SALT LAKE CITY — Memphis Grizzlies third-year guard Ja Morant was back with a new mindset after a series of disappointments.
In a back-and-forth game Monday, the young Grizzlies squad held the ball down by two when Morant found Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 3-point line, and the 6-foot-11 forward drained the winning shot that silenced the Utah Jazz's home crowd. Morant led the team in scoring with 32 points and dished out seven assists.
“This was a big-time win for us,” Morant told Yahoo Sports. “We really fought throughout the game, and now we know how we need to play every single time we face a tough team with a lot of scorers on the floor. Especially how things ended last season, this was a win we really wanted.”
In June, Morant walked out of Vivint Arena disappointed after his first playoff appearance.
He finished his final game of the season with 27 points and 11 assists as the Jazz advanced to the Western Conference semifinals. In Game 2 of the series, Morant put up an impressive 47 points, the most in NBA playoff history by a player age 21 or younger.
It was just the start in Morant’s budding career, but the first taste of the playoffs stung. It was time to get back to work.
“He knew after that series, right then and there, that he wanted more,” Morant’s trainer, Trey Draper, told Yahoo Sports. “This offseason, he got with us and just said, ‘We’re going into a dark mode. We’re not going to record anything. We’re just going to put the work in, and everything will come to light when the season starts.’”
Morant adopted the phrase "Welcome to the dark" and molded his offseason transformation off the mantra. It’s something he’s carried into the season.
“It pretty much represents my lifestyle, just always being in the shadows and working,” Morant said. “I put a lot of work in that people don’t see, and now it’s just time to show everyone the work on the court.”
Morant opened up his third season with a bang. It only took him three games to put up his first double-double — 40 points and 10 assists against a healthy Los Angeles Lakers squad. Morant was the best player on the court against a team with multiple future Hall of Famers.
Even all-time great Magic Johnson chimed in and called Morant, “without a doubt, one of the best point guards in the NBA.” Teammate Desmond Bane added postgame, “That’s our leader, that’s our guy. He’s going to be an All-Star, probably All-NBA player.”
Ja Morant in mix of 'next one up' conversation
At age 33, Steph Curry is on an MVP pace this season, leading the NBA in 3-pointers with 86 (that’s more than five made threes per game). LeBron James, 36, is in his 19th season, still averaging more than 20 points per game in 35 minutes on the court. And Kevin Durant, 33, is leading the league in scoring and points per game.
As each season passes, the question of “next one up” creeps into the minds of NBA fans. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell have all showed glimpses of greatness early in their careers, and it’s now time to make the case for Morant.
At just 22 years old and only 6-foot-3, Morant is currently leading the NBA in points in the paint.
Let that sink in.
In a game that values length, size and 3-point shooting at the guard position, Morant is doing something no other guard has ever done in the NBA. Ever.
According to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, the only players this century to average more paint production per game are Shaquille O'Neal, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Zion Williamson. Morant is also currently the youngest player in the top-10 scorers in the NBA, averaging 25 points and seven assists per game, and has improved every stat line from last season.
“We already knew he could do the things he’s doing because we saw him do it at the college level where he averaged 25 points per game,” Draper said. “But to see him do it at this level three seasons in, I think he’s surprising a lot of people.”
Morant is a pass-first point guard who wants to get downhill and either create for others or finish at the rim. There have been times early this season where opponents have backed off and given Morant space to shoot the three; the difference this season is he’s actually shooting them, and shooting with confidence.
Morant attempted 10 3-pointers and connected on three of them in the win over the Jazz, but the ones he did miss weren’t bad misses. Once Morant adds a 3-point jumpshot to his arsenal, he’ll be unstoppable.
“I put in the work,” Morant said. “I know I’ve put in the work so I’m confident going into every shot, make or miss. I know that if I get another open look, you better believe I’m going to let it fly. Coach just says to me, ‘Next shot, next play, stay aggressive.’ I know he’s going to say it, so I don’t even look for him to say anything anymore.”
Along with his confidence in his shot, there’s a strong leadership presence from Morant on the court. When he’s aggressive, the whole team shifts slightly and picks up the tempo. Having a player like Morant on the court draws a lot of attention from the defense and opens up spacing for his teammates.
“Our guys will say, ‘We go as Ja goes,’ ” head coach Taylor Jenkins said before the game. “He’s definitely a tone-setter for us in so many different ways and the pace he plays and his movement setting up his teammates is phenomenal. But now it’s the conversations he’s having with his teammates and it’s the same conversation I’m having with you about our resiliency, fight and competitive edge and he’s taken it upon his shoulders.”
There have been early comparisons to Derrick Rose during his prime MVP years with his shiftiness around the rim and speed in the open court. During age-22 season in 2011, Rose was named the youngest MVP in NBA history. He was in his third season and averaged 25 points and 7.5 assists per game, similar to the way Morant is starting his third season.
“I definitely see the comparisons, but D-Rose is one of a kind and one special player and you can see the similarities, sure, but there can never be another Derrick Rose,” Morant said. “I’m just trying to be my own player and do what I do on the floor and help my teams win basketball games and continue to get better.”
With all the star power still dominating the league, it’s going to be an uphill battle to win MVP this season, but Morant’s time could come sooner than expected. The way Morant continues to play early in his career is proving to be just the beginning for the NBA’s upcoming superstar.