In the first quarter of Tuesday’s game between the Grizzlies and Rockets, Ja Morant set the tone for what turned out to be a career night.
The 20-year-old point guard saw James Harden waiting to defend him well below the 3-point line and decided to punish that lack of respect. He pulled up two steps beyond the arc and drilled a shot in Harden’s face, punctuating the bucket with an R-rated phrase.
“Tell that motherf—er about me.”
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Morant finished a 121-110 Memphis win with 26 points (on 10-of-11 shooting), eight assists and five rebounds, a line no rookie has matched in the last 38 seasons. But, as has been the case throughout his first NBA campaign, it wasn’t just about the numbers Morant posted — it was how he got them.
When it comes to pure entertainment, Morant ranks near the top of the league. He attacks the rim with reckless abandon. Watching him rev up and take flight is truly breathtaking.
“It’s hard to stay in front of him,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said (via ESPN’s Tim MacMahon). “He is fast and athletic. He’s going to be a great player. He already is.”
But Morant is far from just a young Russell Westbrook clone. He is already an elite playmaker, capable of shifting defenders with his eyes and hitting teammates from all kinds of angles. As soon as his opponents think he’s stuck, Morant figures out a new way to surprise them.
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There is no Rookie of the Year race. Morant has shut down any possible discussions, easily topping all rookies in scoring (18.0 points per game) and assists (6.9). Zion Williamson, the only player selected ahead of Morant at the 2019 NBA Draft, has already missed half of the Pelicans’ season. It’s difficult to even formulate an argument for the other healthy candidates.
Most importantly, Morant is leading what was supposed to be a rebuilding team right into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. The Grizzlies’ latest victory pushed their current winning streak to six games (their longest since December of 2016) and ahead of the Spurs for the eighth spot in the West standings.
Morant hasn’t done it alone, of course. Jaren Jackson Jr. is a basketball unicorn and pairs incredibly well with Morant. Brandon Clarke turned out to be a first-round steal. Veteran center Jonas Valanciunas has been a consistent paint presence. Imagine if Andre Iguodala was actually interested in playing with this group.
Still, the Murray State product is at the center of the Grizzlies’ present and future. He’s the engine that drives Memphis with his gravity-defying leaps, pinpoint passes and unstoppable swagger. His rapid development could make the Grizzlies a playoff squad in 2020 and a real threat sooner than expected.
No need to tell anyone about Morant. If you don’t know him by now, you haven’t been paying attention.