The Rise of Ja Morant: Where is the Love?

By Steve Tsilimos | Posted 2 years ago

Ja Morant has created a highlight reel in the first half of the season. His combination of speed and explosiveness is rare, even amongst the greatest athletes in the world. He is deservedly being compared to two of the most athletic guards to come before him – Derrick Rose and John Wall. Could Morant actually be a more complete player than both of them already at the age of 22, and is his ceiling higher than theirs at that age?

How it all Started for Morant – Undersized, and Underappreciated

Temetrius Jamel “Ja” Morant was born in Dalzell, South Carolina, and grew up playing basketball. His father Tee Morant was a former teammate of Ray Allen’s and played semi-pro basketball until his first son, Ja, was born. Tee started training Ja from an early age, which created confidence and built skills for his undersized firstborn, who was blessed with supreme athleticism. 

Morant has been playing with a chip on his shoulder since he was young. Growing up as the small kid playing with the older, larger kids, Morant always played like he had something to prove. As he has grown into his 6-foot-3 frame the chip on his shoulder has grown with him, and you can absolutely see this when you watch the phenom play.

Morant’s talents started to blossom in high school and AAU. Though he has always been super gifted athletically he only received one NCAA Division I scholarship from South Carolina. Morant decided he wanted to go where he was wanted instead of going somewhere he may have wanted to go as a kid. He decided to go play for Murray State in Murray, Kentucky. 

Racing His Way to the Top of Draft Boards

At Murray State, Morant was able to start as a freshman and he recorded his first triple-double (second in school history) before the midpoint of the season. Morant led the Racers to an Ohio Valley Conference championship, earning them an invite to the NCAA tournament – they were eliminated in the first round. 

During his sophomore season, Morant became the most dominant guard in college basketball. He went on to win the Lute Olson and Bob Cousy Awards in 2019 while finishing as the NCAA’s assists leader. He was a consensus first-team All-American and earned his second first-team All-OVC recognition. 

As the season progressed, he was being talked about as a top-10 pick in the draft if he declared. Morant recorded a triple-double in an upset win over fifth-seeded Marquette in the first round of the tournament and then chipped in 28 points in Murray State’s second-round game where the Racers were blown out by Florida State. Morant powered Murray State to a 28-5 record, which is one of the program’s best in its long history. He declared for the draft shortly after the season was over.

Continues to Prove People Wrong in the NBA

Morant was taken second overall in the 2019 draft, behind his South Carolina friend and ex-AAU-teammate Zion Williamson. Most people would not be upset about being the second player chosen in a draft, but Morant is not “most people.” The chip on Morant’s shoulder only got bigger.He played his rookie season with something to prove, which propelled him to win Rookie of the Year in 2020. 

Morant built off his rookie season and his second season in the league led the Grizzlies to their first playoff appearance in four years – topping Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the play-in game to lock them into the eighth seed. Even so, Morant and the Grizzlies entered the 2021 season under the radar. 

No one expected Morant’s swift rise to one of the NBA’s best players and for Memphis to become one of the NBA’s better teams. The Grizzlies are 32-16 and currently the third seed in the West.

Morant’s play and leadership is the main reason Memphis is where it is in the West. The Grizzlies currently have the third-highest winning percentage in franchise history. Still, Morant has struggled to garner All-Star votes or MVP recognition.

Morant is Finally Getting the Respect He Deserves

The block against the Lakers, in the tweet below, is what got everyone’s attention and started getting Morant’s name mentioned as an All-Star and possible MVP. It was one block, yes it was an insane one-of-a-kind block, but it was just a chase-down block that is common in the NBA. In this world where people are only wanting short clips and highlights – all it takes is one crazy highlight to make people start to notice.

There are a handful of players on good teams with better stats than Morant at this point in the season, but if you compare his season with 22-year-old Rose’s MVP season (youngest in league history) you will understand why Morant should be getting MVP recognition.

LeBron James finished with the highest Player Efficiency Rating for the 2010-11 season and put together a better season statistically than D-Rose. Rose won the MVP that season because of his highlight reel and for taking a team from a fringe playoff team to the best record in the East. 

Morant has always been a wizard with the ball, equally adept at commanding defenders off the dribble or with a glance. His shooting percentage continues to climb while he has taken a huge leap in accuracy behind the arc in his third season. The shot chart below shows that the former ROY does not force up a lot of threes. He takes the game as it comes to him. Constantly beating defenders with his lightning-quick first step which allows him to get to the paint and use his unbelievable body control to finish at the rim, or to dish to his teammates as the defense collapses on him.

Ja-mazing – The Sky’s the Limit for No. 12

What makes Morant special? I think it has to do with the attitude that he developed as a youngster. His athletic ability is undeniably special, but when you mix that with his underdog mentality you have the ingredients for him to become one of the best. Most high-profile athletes do not play with a burning desire to crush anyone in their path – it's commonly referred to in basketball as the “Mamba mentality.” Take Williamson, for example, he is in the news more for his excess weight than for his work ethic.

No. 12 for the Grizzlies is a special player who understands the game at a level that most 22-year-olds do not. He is a walking poster machine that makes his teammates better. The other players are taking notice, but it is not going to save them from his wrath. Morant is out for blood, and his ravenous hunger will only be satisfied by NBA Championships and MVP trophies. 

Even though the comparison is valid, there will never be another Derrick Rose, which Morant has acknowledged and is fine with, because he could end up being much better.

Morant’s assault on the NBA is beginning. If he can stay healthy then there is no telling how great he can become. That is a big if because players similar to him (i.e. Rose and Wall) struggled with health in the past and once they lost a half-step they no longer were ‘special.’ But there is no doubt that if he can avoid serious injury and continue to get better from three, then multiple-MVP awards and final appearances seem reasonable.

Morant has proved any doubters wrong at every level of basketball and I do not expect that to stop. Honestly, I hope he gets snubbed from being an All-Star starter and does not win an MVP this year. Not because I don’t think he deserves it – it’s that I know he will come back next season with his dreads on fire. And who doesn’t want an even more motivated Morant putting the best big men in the world on poster after poster?

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