It is natural in sports to try to rationalize what you’re seeing with your very eyes and compare it to what has happened before. We all do it. Great teams, elite players, brilliant coaches - up and down, left and right, all through the TV/streaming service/social media age, you can find all sorts of “Person A vs. Person B” debates. It allows for us to connect the dots between eras and memories, seeking out similarities and casting out contrasting characteristics, all in the name of finding “the next one”.
But sometimes, you come across a talent so special, you realize that doing that just may be impossible for someone. Because there is no comparison. Maybe there have been more talented individuals, or more tenaciously competitive ones. Perhaps their shooting stroke isn’t up to snuff with others, or their defensive acumen may not be fully developed. But their unique combination of skill and style makes them something new.
That is soon-to-be NBA All-Star Starter Ja Morant.
Of course there have been players that have produced at the level currently on display from Morant. While his 25.8 points per game, 35.3% three point conversion rate, and just about every other measurable statistic are career highs for Ja, others have done these things - and in some cases better. When you add in his age, the list dwindles, but still there are players that have done this sort of thing before. Just in this generation of young talent, Trae Young statistically is a better shooter, Luka Doncic is by the numbers a better scorer and creator for himself and others. Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, even Michael Jordan...between his contemporaries and those that came before him, there are perhaps things that they all do (or did) that maybe they excel at more than Ja.
That means Ja Morant isn’t as special as folks that follow the Memphis Grizzlies seem to believe, right?
When quantifying the audacious greatness that Ja Morant is currently displaying on a nightly basis, context matters. This is a young man who came to the Memphis Grizzlies from Murray State, an under-recruited, under-sized, under-appreciated kid that went to that small school in Kentucky ready to prove people wrong. As he had throughout his young life...and as he continues to do. This is a prospect that rose up draft boards, only to be eclipsed by the size and scope of the star that is/was Zion Williamson, an undeniable #1 overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. Almost three years later, Ja Morant has somehow not only escaped that shadow - he has created his own galaxy, the star of a seemingly unparalleled system of fellow misfits that have taken the opportunity in front of them in Memphis and ran with it.
At the age of 22, Morant not only is playing elite, MVP-level basketball. He is not just on the doorsteps of an All-Star Starter selection, or just primed to make his first All-NBA team. He is helping to establish something more - a culture of success that is not only about individual accolades. At a point where most people are just getting out of their college or technical programs, Ja has been the catalyst for change for an NBA franchise that before his selection was floundering, directionless and lost at sea without an engine or oar. He has not done it alone - he will be the first to tell you that. From Desmond Bane to Jaren Jackson Jr., Taylor Jenkins to Ziaire Williams, John Konchar to Steven Adams and countless others, Morant continuously mentions those that have been with him on this journey.
And in human moments, brings up those that were with him before any of us knew him.
These athletic heroes are people, after all. Before there was Ja Morant the All-Star, Ja Morant the #2 draft pick, Ja Morant the college recruit, there was Ja Morant the young boy. Raised by a family that clearly means more to him than any public perception of his relentless pursuit of respect and acclaim. Coming from “the dark”, as he and his Grizzlies teammates put it, to the NBA light is a journey none of us will ever fully know about. It has shaped him. Made him who he is...and his greatest heroes almost certainly do not bounce a ball.
Like the rest of us.
Ja Morant may rub some the wrong way when he shows “beneath no one” on the inside of his jacket on NBA Draft night. He perhaps will blast a blogger or social media user, or even a television company, for disrespecting his team or his game/psyche. But he has, from day one, been very clear about who he is. He is a son of South Carolina, a proud Murray State Racer. He is a father to his daughter, and a brother to many both blood and beyond. He is a student of the game, and one of the most electric young talents to ever enter the NBA. Morant is a leader, a finisher, an eater of worlds on the basketball floor capable of multiple ways putting the dagger in his opponent. He is on the path to legendary status in Memphis, with Thursday night’s All-Star Starters announcement just another brick in the wall of the great Grizzlies legacy he is building.
He is Ja Morant.
The first. The one. And the only.