MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The 2021-22 NBA season has tipped off. The Grizzlies open their season against the LeBron and Kyrie-less Cleveland Cavaliers. It’s a new decade of basketball, and Morant already means a lot to the city that drafted him #2 overall.
1. Morant is “Box-Office” in Memphis
Michael Jordan, LeBron James, there are only a select few players in NBA history that impact the city’s revenue when they first touch down as a young rookie. Morant has been a catalyst on the Memphis economy. Morant’s only been in the league for 2 years, but he’s already charted Top 15 in jersey sales, for this coming season, which is on the same level as superstars like Kawhi Leonard (Clippers), Kemba Walker (Knicks), Jimmy Butler (Heat). But this doesn’t stop at personal accolades, the FedEx Forum, has also seen great return on their investment already. Going into Morant’s rookie year, the Grizzlies were ranked 26th in the league for fan attendance, out of a total of 30 teams. Last season, the Grizzlies jumped to 14th. More people are supporting the Grizzlies, by going to games and purchasing Grizzlies apparel, transforming the vibrant musically-tuned Memphis city into a sports town. Memphis doesn’t have an MLB or NFL team, so the Grizzlies are solely responsible in embodying the city’s culture.
2. Potential Hall-of-Fame footprint
Memphis is one of the newer teams, across the NBA landscape. At one point, they were the Vancouver Grizzlies, until 2001, then relocated to Memphis. The Grizzlies have 1 player inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall-of-Fame, Allen Iverson. But there needs to be an asterisk, Iverson only played 1 season in a Grizzly uniform and the season averages were not up to normal “AI” status. Morant does have a long way to go, to be eligible, but the situation is different. The Grizzlies aren’t the Lakers, with West, Kobe, Shaq, Baylor, Wilt, or the Celtics, with McHale, Bird, Garnett, Pierce. Some storied franchises are used to greatness, while in other cities, the longtime success has a harder impact. Morant makes the Hall as a drafted Grizzly, that legacy is forever.
3. Morant is only 22 years old
Morant encompasses the theory that “younger players nowadays are better than what rookies were like back then.” Sure there are exceptions to this umbrella statement, but it makes sense that this youth age is better, because they have access to more technology and resources. The crazy thing is on average, the athletic prime of a basketball player’s career are ages 26-30. What will Morant’s play be like, when he’s in his peak form? Memphis has a young star before he’s really gotten started yet.
4. Stepped into the big leagues, and didn’t shy away
Morant had a historic rookie year, so being awarded Rookie-of-the-Year honors that much more deserving. Including Morant, there have been only 9 players in history to average at least 17-points and 6-assists throughout their rookie season.
-Oscar Robertson (Hall of Famer)
-Allen Iverson (Hall of Famer)
-Magic Johnson (Hall of Famer)
*Damon Stoudemire - former Memphis Grizzlies player
-Steve Francis (Hall of Famer)
-Isiah Thomas (Hall of Famer)
Morant’s been on a tear to start his career, which feels like a massive understatement.
5. The NBA has been about the “dynamic duo” narrative
The game of basketball has evolved since its invention in 1891. But one consistent thing throughout the centuries of the sport, dynamic duos have been a cornerstone for championship rings. Think to Jordan/Pippen on the Bulls, Wade/LeBron in Miami, Kobe/Shaq in Los Angeles, and Parker/Duncan on the Spurs. Furthermore, the positions have been invariable, a guard and a forward/big. The Grizzlies have a solid foundation of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
6. Embodies an “underdog” mindset
The story of Ja Morant, rising to NBA stardom is motivational and is something that a lot of people can grapple onto. Morant may now be a multimillionaire and is on pace for a memorable career, but the notoriety wasn’t always in the forefront. At one point, Morant was on the same basketball team as Zion Williamson. For perspective, Williamson was the #1 rated high school player in the nation. Zion has constantly been compared to NBA greats like LeBron James and Charles Barkley. Zion was a household name before he even shook Adam Silver’s hand as the number 1 overall pick. Zion went to Duke, which is known as a pro-basketball factory, Morant went to a smaller school, Murray State. Duke has built up an identity, where pro scouts are always there, like Christmas morning, picking and choosing who the next great Blue Devil will be. Murray State doesn’t have that luxury, and Morant knew this, he simply just put his head down and let his talent speak for itself. Morant was in Zion’s shadow for a time; and as a result, had to work twice as hard to get scouts to even glance in his direction.
It’s admirable because not everyone in the world is dealt a silver spoon. They have to work harder than everyone else, just to get the smallest ounce of recognition. Memphis doesn’t have the same name power as Los Angeles or New York, so does that automatically mean negative stigmas? Morant knows that answer.
7. Already drawing comparisons to NBA legends
I’ve already teased Morant’s historic, and young career. He’s only been in the league for 2 years, but his numbers are on par with some NBA legends in the same time frame.
-Penny Hardaway (now University of Memphis men’s basketball coach)
-Derrick Rose (may/may not be a Hall-of-Famer. But youngest MVP in history)
This list fully empathizes that Morant is in elite company. Memphis has a great one and should hold onto him. These kinds of players don’t come a dime a dozen.
8. Jaw-dropping plays brings more fans to Memphis
One thing that can’t be said enough, Morant steps on the court, magic happens. It’s like with Patrick Mahomes in the NFL, you have to tune in, so you don’t miss something incredible.
In Morant’s 3rd game as an NBA player against the Brooklyn Nets, a tough order having to guard NBA superstar Kyrie Irving. Morant didn’t shy away from the challenge, making a lay-up to tie the game with less than a few seconds to go. Brooklyn hands it to Irving, winding the clock down for the final shot, but Morant swatted it away, and the game was sent to overtime. Overtime goes back and forth, but the final seconds were memorable. Morant is sprinting the length of the court, the game clock gets under 5, tosses it to Crowder for the win, ballgame!
Morant’s also been no stranger in showing some athleticism, making the rim pray that it’s still attached to the backboard. When Memphis traveled to Phoenix, Morant had a dunk on big man Aaron Baynes. Morant took off from one side of the paint. Baynes made contact with the young guard, causing Morant’s body to contort sideways, but somehow the ball went through the hoop. There was another moment with Morant and Kevin Love. This dunk didn’t count, since the ball didn’t go through, but Morant jumped over 6′8 Love, and barely missed the dunk. Just the sheer possibility of that being close to a reality, made the internet break.
The longer Morant is in a Grizzlies uniform, the more highlight plays that will follow. In turn, more eyeballs on the team in Memphis.
9. Grizzlies legacy with charities
This goes beyond just pure basketball. Morant is aware that a lot of people look up to him, so he takes it upon himself to portray positively within the community. On his birthday, instead of using that time to himself, donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Boys and Girls Club. A week later, did more work with the organization. He gave each of the kids from the organization $100 for their own use in Academy Sports & Outdoors, at the end gifted them all with new backpacks.
The Grizzlies have a history of their players, outreaching to the community. Recent retiree, Zach Randolph, was known for this. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the utility bills of struggling Memphians. He would also annually run Thanksgiving giveaways and other food drives to help aid less fortunate families. He and Tony Allen once took 200 kids on a Toys R Us shopping spree around the holidays. Morant’s gone on record, stating that he wants to carry on the legacy Randolph left.
10. Fans attach themselves to a player, they feel a connection with
Sports fans like players to follow, to feel part of that player’s journey. That’s why fans use it as a badge of honor, “I’ve been watching Stephen Curry since he was at Davidson. Or, only true LeBron fans watched him back in 2003.” Fans are drawn to interesting stories. Basketball fans not residing in the United States, follow a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo. The kid with a dream from Greece, who one team took a chance, and now Antetokounmpo has won an NBA championship, Finals MVP, and 2 regular season MVPs. Fans felt attached to Kobe Bryant, the motivation sayings of “Mamba Mentality” resonated with everyone, which made his passing in 2020, that much harder to cope with. Derrick Rose came from one of the most dangerous parts of Chicago, drafted by his hometown team, and became the youngest MVP, before injuries unfortunately derailed his career.
Let’s take a look at what we have in Ja Morant. Someone who’s brought winning and financial success to Memphis, contributes to the community, and embodies an underdog mentality, think that can resonate with a lot of people.
11. Ja is perfect for the new NBA game
The league is in great hands with young talent, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker, the list goes on. Even still, Morant works hard to get subtle advantages on game nights. No matter how long the career lasts, he wants to do it the right way. For example, being a leader on and off-court, not getting into drama with teammates, or not being seen as detrimental on social media.
Due to the evolution of shooting, from one Stephen Curry, the league has evolved to floor spacing and valuing players who can shoot from distance. Morant can shoot from distance, 31%, which is on par with De’Aaron Fox (Kings), Caris LeVert (Rockets), and Brook Lopez (Bucks). He can shoot if he needs to because most know him for his finishing ability. His dynamic duo, Jaren Jackson Jr, is one of the best big-man shooters in the league. In fact, no player in NBA history has 213 3-pointers made, to go along with 192 blocks within their first 130 career games, except for Jackson Jr. So if Morant is having an off night, he rely on Jackson for the distance.
12. This team you can rally around, like the Grizzlies with Conley, Randolph, and Gasol
Finally, this is a young team that the Grizzlies fanbase can rally around. The benefits of structuring a roster around youth talent, the contracts are inexpensive, players are less prone to injuries, and still have time to unlock everyone’s full potential. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Jarrett Culver, Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke, Yves Pons, all were drafted within the last 5 years. They all have the opportunity to build chemistry with one another, and grow as players together.
The last time this opportunity existed was the Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen, that very physical Grizzlies team. That team went to the franchise’s only Conference Finals. This team, in this decade, feels primed for much more.
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