists. It was a performance that echoed - even if it didn’t match - Michael Jordan’s iconic 63-point performance in a losing effort against the 1986 Celtics, which caused Larry Bird to memorably say, “It’s just God disguised as Michael Jordan.” If it wasn’t for CJ McCollum, then the Blazers would have had to play the Grizzlies one more time for their fourth game in four days. Maybe it’s only right to say it like Max Kellerman: Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers won the game, but Ja Morant won the day.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

In doing so, he reminded everyone for the last time this season that he will very well soon be the NBA’s best point guard. Of course, the Blazers game merely served as the culmination of that reality, with Morant having so many borderline-iconic moments as a rookie. Blocking one of the best one-on-one players in NBA history in Kyrie Irving to send the game to overtime and making a contested game-winner at the rim over three defenders to beat the Charlotte Hornets are only a few moments that revealed to everyone how undeniably transcendent that he will soon become.

For the year as a whole, he had one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history, which is no exaggeration when examining the numbers. In all of NBA history, there have been only three rookies to ever average at least 17 points and 7 assists while shooting 47% from the field: Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Ja Morant. When you also consider that Morant led a team that was projected to finish last in the Western Conference to within a game of a playoff birth, it becomes undeniable that his rookie season transcends multiple different eras of NBA basketball.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game One Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

And transcendence is what the Memphis Grizzlies will need from Ja Morant going forward if they are to reach their highest aspirations for an NBA title in the future. The NBA has never been more talented from top to bottom that it is now, and it is filled to the rim with supreme talents under 22-years-old like Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, and Trae Young. The Grizzlies boast one of the most talented young cores in the league, but simply being very talented won’t be enough to reach the mountaintop with the elite young talent that is present around the league. In order for that to happen, Ja Morant can’t just be great; he must be generational, transcendent in every sense of the word.

Make no mistake: It’s not going to happen overnight. There will be plenty of bumps in the road for Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies going forward. But there’s a sublime beauty in realizing that you are watching the rise of a legend, a transcendent young player who once came from nothing and now is in reach of the throne. There’s an unmistakable thrill in realizing that his painful failures will only make his future triumphs all the more compelling.

The belt isn’t Ja Morant’s just yet. But it soon will be. Just ask Damian Lillard.

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