Ja Morant Reasserts Superstar Upside in Duel with Stephen Curry

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 22, 2021

Memphis Grizzlies' Ja Morant, right, smiles after a foul was called against Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry (30) during the second half of an NBA basketball Western Conference play-in game in San Francisco, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Cliches typically don't reach cliche status without at least a kernel of truth. And development not being linear has more than a kernel.

Time and again, we see NBA players declared to be at a certain level before the improvement levels off, slows down or even reverses. For Ja Morant, it'd probably be fair to classify his sophomore campaign under one of the first two labels.

After winning the 2019-20 Rookie of the Year award in a landslide, it would have been fair to think 2020-21 would be a superstar campaign. But an early injury and season-long struggles with his outside shooting hampered the Memphis Grizzlies point guard. That is, at least statistically.

On Friday, in a do-or-die play-in game against MVP finalist Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors, Morant flashed the superstar upside again. This time, on a national TV stage.

The Grizzlies eliminated the Warriors in overtime, 117-112, and Morant was the driving (literally, driving) reason why. Counterpunching Curry all night, Morant finished with 35 points, six boards, six assists, five threes (on 10 attempts) and four steals.

And his final two attacks gave him 15 points in the fourth quarter and overtime and put the Warriors away for good. The digital play-by-play for each of those two field goals reads exactly the same: "Morant 9' Driving Floating Jump Shot."


JA ICES THE GAME 🥶 https://t.co/3DZG146IGK

In what was almost certainly the biggest moment of Morant's young career, he provided the clutch finishes that sent his team to the postseason for the first time in the post-Grit-n-Grind era. And if the Grizzlies keep playing with the kind of intensity they showed on Friday, they'll need a nickname of their own.

Their first-round opponent is a far cry from the two teams they just dispatched in the inaugural play-in tournament, though.

The Utah Jazz finished the season with the best record in the NBA. Their 8.97 SRS (simple rating system combines point differential with strength of schedule) ranks 16th in NBA history. The Warriors' and San Antonio Spurs' marks rank 660th and 1,032nd, respectively.

After knocking off two middle-of-the-road teams by 2020-21 standards, Memphis now faces a historical juggernaut that just broke the record for threes per game and allowed the fewest points per 100 non-garbage time possessions in the league.

To even make this series competitive, Friday's version of Ja (or at least, something close to it) will have to show up for every game.

During the regular season, the well-below-average effective field-goal percentage Morant posted stymied his impact on offense, and a lack of size and engagement on the other end hurt too.

He finished 94th in the league in estimated wins added, according to Dunks & Threes. Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, meanwhile, were 21st and 39th, respectively, despite missing significant chunks of the season with injuries.

An advanced stats discrepancy between Morant and his counterpart didn't matter on Friday, though. Morant rarely guarded Curry (that was left largely to Dillon Brooks and a scrambling team philosophy that crowded Curry everywhere he went), but you could argue the guard battle went to the younger competitor.

Taking a couple rounds off Conley, Mitchell, Jordan Clarkson or whoever his nominal head-to-head matchup ends up being isn't out of the question. But if we're going to stick to the boxing analogy, the best-case scenario for Morant and Memphis is probably closer to Rocky I than Rocky II.

This team is scrappy. It'll take plenty of haymakers from the Jazz and keep moving forward. It might even score a knockdown. But a series upset seems a ways from likely. Right now, FiveThirtyEight's projection system gives Utah and the Philadelphia 76ers (both at 95 percent) the best chances to advance to the second round.

That doesn't mean Morant can't deepen the impression he left on NBA fans on Friday. There will likely be moments, maybe even entire quarters or halves, in which it feels like Morant is in control of the game. He'll get hot with the floater. He'll have those to-the-rim-in-a-heartbeat drives. And we'll likely be reminded of why we were so high on him after the Rookie of the Year campaign.

Morant is just 21, presumably several years shy of his prime. Developing a league-average jump shot is certainly in play. And as he gains experience and good old-fashioned strength, he won't give up ground on defense as easily.

Improvement in those areas, whether linear or not, will put Morant on track for superstardom. Because the stuff he already has—like the burst off the dribble, an ability to lead and palpable competitiveness—are harder to teach.


Stats provided by Stathead, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference.