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At the gates with Ja the Great

He’s knocking, NBA.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout world history, there are examples of the moniker “The Great” perhaps being overused. After all, what truly makes a man (or woman) great can be in the eye of the beholder. Alexander the Great was one of the greatest conquerors in all of human kind, but as an administrator/builder of government he was middling at best. Xerxes of the Persian Empire thought himself a god, until the Greeks rallied together and cut him down to size. As with any mortal, there are flaws even to the mightiest of rulers. Greatness, then, is a flawed concept.

Unless you’ve watched Ja Morant play basketball. Then you understand the concept just fine.

Including last spring’s play-in tournament and the five game series with the Utah Jazz, Morant is doing truly historic things at this moment for someone just starting their third NBA season. He has only scored less than 23 points once in the last 10 games - his showing against the Spurs in the first play-in game last season - and since then has scored 23 or more per game while shooting over 49% from the field in two-thirds of the games he has played. With his team’s season on the line against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors last year he outplayed a perennial MVP candidate and got his squad in to the playoffs, where they were outdone by a superior team...but not before Morant made his presence known as a creator of offense for himself and others.

Then this season, he didn’t pick up where he left off. He has blown past it. Through three games he is at the top of the NBA in scoring at 35 points per game, shooting an absurd 58% from the field while racking up 8 assists per contest as well. His 40 point-10 assist masterclass performance against the Los Angeles Lakers put him in rarified air - being the best player on the floor in a game that had both LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing in it. He has (in an admittedly small sample size) found his long-range shooting stroke, currently converting 44.4% of his attempts from beyond the arc, and while he still has room to grow as a defender he has shown notable effort toward improving his “stocks” contributions, posting current career highs (again, small sample size) in steals and blocks per 100 possessions according to basketball-reference. That helps increase his offensive influence even more - if he can’t be a plus defender on-ball and off of screens, he can at least get possessions for the offense to go score again.

Yes, Ja Morant is playing at a truly elite level. One where superstars and the all-time greats dwell, and all Memphis Grizzlies fans hope that this is more the coming attractions for they’re 22-year-old cornerstone and the best is still yet to come.

But just as the previously significant historical figures have shown, “greatness” can be fleeting when it is grounded in accomplishment.

So why declare that Ja Morant, before he wins a playoff series, is indeed worthy of the title?

Because he knows what to do when he fails.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Morant had an opportunity to send the game against the Lakers in to overtime. Three free throws - that was what Ja had to do for his team to get them to an extra frame against the mighty LeBron James and company in L.A., on the second night of a back to back. He made the first two. And the final, arguably most pressure-filled attempt, fell short. As the Grizzlies did just seconds later.

And Ja, like a truly great leader, took the accountability.

And asked himself in a very public way what he was going to do about it.

His teammates know exactly what to expect from their leader - and that is exactly what makes him a leader in a “great” sense. This quote from Desmond Bane, in the aftermath of a tough loss, demonstrates that.

“We are going to war with Ja, he’s our leader. He’s going to be an All-Star and probably an All-NBA player.”

They believe in Morant. Not just because of what he can be physically. But because of who he is, and what he does, and how he does it.

War is not sport. Life and death decisions do not accompany the bouncing of the ball more often than not. But the comparison, in a smaller sense, is a worthy one because you expend all you physically and mentally possess in a cause you perceive as greater than yourself. In team sports, that is the beauty of those moments when you hear genuine belief from a teammate in another. That’s when you know that a standard has indeed been established. That a culture is absolutely being cultivated. That those that have helped build it believe in it.

And are willing to fight for it.

This is why another Persian Emperor, Cyrus the Great, is someone more than worthy of the title bestowed upon him than those previously mentioned. For not only was he a dominant force on the battlefield, he was a formidable leader of people off of is. He believed in what people could be if they were given the chance to be good - he was a man of mercy (in the interest of full disclosure history, when opposing sides were willing to submit - he did have bloody battles against those not willing to be part of his empire) who had cities open their gates for him with joy, knowing that their way of life would carry on and he would be accepting of them for who they are.

They believed in him. This has remained through the centuries, as the legend of Cyrus has only continued to grow. If you stood in opposition to him, you had every reason to fear what was coming. If you were on his side, you loved him - and what he represented. In a time of intolerance, Cyrus was uncommon. One of one.

Sound familiar?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

One day, the Grizzlies will be the conqueror of the NBA. They will have their moment where all fear what Memphis has become - a titan, a towering presence capable of winning a championship. It is in large part because of the audacious talent of Morant, but it goes beyond what Ja does soaring through the air or finishing off the dribble. It directly aligns with what he and his teammates, he and his coaches, are cultivating. It is a common misconception in sports that you win any game - or especially a championship - on the day or night of the title clinching contest. They are planting the seeds of that team now.

And that team is being led now by the man that will be leading them then. And moments and lessons like Sunday night will come to full fruition. Maturation.

Reality.

For now, the NBA should take note of what is happening in Memphis. The young squad is at the gates, with their brilliantly violent leader standing in defiance over what they should, or shouldn’t, be in terms of expectations. No, Morant will not likely maintain this exact level of production. And failure will surely continue to be a part of the development process the Grizzlies are still fully engaged in. They are the third-youngest team in the NBA - they will continue to stumble on any given night. But the Grizzlies organization has something very rare on its hands - a young man that understands that it isn’t adversity that build character. Failure does. And in adverse moments, who you are is revealed, not established.

Ja Morant has already shown that when it comes to the game of basketball, his talent is elite.

But it is in moments where he falls short where he is establishing just how great he really is -and will be.

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