Sports

The NBA’s Electrifying New Superhero

Ja Morant’s fearless, astonishing play has made the surging Memphis Grizzlies must-see TV.

Ja Morant yelling in celebration
Ja Morant against the Los Angeles Lakers at FedExForum on Dec. 29, 2021, in Memphis, Tennessee. Justin Ford/Getty Images

One of the underrated pleasures of NBA League Pass—the NBA’s subscription service that allows fans to stream out-of-market games—is the commercial breaks. When a local telecast cuts to commercial, more often than not League Pass subscribers are treated to the home team’s jumbotron feed, a feast of local color. There are kiss cams, dance contests, all manner of chintzy promotions. At Memphis Grizzlies games, these sequences are especially must-see TV. Befitting one of America’s greatest music cities, Grizzlies games have some of the best timeout music in the league, playlists that include Stax-era soul alongside more recent classics from Memphis trap legends like Yo Gotti and Three 6 Mafia. There are few more endearing sights than watching an arena full of people of all ages and walks of life gleefully singing and dancing to the (edited) strains of Al Kapone’s “Whoop that Trick.”

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I have been watching a lot of Grizzlies games on League Pass recently, and one reason for this is what I just described. A much bigger one is that, lately, the Memphis Grizzlies almost never lose: Since beginning the season 9–10 they have gone a smoldering 22–5 in their past 27 games, roughly a third of an NBA season. That 22–5 run is no longer a “hot streak”; rather, it is the Grizzlies evolving from a middling team to one of the very best squads in the NBA during the season, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Memphis opened the year with the second-youngest roster in the league.

The biggest reason I watch the Grizzlies, and the biggest reason for their astonishing ascent this year, is their third-year point guard, Ja Morant. Morant might already be the league’s most electrifying attraction on a night-to-night basis, the perfect basketball player for yet another COVID winter that seems to only grow more monotonous. He gives me something to look forward to at the end of one day and the beginning of the next, when clips of his near-nightly feats are still swirling around NBA Twitter. Morant is a precociously intelligent and explosively athletic player who’s also one of the most charismatic stars in the league, an inveterate trash-talker beloved by his teammates who’s not above ice-grilling little kids who try to dap him up while wearing the opposing team’s jersey.

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In an era when star guard play has largely become about expanding the horizontal possibilities of offense—with Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and their protegés bringing the term “logo shot” to the modern basketball vernacular—Morant has brought verticality back to the position in breathtaking ways. This is reflected in the type of teeth-rattling, physics-defying dunks that have been a calling-card of Morant’s since college, but also in lofty, levitating game-winners and layups that seem like something out of a wuxia film.

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Despite being a player whose defensive game remains a work in progress, Morant’s signature highlight of this season thus far might be a two-handed, chase-down block in a recent win against the Lakers that has quickly become the stuff of legend.

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It wasn’t long ago that the Grizzlies were one of the lousiest teams in the NBA. In 2018–19, the year they drafted Morant, Memphis was tied for the seventh-worst record in the league (some lottery luck brought them the No. 2 pick, with which they drafted Morant), and the previous season they’d been even worse, finishing an abysmal 22–60. But they’ve proven to be a remarkably well-run organization, with a talented young coach in Taylor Jenkins and a front office that’s drafted well and shown itself to be exceptionally adept at identifying undervalued players. Second-year wing Desmond Bane, who looks like a budding All-Star, was picked by the Boston Celtics with the last pick in the first round of the 2020 draft and promptly purloined by Memphis in a heist of a trade; the team’s second-leading per-game scorer, Dillon Brooks (currently injured), was originally a 2017 second-round pick of the Houston Rockets. Former first-rounder Jaren Jackson Jr, healthy after playing only 11 games last season, seems finally on his way to manifesting the enormous potential that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft.

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But Morant is the team’s crown jewel, the rare superstar who feels like a “franchise player” in talent, temperament, and aura all at once. For all his otherworldly gifts, Morant was a late bloomer who was lightly recruited out of high school and, by his own account, couldn’t even dunk until his senior year. He accepted a scholarship to Murray State—a respected mid-major program but far from a blueblood program like Kentucky or Duke—where, by his sophomore season, he’d become one of the biggest stars in the country. Like the aforementioned Lillard, another under-recruited guard who played his college ball at unheralded Weber State, Morant is a superstar who plays with all the edge of a guy on the verge of being cut.

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There are two players from my basketball-watching lifetime whom Morant most reminds me of. The first is Allen Iverson, who was a stylistically different player than Morant in many ways but similar in both a physical and almost spiritual sense. Like Morant, Iverson was undersized and utterly fearless, a graceful and hyperathletic superhero who routinely humiliated much larger players. The second is Derrick Rose. In 2011, Rose, an incandescently gifted and explosive point guard, became the youngest player in NBA history to win the MVP award, at age 22. He seemed destined to be the league’s next great icon, the core of a Bulls team that looked to compete for championships for years to come. Then, in the 2012 Playoffs, Rose tore his ACL, and then his meniscus the following year. He’s still in the league and has reinvented himself as an effective role player, but he seems likely to become the first former MVP in history to not make the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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The Rose comparison is a fraught one in Morant’s case, because if there has been one persistent worry about Morant’s career ceiling, it’s his health. He’s already missed 13 games this season, and his daredevil approach to the game has prompted durability concerns going back to pre-draft evaluations. (Ironically, the player chosen one spot ahead of Morant in the 2019 Draft, the New Orleans Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, has become the biggest health wild-card in the current NBA.)

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But push those dark thoughts aside, and the future in Memphis is spectacularly bright. As ESPN’s Brian Windhorst has repeatedly pointed out on his podcast, the Grizzlies’ owner, Robert Pera, has quietly become one of the richest owners in the league since purchasing the team in 2012. (Worth around $1 billion when he purchased the team, Pera—the founder of publicly traded tech giant Ubiquiti—is now worth $18.6 billion, making him the third-richest owner in the NBA.) The Grizzlies, in other words, are a small-market team that doesn’t need to act like one, and with the team they are building, cash-flush ownership, and a home city that might offer all kinds of appeal to NBA players, the Grizzlies’ transformation from outpost to destination might already be underway.

Which finally brings us to the very best aspect of Morant and the Grizzlies’ rise. Memphis is one of America’s great cities, a bastion of culture and history and Morant-levels of civic charisma. For much of their existence the Grizzlies have been something like the opposite, a relocated expansion franchise with a nonsensical name and a grand total of one Conference Finals appearance on its resumé. Ja Morant and his teammates are bringing a world-class basketball squad to a world-class city, and no one deserves each other more.

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