Have you ever heard 18,119 people hold their collective breath, waiting for something truly awesome to happen?
It will happen once again whenever Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies prepares to launch through the air and towards the basket with a ball in his hand, or in his sights on an alley-oop attempt as he soars seemingly forever above the FedExForum floor.
As Ja rises up, so does the team that he is the leader of. The Memphis Grizzlies are uniquely positioned to be both a play-in contender in this moment and a title hopeful in the ones to come. His presence helps to make that dream more real that perhaps ever before - the first legitimate shot at a superstar that can cross over in to the mainstream. A player that could in one second be a reference point in a rap song and a basketball-reference.com leader statistically the next don’t come around every day. And you can argue they never have in Memphis.
So you can forgive Grizzlies fans for allowing for their minds to wander as they witness their 22-year-old personification of audacity approach the rim with beautifully violent intentions. It isn’t just season ticket holders and loyal viewers with lofty aspirations - Morant’s own General Manager Zach Kleiman said that it should be an All-Star season for the young man out of Murray State. Kleiman of course isn’t going to say Ja is going to regress, but the All-Star Game is a very specific goal. And it is one that the franchise clearly sees as possible for the player most intertwined with both their short-term goals and their long-term aspirations. Competing for the playoffs now. Striving for a much greater goal down the road.
For those both to become a reality, Ja Morant must make that leap.
The playoffs performance where he set the stage for these hopes to grow against the Utah Jazz is a valuable window in to the beauty of Morant’s game and the lengths he still must go to in order to reach for the level he’s striving for. Ja the scorer can get to the bucket almost at will. Morant the passer can find open looks off the dribble for his teammates both on the perimeter and for himself. And that breathtaking athleticism - the one that will once again make so many pause and take notice soon enough - is undeniable. These factors make him one of the very best young players in the NBA.
They also are remarkably effective at covering up some holes in his game that Ja is both keenly aware of and motivated to fill as much as possible. His jumper is inconsistent, especially from range, and that shooting stroke being more smooth and fluid would both fit his already seemingly effortless handle like a glove off of step back looks and also make him nearly impossible to game plan for/defend on a nightly basis. His defensive problems have been noted here and elsewhere - the level of effort and usage (highest on the Grizzlies last season) needed from him offensively surely limits his impact here. But if he cannot be closer to a net neutral defender - as opposed to the near the bottom level player on that end some numbers suggest he way - his influence as a creator of scoring for himself and others will have a set ceiling.
These thoughts don’t cross your mind when you watch Morant seemingly tower over the tin, his head somehow floating above the rim as he prepares to crash in to two points. How do you cover his deficiencies? What growth points should Ja prioritize first? As he glides seemingly somehow higher above the crowd those points do not matter. Of course there is room for improvement. But on a team where their two best players are 22-years-old, you have plenty of time to work on those skills and better execute in areas of growth. The best days of the Memphis Grizzlies are ahead, not behind. And the strikingly aggressive stylings of Ja Morant both on and off the floor will continue to drive Memphis forward. And it will make them unapologetically fun to watch pursue that destination.
As Morant finishes a dunk like the one mentioned above, the roar will be inconceivably loud. Something that literally has not been heard in years now - pure euphoria as the arena fills with the sounds and sights of what a brilliantly destructive basketball force can do. That’s the great irony in Ja’s game - he is both the storm and the sun shining clearing sky, the control of the bow and the striking arrow. He knows what he must do, and how he must get to where he needs to be. It’s only a matter of time until the lightning strikes, or the point of the arrow drives through the target. As both fly through the air, burning and slicing through, so too does Ja - landing and taking in his domain as the young king of Memphis. The summoner of a future once only conjured up in the minds of the most heartened believers is also the owner of this moment - a literal and figurative movement toward a brand of basketball and star the likes of which the Grizzlies have never seen.
And yet, Morant will never be satisfied. So he searches for the next opportunity to prove that who he is, and what he is capable of, is greater than anyone could have imagined. Whether you believe or not is irrelevant - his unwavering belief in himself got him this far. And it will help him the when next he decides to make the leap.
As he does, he will have many making that journey with him. Some seen, some unseen.
All ready to jump in to the brave new Grizzlies world he is helping to make.