Back in 2019, the Memphis Grizzlies just barely missed out on being able to add Zion Williamson to their team when they were given the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft as opposed to the No. 1 pick. But their consolation prize that year wasn’t too bad at all. Rather than drafting Zion, the Grizzlies were able to pick up Ja Morant second overall in the draft. And ever since joining the team, the former Murray State star has helped to take the Memphis franchise to a whole new level.
The Grizzlies surprised a whole lot of people when they finished 56-26 last season, giving them the second-best record in the Western Conference and the NBA as a whole. They also surprised some people when they took the Golden State Warriors, the eventual NBA champs, to six games in their second-round playoff matchup. It’s a matchup that could have been even more intriguing if not for the fact that Morant sustained a knee injury that forced him to miss more than half of the series.
Morant has completely changed the entire trajectory of the Grizzlies team and put them in a position to make some serious noise in the NBA over the next decade. Here is how he’s done it.
He Brought Star Power With Him to Memphis
Unlike Zion Williamson who played his college basketball at Duke, Ja Morant played at Murray State, which is a mid-major school that isn’t on most people’s radars outside of Kentucky where it’s located. Because of this, you might be under the impression that Morant must have lacked the star power that Zion had during his college days. But despite playing at Murray State, Morant managed to make plenty of waves in the college basketball world during the 2018-19 season.
Morant routinely made plays that landed him on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” on an almost nightly basis throughout that season. He also became just the eighth player to ever record a triple-double during an NCAA Tournament game while leading Murray State to an upset win over Marquette. And he also demonstrated that he didn’t lack in the confidence department following that win when he said, “If [people] honestly don’t know me by now, I don’t know what to say.”
All of this helped Morant turn himself into a household name before the 2019 NBA Draft. He was able to bring the excitement surrounding him to Memphis and give Grizzlies fans something to look forward to after a couple of lackluster seasons.
He Provided the Grizzlies With a Starting Point Guard From the Beginning
For more than a decade, Mike Conley was the face of the Grizzlies’ franchise. The team drafted him No. 4 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft, and he turned into a steady leader at the point guard position. But Memphis decided to trade Conley in July 2019 after drafting Morant, and there was a chance that this could have backfired on them in a big way. Although they now had Morant to run point for them, there was no telling if the rookie would be up for the challenge right away.
Thankfully, he was. Morant started all 67 of the games that he played during that season and averaged more than 31 minutes per game. The Grizzlies didn’t make the NBA Playoffs that year, but they did finish 34-39 and showed some real signs of life.
He Showed That He Could Score Right From the Very Start
There are some NBA point guards who are able to get away with doing little more than just getting their teams into their offenses and distributing the basketball. But that isn’t what the Grizzlies brought Morant in to do. They needed him to score early and often to help turn the franchise around. He had shown a real knack for scoring at Murray State. He averaged almost 25 points per game during his final season with the Racers, so scoring in bunches is what the Grizzlies expected from him. He hasn’t disappointed in this department so far.
During Morant’s rookie campaign, he averaged nearly 18 points per game, which gave him the best scoring average among rookies and helped him win the NBA Rookie of the Year award. Since then, Morant’s scoring average has gone up in each subsequent season. He averaged 19.1 points per game in his second season and jumped all the way up to 27.1 points per game last season. It remains to be seen what Morant’s scoring average will be during the current season, but he’s already added a 52-point game to his resume, giving him the only 50-point game in Grizzlies’ history.
He’s Done More Than Just Score for the Grizzlies
If the only thing that Morant did for the Grizzlies was score, he would probably still be taking the Grizzlies to new heights. But it’s worth noting that Morant has done so much more than put up points for Memphis during his first few seasons. He’s also posted right around seven assists per game throughout his career and helped make all his Grizzlies teammates better in the process. Morant is also turning into a formidable rebounder, as his rebounding average has gone up from 3.9 rebounds per game during his rookie season to a shade over six rebounds this season.
He Has Demonstrated a Fearlessness in the Playoffs
One thing that NBA scouts seemed to love about Morant when he was coming out of Murray State was that he tended to shine brightest on the biggest stages. He often played even better in conference tournament games and NCAA Tournament games than he did in regular-season matchups. That has continued during Morant’s NBA career as he hasn’t backed down from any postseason challenges that he’s faced thus far.
Although the Grizzlies would lose to the Utah Jazz in five games during Morant’s first playoff series in 2021, he scored at least 23 points in each of those games, including a 47-point outing in Game 2 of the series. The Grizzlies would bounce back in 2022 to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in a first-round series thanks to more offensive outbursts from Morant.
And prior to going down with an injury in the team’s second-round matchup against the Warriors in 2022, it looked like Morant might continue to impose his will on Grizzlies’ playoff games. He scored 34 points, 47 points, and 34 points in Memphis’ first three games of that series before he was sidelined with his knee issues. The Grizzlies would go on to lose the series, but they showed that they could hang with the team that would go on to take home the NBA title later in the postseason.
Morant himself would also go on to say that he thought the Grizzlies would have beaten the Warriors in that series if not for his injury. “I felt like, me personally and my teammates, we were the favorites in that series,” he said, exuding a confidence that isn’t found in many third-year players.
He Made Memphis a Potential Destination for Free Agents
If you take a look at the Grizzlies’ free-agent signings over the years, you’ll notice that there have been a few unsuccessful ones. But it’s hard to pin that all on the Grizzlies’ front office. It isn’t always easy to convince free agents to sign a deal in a smaller market like Memphis, especially when the team hasn’t been one of the perennial powers in the Western Conference. So the team has often had to take calculated risks when it comes to spending big money on free agents.
This might always be at least a little bit of a problem for the Grizzlies. But it won’t be as big of a problem as long as Morant is on the team. He’s a special player who could potentially convince other special players to join him in Memphis in the future if he keeps playing the way he has. And that could help the team climb to even higher heights than they’ve already been able to reach with Morant. The sky could truly be the limit for this team, and it’s all because of Morant’s magic touch.
Ja Morant Is Just Getting Started With the Grizzlies
It might already seem like Ja Morant is a grizzled NBA veteran. But the simple truth is that he’s still just 23 and getting better with every game. That might not bode well for the rest of the NBA, but it’s going to be great for the Grizzlies and the fans in Memphis. They have a lot to look forward to in the years to come as the Grizzlies could turn into a true NBA title contender before too much longer.
If you want to show your support for Morant and the Grizzlies, why not pick up some Grizzlies gear from Fanatics? We carry T-shirts, jerseys, hats, sweatshirts, and other officially licensed sports apparel for the team. We also sell sports collectibles and merchandise for all leagues, including the NBA, NFL, MLB, and others. Get your hands on the gear that you need now from Fanatics.