MikeCheck: Morant’s rise amid Grizzlies breakout season garners starting role as NBA All-Star

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.

Ja Morant

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.

Ja Morant and Taylor Jenkins
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 23: Head coach Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies talks with his player Ja Morant #12 against the Golden State Warriors. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

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.

Taylor Jenkins

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.

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MikeCheck: Grizzlies channel ‘Z-Bo’ type grit while grinding through resurgent defensive stretch

MEMPHIS – Still gasping for air moments after arguably the Grizzlies’ biggest win of the season, Jaren Jackson Jr. had two priorities as he placed a huge home victory over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers into proper perspective.

First, Jackson saluted the festive fans at FedExForum for the spark they provided to push the Grizzlies to that 108-95 triumph after they overcame an early deficit to ultimately pull away.

And then, with the full sense of Thursday’s accomplishment yet to set in, Jackson turned the page to the next big opportunity his franchise and its fans face back in the building on Saturday.

Jaren Jackson Jr. against the Lakers
MEMPHIS, TN – DECEMBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates a three point basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s Z-Bo Day…let’s turn up!” an ecstatic Jackson shouted into the camera as he was interviewed on the court during the Grizzlies postgame broadcast. “Shoutout to Z-Bo. That’s my brother. It says a lot (to beat the Lakers). But we’re going to need the fans for the next one, for sure. This means nothing without the fans.”

Jackson’s call to action comes with the Grizzlies (15-11) amid their best stretch of the season, playing with a brand of rugged and relentless effort synonymous with one of the greatest legends to ever wear the team’s uniform.

The Grizzlies have won six of their last seven games and sit fourth in the Western Conference standings as they enter Saturday’s game against the surprisingly surging Houston Rockets. But that night’s spotlight will shine on beloved former Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph, who will become the franchise’s first player to have his jersey retired and lifted to the rafters.

Jackson considers Randolph his “big brother” in so many ways.

Shoutout to Z-Bo. That’s my brother. It says a lot (to beat the Lakers). But we’re going to need the fans for the next one, for sure. This means nothing without the fans.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Both played at Michigan State under long-time coach Tom Izzo nearly two decades apart.

Both ended up anchoring the power forward position in Memphis for the Grizzlies. Randolph’s bruising, low-post dominance rooted the ‘Grit & Grind’ Grizzlies through the franchise’s most successful stretch in history with seven straight playoff berths, including a trip to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. A two-time NBA All-Star during his 17 seasons, Randolph averaged 16.6 points and 9.1 rebounds in 1,116 games for five teams. His greatest impact – on and off the court – was in Memphis with the Grizzlies for eight seasons from 2009 through 2017.

Randolph embraced everything about his role in Memphis. He thrived at snagging key rebounds and making clutch shots in playoff games. He strived at paying utility bills for disadvantaged Memphis residence and donating pandemic relief resources to Shelby County Schools.

I might cry, man, because I was a statistic, man. I was coming from a bad place. I came from nothing, you know. So, for me to be where I’m at and to accomplish what I did, to get the love every time I come back to Memphis…that kind of genuine love, it don’t always happen like that. You know how it is, man. It’s Grit & Grind for life.

Zach Randolph

When first informed his No. 50 jersey would be retired – as eventually will those of his Core Four teammates Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol – Randolph was overcome with emotion. He could only imagine what he’d feel on that ceremonial night on the court.

That night arrives Saturday in a postgame tribute unlike any ever planned at FedExForum.

“Oh my goodness – a poor kid from Marion, Indiana, came from a poor, single-parent home, the oldest of four siblings, mother on welfare…oh, man. Wow!” Randolph told Grind City Media recently “I might cry, man, because I was a statistic, man. I was coming from a bad place. I came from nothing, you know. So, for me to be where I’m at and to accomplish what I did, to get the love every time I come back to Memphis…that kind of genuine love, it don’t always happen like that. You know how it is, man. It’s Grit & Grind for life.”

Meanwhile, Jackson is currently steering the ‘NxtGen’ Grizzlies through a bit of a renaissance defensively. After ranking last or near the bottom among the NBA’s 30 teams in defensive rating through the season’s first 20 games, the Grizzlies have flipped the script to win six of their last seven games. And of those six wins, they’ve held five opponents below 100 points.

Are we going to play to our standard…and how are we going to continue to find our way over 48 minutes? Obviously (Thursday’s victory) was a standard-type win, something I would definitely point to. But they know me. I’m just going to turn the page to the next one and say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve just got to keep getting better.’

Taylor Jenkins

Memphis entered the weekend ranked No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating since Nov. 28. That surge was capped by Thursday’s performance when the Grizzlies recorded a season-high 18 steals and scored 27 points off 22 Los Angeles turnovers. The Grizzlies are back ranked among the league’s leaders in steals, rebounds and deflections – all categories they excelled in last season.

Remarkably, they’ve done it with several key players sidelined over the past two weeks. Franchise catalyst and leading scorer Ja Morant remains out with a knee injury and veteran swingman and defensive stopper Dillon Brooks is currently in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Productive reserves Brandon Clarke and Ziaire Williams are also out with injuries.

Yet the resilient Grizzlies continue to find a way to push forward with collective effort.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, where you’re playing, what happened the games before and all of that stuff,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of his team’s recent turnaround. “Are we going to play to our standard…and how are we going to continue to find our way over 48 minutes? Obviously (Thursday’s victory) was a standard-type win, something I would definitely point to. But they know me. I’m just going to turn the page to the next one and say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve just got to keep getting better.’”

That sounds exactly like something Randolph would say after a big performance.

Fittingly for the Grizzlies, that next one comes Saturday – Z-Bo Day.

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.