Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant’s case as the overwhelming favorite for Rookie of the Year

ANALYSIS NBA

Three games into his pro-career, Ja Morant put the league on notice. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Memphis Grizzlies trailed the Brooklyn Nets 97-92 when Morant took over the final period. He scored 17 fourth-quarter points, which included a game-tying layup with seven seconds remaining. With both teams even at 120 apiece, Morant sent the game into overtime following a rejection on Kyrie Irving‘s attempted game-winning basket.

Morant capped off his night with a game-winning assist to Jae Crowder, who connected on a 3-point field goal at the top of the key as time expired. As the fans inside the FedExForum erupted, the Grizzlies recorded their first win of the season in a 134-133 victory over the Nets. Morant registered a career-high 30 points (13-22 FG, 1-2 3PT), nine assists, four rebounds and a block in the win.

His performance against the Nets served as a glimpse into what is in store for the future All-Star, and the foundation as the overwhelming favorite to receive Rookie of the Year honors at the conclusion of the season.

In what was deemed a lost year for the rebuilding Grizzlies may end with a surprising playoff appearance led by their budding star. In his first season, Morant has exceeded all expectations as the new face of the franchise — averaging 17.6 points shooting 49.1% from the field, 36.7% from behind the arc.

The clutch performance he showcased in the win against Brooklyn on Oct. 27th gave Grizzlies’ head coach, Taylor Jenkins, the confidence to trust his rookie point guard down the stretch of close games. Morant currently sits seventh in the league in fourth-quarter scoring averaging 7.3 points per game, placing him ahead of All-Stars: Damian Lillard (8th), Donovan Mitchell (10th) and Joel Embiid (11th).

As the team’s leading scorer, the 20-year-old rookie from Murray State exploded for several remarkable scoring outputs logging 20 or more points in 24 of his 59 games played.

In a 121-110 victory over the Houston Rockets, Morant put on a show in front of the home crowd in Memphis. He outshined a 41-point performance from James Harden with 26 points, connecting on 10 of his 11 field goal attempts. Early in the first quarter, Morant knock down a long-range shot from behind the arc and yelled out, “Tell that mother****** about me!” in the direction of the former league’s MVP. The highlight of the night came late in the fourth quarter when Morant drilled a step-back 3-pointer in the face of Harden.  

In that same game, Morant proved his quality as an all-around player, which often gets overshadowed by his freakish athleticism. He finished the game with eight assists and five rebounds while drawing a correlation to his idol and draft-day player comparison to Russell Westbrook.

A few weeks later, Morant lived up to his Westbrook-like comparison on a cold February night inside the Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. He led the Grizzlies to a 106-99 victory over the struggling Wizards with his first career triple-double of 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.

Morant’s career got off to a blazing start, and unlike Tyler Herro or Kendrick Nunn, the three-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month recipient has shown no signs of slowing down. The only player who could disrupt Morant’s chances to receive his first piece of NBA hardware is his former AAU teammate and phenom, Zion Williamson.

Since making his debut for the Pelicans during a Jan. 22 win over the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson has been just as good as advertised. The No. 1 overall pick in 2019 has averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, and set a rookie record for the most consecutive games scoring 20 or more points —  originally held by Carmelo Anthony (9) in 2003-04.

With the Pelicans in striking distance to surpass the Grizzlies for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference, Williamson would have a case to steal ROY honors. Unfortunately, appearing in a potential 19 games is not enough time to dethrone the body of work Morant has poured in since the start of the year.

The remainder of the NBA season is in serious jeopardy due to the ongoing pandemic of the Coronavirus. If the season was to end come June or July, there will be several unanswered questions left to be desired — including a close race for ROY honors between the league’s top two lottery picks of 2019.

However, despite having 17 games remaining, there is enough evidence to crown Morant as the league’s Rookie of the Year to provide a little closure to the 2019-20 season.

(Photo Credit: Geoff Burke: USA TODAY Sports)


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