Though the Memphis Grizzlies finished five games below .500 last season, they still exceeded expectations in Year One of the Ja Morant experience. In a season-long illustration of the team’s budding identity, the Grizzlies learned early lessons on how far Morant’s drive can take them.
At only 21 years old, the second-year guard out of Murray State has already established himself as the franchise’s engine, driving it toward the next period of sustained success after the end of the Grit and Grind era. The reigning Rookie of the Year joined Pau Gasol (2002) as the only Grizzlies to take home that honor, with Morant setting the franchise rookie record in assists (488) en route to more triple-doubles (2) than all other first-year Grizzlies combined.1
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Prior to the NBA’s 2020 restart in July, Memphis legend Zach Randolph explained why Morant is the centerpiece of Grizzlies basketball.
“He’s just like me,” the franchise’s third all-time leading scorer (9,261) told Bleacher Report. “Blue-collar player. Honest. Humble. Heart like a giant. The people of Memphis see that Ja is just like them, too: a hard worker, where nothing’s been given to him.”
Morant’s propensity to play bigger than his listed size of 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds made him an immediate fit in Memphis. When attacking the rim, Morant’s merger of relentlessness and precision kept defenses on their heels, allowing him to rack up 10.7 interior points per game, according to NBA Advanced Stats. The guard became just the eighth rookie since 2000 to average double-figure points in the paint.
|Player||Season||Rookie of the Year?||Height||PPG|
|Zion Williamson||2019-20||6 feet, 6 inches||16.8|
|Blake Griffin||2010-11||✓||6 feet, 9 inches||13.8|
|Ben Simmons||2017-18||✓||6 feet, 10 inches||12.7|
|Jahlil Okafor||2015-16||6 feet, 10 inches||12.5|
|Deandre Ayton||2018-19||6 feet, 11 inches||11.8|
|Pau Gasol||2001-02||✓||7 feet||11.8|
|Tyreke Evans||2009-10||✓||6 feet, 6 inches||11.2|
|Ja Morant||2019-20||✓||6 feet, 3 inches||10.7|
Among rookie guards in that span, Morant’s mark ranked ahead of Dwyane Wade (9.7), Derrick Rose (8.0) and Russell Westbrook (6.7), who each earned All-NBA honors by their third season in the pros.
If Morant’s rookie year illustrated anything, it’s that neither he nor Memphis will be intimidated into backing off the attack. Last season, the Grizzlies led the NBA with 55.9 points in the paint. The last time they ranked first in interior scoring was in 2014-15, when they made it as far as the Western Conference semifinals before losing to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
To revisit and venture beyond those heights, the Grizzlies will likely need to follow Morant’s lead on and off the court. Before his rookie season resumed, Morant reportedly added a dozen pounds of muscle to his frame through workouts with his father, Tee, who restored the “TTG camp” from his son’s childhood in South Carolina to prepare for the NBA bubble.
“I was just taking the time to get better and focus on what I needed to get better at,” the younger Morant told The Undefeated. “Strength. I put on some weight during that time. Honestly, it wasn’t difficult. I just used that part to get better. I love the grind.”
Though preparing for the bubble wasn’t difficult for Morant, the bubble itself was tough on Memphis. The Grizzlies entered the NBA restart with a 3.5-game lead over the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings for the Western Conference’s eighth seed, but they went 2-7 in the bubble, including a playoff play-in loss to Portland.
Did their youth do in the Grizz? They sported the NBA’s second-youngest lineup when weighted by playing time, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, but among the five squads with an average age under 25, Memphis recorded by far the highest win percentage.
|Team||Avg. age||Win Pct.|
|Golden State Warriors||24.9||0.231|
The team’s second-best scorer in points per game, Jaren Jackson Jr. — whose lingering knee problems will keep him off the court at the season’s opening — is 21, a month younger than Morant. Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke are both 24, and Jonas Valančiūnas is the old man among returning starters at 28.
Though young, these Grizzlies have a keen sense of direction that is strengthened by their centerpiece’s willingness to attack at any given moment. According to Second Spectrum, Morant finished his rookie season trailing only James Harden and Luka Dončić in total direct drives (1,097), helping Memphis leap to fifth in the league with 40.6 per game after ranking 22nd the season prior.
Those drives can pay off in many ways. For evidence, look no further than the 277 assist opportunities he created via kickout, per Second Spectrum. That total ranked eighth-most in the NBA, placing the reigning Rookie of the Year ahead of All-NBA selections Harden, Chris Paul and Nikola Jokić, three of the most gifted passers in recent memory.
|Player||Shots made||FG %|
Morant has a penchant for giving teammates wide-open looks. His teammates shot 42.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers via Morant kickout, according to Second Spectrum — the ninth-highest rate among the 68 passers who created at least 100 such 3-point attempts.
After accepting his Rookie of the Year award in September, Morant explained to Grind City Media the finer points of Grizzlies basketball.
“It’s just us. First, it starts on the defensive end for us. Just going out there and fighting and competing, playing together. We let our defense fuel our offense, so we were getting stops, and that meant we were able to get out and run, and play in transition, where I feel like we were very dangerous, especially being young. We have a lot of guys that can run the floor.”
The Grizzlies played at a pace of 103.3 possessions per 48 minutes last season, sixth-highest in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats. Though Memphis played marginally faster with Morant on the bench, the squad still leapt from having the slowest pace in the league in the season preceding his arrival. Last season marked the Grizzlies’ first with a top-10 pace in over a decade, and that energy was kept up on both sides of the ball.
Despite ranking only 14th in defensive efficiency, Memphis had one of the league’s most aggressive units in 2019-20. According to NBA Advanced Stats, the Grizzlies were the only squad to rank within the top five in both the rate of defensive loose balls recovered and contested shots per game, and that was after ranking outside the top 15 in both the season prior.
While other teams in the Western Conference are breaking the bank to end their own playoff droughts, Memphis seems content to let its young players grow. Per Spotrac, Morant, Brooks and Clarke are each signed through 2023, with Jackson Jr. due for an extension in two years. In the offseason, Memphis extended reserve guard De’Anthony Melton; used their only 2020 draft pick on Robert Woodard II (40th overall), whom they traded to Sacramento for No. 35 pick Xavier Tillman Sr.; and made a trade that brought them the No. 30 pick, Desmond Bane, and Portland forward Mario Hezonja. Though their approach was conservative, it shouldn’t be seen as timid. If anything, given the close call with the playoffs last season, the franchise’s decision to stand pat confirms its trust in its maestro to run the show.
Whether diming or dunking, Morant already ranks among the league’s most gifted players, both in his acumen and athleticism. His team-high 84 points in clutch-time situations ranked ahead of LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Jamal Murray while nearly doubling the total of the next-closest rookie, according to NBA Advanced Stats. The Grizzlies appear to have their guy.
When accepting his Rookie of the Year award, as he does on the court, Morant couldn’t help but share the wealth with his squad.
“Although my name is on this award, I’m sharing it with [my teammates],” he said in September. “I’m excited. I think a healthy Grizz team can be very special. I feel like we can make a lot of noise. We have very talented guys who can do multiple things on the court.”
Despite his deference, if last season is any indication, the most promising avenue for this Grizzlies core rests in whatever direction Ja Morant’s drive takes them.