JA MORANT WON’T admit it, but Jaren Jackson Jr. is certain that his fellow 20-year-old Memphis Grizzlies cornerstone circles one type of game on his calendar. Morant craves the moments against the league’s elite point guards.
And he didn’t have to wait long for his first.
It was Oct. 27, and the Grizzlies were trailing by eight points late in the fourth quarter against Kyrie Irving‘s Brooklyn Nets. It was just the third game of Morant’s career — the Grizzlies had started 0-2 — but he was about to put the team on his slender back.
Morant checked back into the game with 3:23 remaining in the fourth quarter and scored eight points during the Grizzlies’ 10-2 run — driving for a layup and finishing through contact, getting a pair of free throws after picking off an Irving pass and attacking in transition, gliding into the paint for a pretty scoop, and finally tying the game by slicing through the Brooklyn defense and finishing over shot-blocker Jarrett Allen with seven seconds remaining.
Grizzlies fans, braced for a rough season in the early stages of a rebuilding process, feared what might come next. Irving, one of the NBA’s premier closers, had plenty of time for the potential game-winning shot.
After years of film study on the perennial All-Star guard, Morant couldn’t wait.
When Irving caught the inbounds pass on the right wing, Morant’s feet (clad in Kobe 4 Protros instead of the Kyrie Nike models he often wears) remained on the floor as the 2012 Rookie of the Year pump-faked after a hard dribble to his left.
As Irving elevated to shoot a fadeaway, Morant jumped and extended his left arm, stuffing the shot. The ball bounced off the floor and the buzzer sounded to force overtime. Morant flexed as he sprinted back to the bench.
“He came out and it wasn’t about, ‘Aw man, I look up to you. I’m wearing your shoes,'” Grizzlies forward Solomon Hill said. “It’s about, ‘I’m trying to get this W.'”
But the rookie’s job wasn’t done yet.
The Grizzlies would earn the W only after Morant, who had several highlight finishes while scoring 17 of his 30 points in that comeback fourth quarter, pushed the ball from one 3-point line to another in about two seconds, drew two defenders, dribbled behind the back and passed the ball back to Jae Crowder for a 3-pointer that barely beat the overtime buzzer.
A milestone occasion in Memphis, the first taste of success for Morant and a glimpse into the potential of the electrifying rookie point guard.
“It’s just my edge. The chip I have on my shoulder from what I had to go through to get to the NBA,” said Morant, an unheralded recruit out of high school who became the No. 2 overall pick after two seasons at mid-major Murray State and has emerged as the clear Rookie of the Year favorite.
“My dad always told me that I was trained to go, basically that I’m built for the moment. And my mom always told me I’m beneath no one.”
The performance enhanced the belief of his Memphis teammates that Morant, who has “Beneath No One” tattooed on his left arm, would be special. They knew he had astonishing explosiveness that prompted comparisons to hyperathletic point guards such as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose.
They sensed that Morant possessed a rare basketball intelligence and feel for the game, much like Chris Paul, whose wisdom Morant soaked up when he attended the CP3 Elite Guard Camp a couple of summers ago. (Tee Morant remembers his son excitedly reciting some of Paul’s talks almost word for word during the three-hour drive home from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after the camp.)
His crunch-time domination of Irving, though, confirmed that the easygoing kid with the big smile underneath his wispy mustache possesses a killer instinct — one groomed on the concrete court in the backyard of his family’s home in tiny Dalzell, South Carolina, and now nurtured by his extended basketball family inside FedExForum.
“He doesn’t shy away from those moments,” Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said of Morant. “He’s here to be great.”
Later that night, Morant celebrated after his first professional win the same way he did after hundreds of games while growing up in the South Carolina country.
He went home and watched film with his mom and dad.
AS SOON AS Morant knew he was going to be drafted by the Grizzlies, he made plans for his parents to move with him. Along with a few others.
Like his little sister, Teniya, a high school freshman who plays basketball at Briarcrest Christian. And his uncle Phil, Tee’s brother. And his girlfriend, KK Dixon, who gave birth to their daughter, Kaari, in August.
Morant bought a house on the edge of the Memphis suburbs, about 35 minutes from the Grizzlies’ arena and practice facility, with a comfortable country setting and familiar family vibe.
“We’re out by ourselves, not too many people around,” Morant said. “That’s how our house was back home. It’s just always us there. We all just sit around, laugh, joke, watch TV, movies. My dad and my mom still cook dinner every night, breakfast [every morning].
“It’s the same thing. It’s just that the house is bigger.”
The dynamic during the family film sessions, which occur after every Grizzlies home game, hasn’t changed much, either. Tee is as tough as ever on his son. (“He did have six turnovers,” Tee noted about the win over the Nets, and they reviewed each one in great detail.)
Morant’s mom, Jamie, is a counterweight, inclined to rewind the highlights and occasionally offer excuses for his mistakes.
“It’s almost like good cop/bad cop with his mom and me,” said Tee Morant, who played at Claflin University in South Carolina and had a brief pro career overseas before his son was born.
“With Mom, her baby can do no wrong. With me, it’s like, ‘Boy, you’re stinkin’ it up!'”
With a laugh, Tee added, “I had a whole lot of nights of cold beds because of that.”
“I tell him he be fallin’ like Allen Iverson. He has that kind of swag to his game just like A.I. But I don’t think A.I. was jumping like that.”
Jaren Jackson Jr., on Ja Morant
Morant said he doesn’t mind the constructive criticism. In fact, he’s hungry for it. He frequently comes out of the family film sessions with a list of discussion items for his meeting with Jenkins the next morning.
“The first time we sat in a film session and I went after him about something probably defensively,” Jenkins said, “he was like, ‘I want this, Coach. I need this, Coach. More, more.’
“He texted me after games early in the season: ‘I gotta be better.’ He wants that interaction, wants that dialogue. He has this curiosity about how he can be better and how we can be better.”
His parents and uncle try to do everything they can to allow Morant to dedicate as much focus and energy as possible to his new job, from helping care for his baby girl to driving him to and from practices and home games.
“I’m 20 years old; I mean, I can handle my own, but help is never wrong,” Morant said. “They help me each and every day.”
It’s not all tough love from Tee with basketball, either, who at times serves as his son’s hype man.
“His dad is in his corner and gassing him up every day,” Crowder said.
Case in point: Morant’s game-winning shot against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 13, the moment that both father and son call their favorite of the season.
It was as close to an NBA hometown game as it gets for Morant. With Dalzell about two hours away, dozens of friends and family members packed the stands. Tee had courtside seats in the corner.
And when the Hornets hit a 3 to tie the score with 23.4 seconds remaining, Tee said he was actually happy. He was ready to see his son go to work in another clutch-time opportunity.
“Y’all gonna see iso 12 now!” he told anyone within earshot.
Ja Morant drives all the way to the basket for the game-winning shot with 0.7 seconds left in the game to get the Grizzlies the win.
Sure enough, after getting a switch, Morant blew by his defender and drove down the middle of the lane, finishing with a lefty scoop in traffic with 0.7 seconds remaining. Tee reacted by high-step strutting up the sideline, pumping his fist as he made his way toward half court.
“I tell everybody it was an out-of-body experience,” Tee Morant said. “When he hit that shot, I just lost it. That’s one of the times I can actually say I turned into a fan.”
THE FATHER HAD always been a driving force in his son’s development, putting Morant through daily drills in their backyard, working on his skills on the concrete court and his hops by jumping on tractor tires. But Tee couldn’t give his son the wisdom that comes with NBA experience, which he knew would be critical to Morant’s leap to the league.
So Tee Morant personally asked Crowder to look after his son like a little brother, making the request over breakfast in the team’s dining room one morning before training camp began.
“He’ll listen to you,” Tee told Crowder, pointing at his son, who nodded. Crowder’s chest puffed out, knowing that the Morants had conversations at home about Memphis’ old head — the 29-year-old Crowder is the oldest on the Grizzlies’ active roster — being a good mentor for the rookie.
“He’s very confident in himself, respectfully. But to his teammates, he’s open,” Crowder said. “He’s not one of those I-know-it-all guys. Some guys tend to have that in their head, but he’s just open to learn. He’s someone you want on your team.”
Crowder does wish Morant would heed his advice about spending more time in the trainer’s room postgame. Plus he already has witnessed his rookie pupil taking one too many spills during some of his most electrifying — if not a bit reckless — plays of the season, such as December’s poster slam against Aron Baynes and non-dunk of the year over Kevin Love.
“You definitely hold your breath a few times with him taking flight and not knowing how to fall yet,” Crowder said.
“When I go up, no telling what happens,” Morant said, matter-of-factly.
“I tell him he be fallin’ like Allen Iverson,” Jackson added.
“He has that kind of swag to his game just like A.I. But I don’t think A.I. was jumping like that.”
You probably have to go back to Iverson to find a player so slight — Morant weighs 175 officially but is actually “160-something soaking wet,” as Grizzlies backup point guard Tyus Jones put it — with such an exhilarating blend of explosiveness and fearlessness.
But Iverson was a scorer first and foremost; Morant is a pure point guard, seeing plays a few steps before they develop, changing speeds, flashing flair and sometimes even hanging in the air to set up defenders before delivering dimes.
Consider a play during a Jan. 14 win over the Houston Rockets, when Morant stole a pass, pushed the ball up the floor in transition and dribbled behind his back at the free throw line to draw the defender and buy time for his teammates to run the floor. He hopped into the air and dished the ball to the trailing Jackson, who threw down a nasty dunk over Houston’s Danuel House Jr.
Morant made a point to give props to an unheralded piece of the play: the 28-year-old journeyman, Hill.
When asked about the play after his 26-point, eight-assist, nationally televised performance that had the basketball world buzzing, Morant noted that Hill filling a lane on the fast break forced House to hesitate, clearing the runway for Jackson.
“He’s one of those guys that you love playing with,” Hill said of Morant. “It’s always ‘we,’ not me. That’s how he plays the game. He’s not a guy that you have to worry about, ‘Aw man, he’s selfish. He’s going for his.’ Coach actually has to do a job of letting him know that we want him to score, that in order for him to be able to find guys and get them going, he has to continue to be that threat down in the paint.
“And it’s a joy watching.”
But Morant doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, something the Grizzlies’ veterans appreciate. It has become a source of pride for them to play roles in his development.
Jones is only 23, having signed with the Grizzlies over the summer after spending his first four NBA seasons in Minnesota, but Morant respects his knowledge of the game.
Morant constantly peppers Jones with questions, such as asking what he’s seeing in the opponent’s pick-and-roll coverages during timeouts. “He’s helped me more than people know,” Morant said.
Morant’s numbers are impressive — he’s on pace to join Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Trae Young as the only 20-year-old rookies to average at least 17 points and seven assists per game.
Those are proving not to be just empty stats, either. Memphis is 18-8 since Morant’s return from his four-game injury absence, putting the Grizzlies in pole position in the race for eighth place in the Western Conference a couple of years before anyone expected them to compete for a playoff spot.
And the chemistry between Morant and his teammates has clicked, particularly with his co-star Jackson, who fought through a bit of an early sophomore slump as Morant established himself as the clear Rookie of the Year front-runner.
Jackson, an athletic and skilled big man, has embraced being a floor spacer, taking more 3s than 2s, averaging a team-high 18.8 points while shooting 41.9% from long range during that span. Brandon Clarke, the No. 21 pick, complements the pair with a knack for scoring without needing plays called for him. Shooting guard Dillon Brooks, at the ripe old age of 24, provides another versatile scorer, a threat off the dribble and from deep range.
Still, Morant, the face of #GrzNxtGen, is the one who makes it all go, the point guard who has become a League Pass darling just a few months into his career.
Make no mistake, these are not the Grizzlies from the Grit ‘n’ Grind era of recent lore, a group that famously thrived on dragging opponents into the mud. With Morant running the show, this Memphis squad, currently sitting fourth in the league in pace, plays a fast and pretty brand of basketball.
It’s a style that his dad doesn’t mind breaking down from his spot on the couch.
“I love the nucleus,” Tee Morant said. “They’re going to have to change the [nickname] of the arena from the Grindhouse to the Fun Factory.”