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Ja Morant emerged from the dark into bright new stratosphere

Ja Morant’s performance in the 2021-22 season is one for the books

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Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Two Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Ja Morant kept his offseason work in the dark. There were zero hints on what he was working, and when he was asked what it was, he’d say something along the lines of “everything.”

Then media day came along, and without a question prompted, Memphis Grizzlies Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Zach Kleiman declared to the media that Ja Morant will be an All-Star. He added an emphatic “just wait” for good measure.

We should’ve known all along something special was on the horizon.

Morant put together the most spectacular individual season in franchise history for arguably the best Grizzlies squad the city has ever seen. He set the franchise record for single-season scoring average (27.4), field goals per game (10.2), and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (6.2). He also joined Oscar Robertson, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Luka Doncic as the only players under 23 to average at least 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in a single season. He also led the league in points in the paint (16.6) — becoming the 1st guard this century to led the league in this category, and joining the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Zion Williamson with scoring volume.

In conjunction with his awesome season, he took the difficult leap of All-Star caliber player to All-NBA guard and MVP candidate. He increased his scoring average from 19.1 to 27.4, and his efficiency rose with his volume:

  • Field Goals: 44.9 to 49.3%, 15.2 field goal attempts per game to 20.6
  • 3-point Field Goals: 30.3 to 34.4%, 3.8 3-point attempts per game to 4.5
  • Free Throws: 72.8 to 76.1%, 5.9 fee throw attempts per game to 7.3.

That jump led to Morant winning the Most Improved Player Award. Though the nuances of him winning the award could be debated, and though he gifted his trophy to teammate Desmond Bane, his improvement was quite impressive.

Ja Morant made the leap to become a legitimate superstar, and it was a pivotal component to the Memphis Grizzlies’ success this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Morant set an emphatic tone for his breakout season with his regular season opening performance. He finished with 37 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists. He wowed the crowd with highlight-reel alley oop’s and blocks, thrashed the defense with his scoring, and sealed the deal with late-game heroics.

Very quickly, Morant’s work in the dark came to light. His elevated scoring aggression yielded more comfort firing from downtown and in the mid-range, balancing that by putting immense pressure on the defense with his relentless paint attack. Though his 3-point shot is still a work in progress, he’s building more evidence into a 3-point shooter, showcasing pull-up abilities when teams go under his screens.

A spooky knee injury in November seemed to potentially ruin his and the Grizzlies’ season. Especially after a slow start, it looked like a lost year doomed with losing and lottery balls. The Grizzlies did rattle off a 10-2 stretch in December without him, prompting the idiotic “are the Grizzlies better without Ja Morant” question.

Morant’s play from Christmas dispelled any of that. From Christmas until March 13th (34 games), Morant averaged 30.0 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.0 rebounds on 50.3% shooting. The Grizzlies were also 26-8 in that span, possessing winning streaks of 6 or more games twice.

Throughout the season, he had a collection of signature moments. His franchise-record 52-point outing against the San Antonio Spurs on February 28th stands out, becoming the first Grizzly to score 50 or more in a single game. His performances against the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, and New York Knicks will stand out in his rolodex of stellar performances this season. His collection of viral highlights could be made into a mini documentary, and listing all of them would make this column insanely long.

My personal favorites are the chase-down block against the Lakers and his runway jam against the Brooklyn Nets.

After roughly 3 weeks of resting a sore knee, the playoffs came around, and you could see how the injury was bothering him for a bit. The Minnesota Timberwolves keyed in on him and made him uncomfortable — though totaling a stat-line of 21.5 points, 10.5 assists, and 8.0 rebounds in a playoffs series win is no small feat.

He looked like himself in the Warriors series, while even leaning on and capitalizing on the 3-ball (13-30, 43.3%). He averaged 38.3 points on 50.6% shooting, 8.3 assists, and 7.0 rebounds in 3 games. In doing so, he joined LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as the only players to have multiple games with 45 or more points in a playoff game before turning 23 years old.

Unfortunately, his postseason was cut short after being shut down due to a bone bruise after a knee dust-up with Jordan Poole. The Grizzlies valiantly put on a fight, including a 39-point beatdown in Game 5, but it proved tough to put away the Warriors without their star point guard.

While the season didn’t end the way we all wanted to, there are a lot of positive takeaways. In regards to Morant, he proved himself to be an upper-echelon star. His superb production almost looked routine; for the first time, the Grizzlies had someone that would routinely walk into 30-point outings. Most nights, he looked like the best player on the floor. It didn’t matter who was on the other side either: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, or Paul George. Morant went toe-to-toe and rose to the occasion to deliver wins for his squad.

He proved himself to be that guy, pal.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors - Game Three Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Morant’s production, leadership, style of play, and charisma give Memphis something they haven’t seen at the professional level: a superstar.

And to Memphis fans, there’s no sharing him. He’s a superstar that has legitimate national attention and popularity growing like wildfire. It seems like a new commercial that stars Morant drops monthly — as companies like Hulu, Beats, Uber Eats, and Sony with Spiderman have released ads featuring the Memphis superstar. He also appeared in the NBA’s 75th anniversary commercials. With numerous Nike commercials featuring Morant — as well as the news around Kyrie Irving’s expiring deal with Nike — there are signs that might indicate he could be on a short list of those next in line for a signature shoe.

From a social media standpoint, he’s emerged as a viral sensation. Videos from his 52-point outburst generated 80M views on the NBA’s Instagram account. He took the internet by storm in the playoffs as well. In the age of social media, these metrics encapsulate superstar status.

Morant also introduced more positive narratives around the Grizzlies from a national talk show perspective as well. His season propelled him into MVP conversations, and his name was mentioned in the same breathe as Michael Jordan and (more realistically) Allen Iverson. One of the coolest parts of that coverage was Shaq comparing Ja to a young Kobe Bryant.

The NBA is in a transition period, as legendary talent like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard are entering the twilight of their careers. The league is looking for young stars that could grab the brass ring and become faces of the NBA. This season, Ja Morant emerged as one of the young players in the group that fits the mold to be one of the NBA’s premier stars, both on and off the court.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

We’re going to remember this season for a long time. While there are so many fun, compelling elements of this team, Morant will be the staple in all of these memories.

The highlight-reel dunks.

The chase-down blocks.

The jaw-dropping dimes.

The one-liners in postgame.

Though these moments stand out, his leap has set a foundation for his game as a player going forward. He became more methodical in his scoring approach, evident through his interior scoring. His outside shot is growing, and his performance from deep against the Warriors could be a propeller for next season. He also emerged as that closer you could call on when you need a bucket down the stretch — whether it’s a Tuesday night in February they need to grind out, or in the second round of the playoffs.

From here, it’s about refining his all-around game — the mid-range package was a talking point in exit interviews. His defensive progression will be fascinating as well, since that’s the real critique in his game at the moment. More importantly, everyone wishes for Morant to get healthy. Telling by the work he put in, and comments in exit interviews, strength to withstand injury sounds like a focal point for this offseason.

The 2021-22 season will be remembered for a lot of reasons. Ja Morant’s performance will be at the top of this list.

This year, Ja Morant emerged from the dark into a bright new stratosphere: superstardom.

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