CHARLOTTE — It’s not every day you bury the game-winning layup and send your father sprinting to half court like it’s an And1 game. For Memphis Grizzlies rookie guard Ja Morant, that is how he spent Nov. 13, beating the Charlotte Hornets 119-117 with his game-winning bucket of his young career.
Morant took the ball down the lane, beating one man off the dribble and darting between both Cody Zeller and Miles Bridges to finish with his left hand at the rim. A fitting homecoming for a kid born two hours away in Sumter, South Carolina.
“I was looking for a double team (of Morant),” explained Charlotte Hornets Head Coach James Borrego. “But he made a hell of a shot. I think we had two or three bodies on him.”
Morant spent the bulk of the night doing whatever he wanted. If he wanted to get to the basket, he did. If he wanted to probe the paint and find a shooter for a wide open three, he did. Morant found new ways to stretch the Hornets defense all night, especially in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points and dishing out two assists.
Morant also set new franchise records. He became the youngest Memphis Grizzlies player to record a double-double, breaking Mike Conley’s franchise record and became the youngest player to hit a game-winner in nearly 10 years. All while nearly 100 friends and family members who made the trek from Sumter to see Morant play.
“I definitely heard the support,” said Morant. “I didn’t get to look around because I was focused on the game but to have them come out and show the support here was great.”
Morant’s torrid start to the season clearly puts him as the front runner for Rookie of the Year, as the presumptive preseason favorite Zion Williamson has yet to log minutes in the regular season. But even once Williamson joins the Pelicans, Morant has done enough to deserve top billing when it comes to the rookie class this season.
For example, look at what Morant did against the Brooklyn Nets in his third career game. The 20-year old point guard nearly earned his first career double-double then, falling one assist shy. Even then, Morant scored 30 that night while only attempting 2 shots from behind the arc. Everything else was done within the confines of the painted area, where he gets with relative ease, even at the NBA level, thanks to his burst and athleticism.
That doesn’t mean that Morant can’t shoot from distance, quite the opposite — Morant’s shooting north of 40 percent from three this season. It’s that Morant can get to the bucket so easily that he doesn’t need to shoot the ball a ton — a ridiculous 58 percent of his attempts this season have come within three feet of the rim. If Morant’s shooting from distance stays the same while increasing the frequency, the draft prophecies of him being Russell Westbrook 2.0 may just come true.
The biggest thing that might go underrated with Morant is his deft passing. His performance against the Hornets was the first time he had double digit assists, but remember that Ja is the same kid who had a triple double in the NCAA tournament. Since his performance in Charlotte, Morant’s had at least six assists in each of his last five games, as his comfort in orchestrating the Grizzlies offense is only growing.
The major concern with Morant is that he’s very slight of frame, so can Ja make it through an entire season. Morant who’s listed at 174 lbs, has already missed one game for load management purposes this season. Adding strength is certainly a necessity for Morant, especially given his Dwyane Wade-like penchant for finding contact on the drive, even though his body hasn’t fully matured. The fear is that because he’s an athletic, exciting guard who doesn’t hesitate in challenging big men at the rim, the wrong attempt at a poster could put Morant on an entirely different career path. One that could sadly showcase far less of his athleticism due to injury.
He had such a scare in his most recent game against the Pacers, but luckily returned, undeterred, and tried again to throw down a monster dunk on Myles Turner, minutes after he got back on the court. It’s part of what makes him great, which is why it’s so hard to really want him to make any changes as his body catches up with the league.
Regardless, the future looks bright in Memphis with Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. It’s a significant departure from the Grit ‘N Grind era of smashmouth basketball, instead bringing up-tempo, high-flying excitement to the Grizzlies. The foundation appears to be there and now it’s up to the organization to fill in the spots around their bright young stars to bring playoff basketball back to west Tennessee.