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The relentless rise of Ja Morant

He stops for no one.

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The appearance of Ja Morant at tonight’s All-Star Game was predicted by Memphis Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman before this season even began. In fact, he made a point to tell the media that Morant was going to be at the festivities at Cleveland in 2022 on June 4th, 2021 - after last season concluded for Ja and his squad. He said it again in September, telling the preseason media availability audience that everyone will just have to wait and see what Morant can do. Time and again, Kleiman tried to warn everyone of the welcoming to the dark that was coming for the NBA.

But if you gave Kleiman a truth serum, it is likely he would admit even he did not see what was approaching so quickly.

For Ja Morant is not only an All-Star tonight, he is a starter. Morant is not just a top guard in the NBA, he is a top player. He’s a dark horse MVP candidate, and even if he does not win that award the fact he’s in the conversation at all is a testament to the work and audacity that Morant possesses. None of this was expected of him, even within the last year. The hope was linear improvement in his game - improved shooting, growth as a defender, continued displays of his elite vision and basketball IQ.

But 16.4 points in the paint per game, leading the entire Association? At 6’3”? The next player at his height on the list is De’Aaron Fox at 17th overall, 11 points per contest. Being 4th in 2 point field goals made despite missing 17 games for the Grizzlies so far this season? Ranking 10th in points and free throws, 6th in box plus-minus, all while being 5th in the NBA in usage rate (per basketball-reference) and 9th in assist percentage?

By almost every metric, Ja Morant is one of the top 10 to 15 players in the National Basketball Association. And he has one year remaining on his rookie contract.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NBA All-Star Game is not an arrival for Ja Morant. He’s been this way his entire basketball life, and likely beyond. For what makes Morant unique is that he is well aware of the realities of his rise. He is certainly not the first player to come from humble beginnings and somehow reach superstar status, and he certainly will not be the last. But every step of the way, whether it is while flying on a private plane to his first All-Star Weekend or hyping up friends and teammates on social media, Morant shows love to everyone that has helped him along the way. He is both audaciously gifted and intrinsically inclusive. He understands what has to be done by him for those around him to reach their next level. And he wants them to be given credit for what they do, in part because of his ability as a player and leader.

This weekend has been a celebration of the beauty of the current state of things for the Memphis Grizzlies. The team is an overachieving, well-built, beacon of love for the game and for each other. They talk trash on the court, and they talk one another up off of it. The spirit of this team started with Dillon Brooks - his tenacity and competitiveness helped the rookie Ja Morant find his footing two years ago. But now, this culture being cultivated in Memphis has the fingerprints of Ja all over it. His energy and enthusiasm has taken the Grizzlies to a place no one thought they’d reach so quickly.

The hope was for an NBA Finals appearance by the middle of this decade. But now, dreams of such a run are not so far-fetched as soon as this season.

These Memphis Grizzlies don’t allow outside definitions of ceilings to limit them, and did not let any external pressure to improve from outside the roster push them to a move at the trade deadline. Perhaps that philosophy will come back to bite them come the postseason, when the game slows down and the competition increases. But betting on the relentlessness of Ja Morant and his team is a calculated risk worth taking. For the time for title expectations has yet to come.

The time of jubilation for Ja Morant and what he’s already done for the Memphis Grizzlies is here. And that joy - for the game, young love between a star and his city, and the hard work of a kid from South Carolina paying off, is worth celebrating.

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