Ja Morant: the NBA sensation discovered on a Doritos run
Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, who scored a franchise-record 52 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday, has been one of the stars of the season in the NBA.
“Sooner or later!!!” Those were the words Allen Iverson tweeted alongside a photo of his NBA MVP trophy, won in 2001, from which he had hung a jersey bearing the name of Ja Morant. Morant is the league’s latest major sensation: a 22-year-old wonderkid who has just made his first appearance in the All-Star Game - the first of many - and was named Rookie of the Year in 2020, after being selected at number two in the draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. The first pick that year was Zion Williamson, a player viewed as a generational talent but whose NBA career has been in constant turmoil. Williamson hasn’t played at all this season because of a foot injury, and right now comparisons are certainly odious.
Grizzlies' first 50-point game as Morant and Memphis excel
In his last two games, Morant has beaten his and his team’s scoring record: 46 points against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, 52 against the San Antonio Spurs on Monday. His majestic display against the Spurs saw him register shooting figures of 22/30; score all four three-point attempts; pick up seven rebounds; produce one of the dunks of the year; and finish the first half with an impossible, buzzer-beating basket after receiving a pass from the other end of the court from center Steven Adams. The Grizzlies, who won 118-105, were the only franchise without a 50-point game in their history. Now they have one. They also have an exceptional record this season: 43 wins and 20 defeats, the third best in the NBA behind only the Phoenix Suns and the Golden State Warriors, with the latter now only one game ahead of Memphis. The Grizzlies are out in front in the East and are almost assured of home advantage in the first round of the playoffs: they’re six games ahead of fifth.
Led by their terrific 37-year-old head coach, Taylor Jenkins, the Grizzlies have been the revelation of the season and their franchise player, Morant, is the man of the moment in the NBA. An electric point guard with a prodigious physique who finishes off impossible plays close to the rim (34 points in the paint from the 52 he racked up against the Spurs), who slams in unforgettable dunks and who is a more and more dependable shooter and director of the play. This season, he has averaged 27.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists… but in February, that improved to 33, 5.6 and 5.9. And in his last four games, his average has been 41 points, with a 44% success rate on threes.
After the win over the Spurs, San Antonio’s fabled head coach Gregg Popovich defined him as a “beautiful player” and insisted that those who put his success purely down to his physique are wrong to do so. “He makes decisions. He knows what is going on on the court,” Popovich said. Morant’s father, Tee, who played high school basketball with Ray Allen before going into business as a barber, has revealed that his son watches every game, studies every sequence and has a photographic memory that allows him to remember every play in every game. “I think my son is part elephant,” Tee has said. That capacity to memorise and analyse is something that has always been highlighted in, for example, LeBron James. Tee was weighing up a move to Europe to carve out a career in professional basketball when his wife, who was also a player, became pregnant. So they opted to stay put. The baby was born on 10 August 1999, and was called Temetrius Jamiel. Or, as everyone would go on to know him, simply Ja.
Morant discovered by chance as scout sought snack
Morant goes out for a walk with his two-year-old daughter after games, and gave his 52-point-game shirt to his best friend growing up. He’s a star with a difference, a lad who wasn’t recruited by the major colleges and was discovered by chance while playing in his native South Carolina. The scout James Kane, now at Iowa State, had gone to a tournament to watch another player (Tevin Brown). As he made his way to buy a bag of Doritos from a vending machine, he heard the sounds of a game in progress and walked over to take a look. There was Ja Morant, who won Kane over instantly. Morant was a secret he kept to himself until he signed him for Murray State, where the point guard ended his second year as the top player in NCAA Division I, the highest college league in the US, with averages of more than 20 points and 10 assists. Morant guided his team to the second round of March Madness after registering a triple-double (17 points, 11 rebounds and 16 assists) on his tournament debut.
Then came the draft and, although they were hugely tempted by R.J. Barrett, the Grizzlies placed their faith in Morant - and can have no doubts that they made the right choice. The point guard looks set to be one of the faces of the NBA’s next generation.