MEMPHIS – Moments after the Grizzlies conquered the Cavaliers earlier this month during a franchise-best 11-game winning streak, Ja Morant stood beneath the basket in Cleveland’s arena and scanned the court one more time as he departed.
“Gotta get comfortable,” Morant half-jokingly responded during his postgame interview with the Grizzlies television broadcast.
The prospect of Morant returning to Cleveland a month later as an NBA All-Star was palpable. Now, it’s promised. Sparked by gravity-defying highlights in a breakout season, Morant was officially voted a Western Conference All-Star starter Thursday, securing his spot alongside the NBA’s elite stars for the Feb. 20 showcase game at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
This announcement was hardly a surprise. Morant, 22, emerged second in fan votes among Western Conference guards behind Golden State’s Steph Curry. In addition to the fan voting, Morant’s spot was essentially certified by a vote of NBA players and a panel of media members.
In other words, fans across the globe – Morant is seventh in NBA jersey sales – as well as fellow NBA players and media members saw the same thing in Memphis’ catalyst that Grizzlies fans witness night in and night out. And that’s the rapid evolution of a budding NBA superstar this season.
Morant will become the first guard in Grizzlies history to play in an All-Star game, and he follows Marc Gasol as the second player in franchise history voted as a starter. Statistically, Morant was a lock to garner this recognition. But the best characteristic of his game is his leadership, including an awareness to preach that his candidacy as an All-Star is predicated on the fact that his team has blossomed as one of the biggest NBA stories of the season.
“When I was out, they kept it going,” Morant said recently of the 10-2 stretch the Grizzlies posted during his absence to recover from a knee injury. “That next-man-up mentality makes us different. That allowed me to come back, fit back in and continue to play at a very high level.”
The Grizzlies (33-17) sit atop the Southwest Division and are third in the Western Conference standings. They’re off to second-best start in franchise history through 50 games.
And Morant leads the way on a team filled with performers who have received league-wide recognition. Morant is the lone player this season named Western Conference player of the week over consecutive weeks. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins was named Western Conference coach of the month for December, and forward Jaren Jackson Jr. received the league’s community assist award for his efforts over the holiday season.
That next-man-up mentality makes us different. That allowed me to come back, fit back in and continue to play at a very high level.
On the court, the Grizzlies rank among the NBA’s leaders in steals, points in the paint, second-chance points, turnovers forced and points off turnovers. Their efforts over the past two months forged a massive turnaround after Memphis ranked at the bottom of the league in defensive rating earlier in the season. The Grizzlies now enter the weekend one of only four teams in the league ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating.
And with Morant’s dunks, clutch plays and scoring binges going viral each night, the Grizzlies have delivered some of their most impressive work with a 24-8 record since Thanksgiving. They’ve beaten the Lakers and Warriors twice and have also notched impressive road wins recently over the Suns and Nets.
Jenkins referred to the opportunity to coach Morant as a blessing these past three seasons since he was selected No. 2 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Watching Morant elevate to All-Star starter status has lifted an entire franchise.
“He’s an unbelievable talent, unbelievable person,” Jenkins said of Morant. “Just to have another coach on the floor, to have similar wavelengths going through our brains, when we’re out there competing between the lines, it’s very special. He’s growing up year after year. He’s putting in the work, and it’s just so fun to watch because there are still untapped parts of his game that he’s just still exploring.”
What the Grizzlies are doing this season is no fluke. Consider it encouraging evidence that the foundation is set. And the franchise catalyst is firmly in place, just really getting started.
“He’s a special individual who means just so much to me and our team, but especially to this city,” Jenkins said of Morant. “Hopefully this will be a great run for many, many years.”
Just to have another coach on the floor, to have similar wavelengths going through our brains, when we’re out there competing between the lines, it’s very special. He’s growing up year after year. He’s putting in the work, and it’s just so fun to watch because there are still untapped parts of his game that he’s just still exploring.
Morant’s most prolific run of production came in the weeks leading to Thursday’s All-Star announcement. The Grizzlies just returned from a four-game trip in which Morant averaged 36.8 points, 8.5 assists and 8.0 rebounds while spearheading a team that recently has been without as many as four of its top eight scorers and its head coach.
As has been the case most of the season, Morant has seamlessly taken on more of a scoring and leadership role. As a result, he ranks eighth in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (25.37) and 10th in scoring average (25.8).
Morant has also coped with his own adversity along the way. After scoring 41 points in Wednesday’s win in San Antonio, Morant dedicated the performance to his ailing grandmother and and then returned to his parents’ hometown to watch the All-Star announcement at her side.
“I just had to lock in,” Morant said of pushing through tears at one stage of an emotional game. “My mom told me (my grandmother) wanted me to be here (playing). If anybody knows my grandma, she wants me to play and wants to be able to watch me.”
Her grandson’s Grizzlies have been must-watch TV all season. Now, he’s officially an NBA All-Star starter.
At this rate, stay tuned for Morant’s next starring role on the All-NBA Team.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.