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Ja Morant’s infinity war

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Defying the odds is a battle he fights as a happy warrior.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant came crashing down. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And in the end, he somehow ascended to a higher plane.

How often do people try Rudy Gobert, the likely soon-to-be three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and their possession of the basketball end with a made basket? Rarely - opponents shot 6.7% worse at the rim against Gobert per Cleaning the Glass, good for the 96th percentile in the entire NBA and the best mark among players that played at least 2,000 minutes this past regular season. Night in and night out, Rudy Gobert dominated the paint and was also impactful defending the three (shooters defended by Rudy show -3.4% worse, good for the 92nd percentile and 2nd among all NBA players that logged more than 2,000 minutes behind Issac Okoro of the Cleveland Cavaliers). He in general made the defensive end of the floor his personal kingdom more often than not. With that in mind, logically speaking, when you see Rudy Gobert standing tall in front of the rim you probably should dish out to a shooter or a restarted offensive set.

Not Ja Morant. Up, up, and away. To infinity and beyond...or at least, in to the mystic that is a Rudy Gobert verticality defensive effort.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game One Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

For most players, this would be an ill-advised attempt and a shot at ridicule. Imagine, for example, if Justise Winslow had tried such a shot (if he wasn’t on the bench for the playoffs due to struggles coming back from injury in such a difficult season). Fans and media alike would be losing their minds.

“What was he thinking?”

“What a terrible decision!”

“Get him out of the game NOW!”

Yes, for most players it the boo birds would have been out in full effect. But for Ja Morant?

Higher plane. And rightfully so.

Ja Morant’s audacious attacks on Gobert continued throughout the Memphis Grizzlies-Utah Jazz first round playoff series. And while they usually ended in familiar fashion - a stifling shot deflection or a forced turnover - the reality of Morant’s willingness to take the fight to Gobert was a wonderful microcasm of what Ja brings to the Memphis Grizzlies beyond his skill set physically. His basketball talent is unquestioned. But it is his mental strength - his acumen of attitude - that is most uncommon among young players and a testament to his upbringing and experience coming up in the game. From side auxiliary gyms at AAU tournaments to Murray State to the NBA Playoffs - he’s beat the odds his entire basketball life. Some massive Frenchman isn’t going to stop him.

And if he does? He won’t next time.

Because Ja Morant rises, time and again.


Stephen Curry. Nikola Jokic. Trae Young. Bradley Beal. Damian Lillard. Ja Morant.

Among NBA players that logged over 2,000 minutes of play, these were the top-6 in the entire Association in the difference in points scored per 100 possessions played when they’re on the floor compared to what their team does without them. It’s a list of All-NBA talents, former MVPs, the electric Young whose development is on full display in his third season in the NBA, and Ja Morant - the 2nd year player whose presence makes his teammates that much better offensively.

This number, and Ja’s place among some of the very best the NBA has to offer, may surprise you if you peruse the stats available at basketball-reference.com. Ja’s assist percentage, win shares per 48 minutes, PER, true shooting percentage, and value over replacement player numbers were all down compared to his Rookie of the Year season. He added to his reputation for being bad from three (30.3% overall this season compared to 33.5% in his rookie year) and shot over one percentage point lower from two point land as well (51.1% in 2019-2020, 49.9% in 2020-2021).

None of this mentions his miserable season as a defender. Using the same 2,000 minute criteria, Morant had the 10th worst effective field goal percentage with him defending (17th percentile per Cleaning the Glass, even worse than Trae Young!) in the entire NBA. Your eyes and the numbers do not lie - whether it was because he was asked to do so much offensively, he’s not strong enough to get over screens, he doesn’t maintain his focus, or a mix of all of those and then some, Morant is a defensive liability at this time for the Memphis Grizzlies.

That’s why, among those great names above, Morant’s efficiency differential is only better than Bradley Beal’s. For all the offensive importance, he struggles with keeping that up defensively enough to maximize his elite facilitation and creation skills.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game Five Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

But, friendly reminder - he is 21, and his athleticism suggests he can grow as a defender (as does his increased steal rate as the season went on). And he did, despite lower numbers in some areas, have an All-NBA caliber offensive season. That’s because of his increased three point rate (25.2% of his shots came from beyond the arc, up over 6%). It is because of his increased usage (27.2%, up from 25.9%) with a lower turnover rate (down from 17% to 15.3% and good for the 82nd percentile in the NBA per Cleaning the Glass). His scoring went up over a point per 100 possessions, and his free throw rate also increased 6% (from 32.9% to 38.9%). Sure, some percentages were down. But the ones in areas so key to his growth as a player - being more of a threat from range both in terms of quality and quantity (where he showed growth in the playoffs - 32.3% from three on a little over 6 attempts per game), creating contact and getting to the free throw line, being efficient in his drives (63.2% at the rim, almost 3% better than last season) while maintaining an assist rate while lowering his turnovers and lost possessions - went up. This all adds up to a +3.4 better performance for Memphis when he is on the floor vs. when he is off it overall per basketball-reference. Defensive warts and all.

He has areas of growth to prioritize. But the evidence is there that Ja not only understands that...he is sure to be working on it soon enough. And he will get better.

For Morant knows what is at stake.

Forever.


Ja Morant came crashing down. But it wasn’t for a lack of trying. And in the end, he somehow ascended to a higher plane.

Coming in to the Play-In Tournament, Ja Morant was already the most important figure of the Next Gen Grizzlies. Memphis has fallen hard for Morant, as has aspects of popular culture. J Cole isn’t the only one “on his Grizzly” with Ja Morant. More and more, Ja is transcending basketball and becoming a household name. It is a slow process - Memphis has never had a player capable of bringing casual eyes to the Grizzlies in this way, and the team still plays in one of the NBA’s smallest markets. Yet the march carries on...and it became more of a steady trot as the seven postseason games the Memphis Grizzlies got to play went off.

206 points. 77 made shots on 162 attempts, good for 47.5% shooting and 29.4 points per game in the most high stakes contests of his career to this point. 53 assists, 26 turnovers - a 2 to 1 ratio for someone so involved in every single possession at such a young age is quite impressive. When his Grizzlies needed him most, he was there - and he did it when the lights were on brightest. He was a star shining just as brightly as others in the NBA galaxy...and at times he shone the brightest.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Utah Jazz eliminated Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies from the 2021 NBA Playoffs. They were the superior team - Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Grizzlies legend Mike Conley led a cast of players that simply outmatched Memphis. But make no mistake - the Jazz have had their own playoff failures and scar tissue that has been built up over the years. It is why Utah was able to match and overcome every Grizzlies run - experience is irreplaceable when it comes to preparing for the heightened intensity of pursuing a championship.

The second leg of that race just finished for Ja Morant, one that is both a sprint and a marathon. He attacks it as such - he clearly knows no other way than to, instead of avoiding things blocking his path, go right through them. Ja understands his game well enough that he can both grow his skill while embracing the change needed for him to get to the next level. Morant felt the energy of the playoffs - and knows he can get his team back there again. And can rise to the occasion once more - only better this time than the time before.

And the season after that, there will be another step toward the ultimate prize.

And another.

And another.

That’s the beauty of Ja Morant. His potential is limitless. His spirit is unconquerable. You see it as well as feel it. Because of that evolution of what belief in Memphis means - in a player’s meteoric future leading this generation of the franchise - his arrival as an NBA superstar and build of the Grizzlies to a title contender feels inevitable. Morant is a veteran of this pursuit - he has been battling against logic and probability for a long time. It’s as if the ongoing war that he wages, now alongside his Memphis Grizzlies, is with infinity itself.

For nothing, or no one, will define Ja Morant.

Except for Ja Morant.

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