Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies has made his claim as the face of the next generation of superstars ready to take the game of basketball to another level.
For this season, Ja Morant has been chosen as the very best NBA player under the age of 25 by the team here at The Step Back. Sure, there are others that could say they belong at the top (Luka Doncic, perhaps, has the loudest argument) but none of them are the type of player that Ja Morant is. He is one of one. He is “him”. The future of not just the league, but basketball itself.
Lofty praise? Absolutely. Potential for a “shooting star career” due to injury concerns? The possibility exists to be sure. And yet, there is Ja Morant, the most distinctly himself NBA superstar since Allen Iverson, ready to define another generation of hoopers while competing at the highest level professional basketball has to offer.
The arguments against Morant in this position read off like B Rabbit from 8 Mile as he won his final rap battle at The Shelter. “He hasn’t won anything” — sure, and neither has Luka, or Jayson Tatum, or Trae Young. Zion Williamson didn’t play last season and is fifth on this list. “Morant isn’t a two-way player, he’s too limited” — that makes his place among the NBA’s elite all the more impressive. He led the NBA in points in the paint last season as a 6-foot-3 180-pound guard. Do you know the nerve it takes to attack the lane with that level of tenacity at that size?
He was a Second-Team All-NBA selection. An All-Star Starter. The NBA’s Most Improved Player. And even with all the accolades, he has made it known that only a championship will do moving forward. That, and being the No. 1 player not only on rankings of NBA players under 25.
He wants the top spot. He wants it all. Audaciously. Unapologetically. All of it.
Morant has been told he doesn’t belong his entire life. From side gyms at AAU tournaments to mid-major college basketball darling, his meteoric rise to the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft is about as unlikely as the Memphis Grizzlies “winning” the right to pick him there. Forget where he currently stands among the NBA elite — he shouldn’t have been in the NCAA Tournament, much less the top of the NBA Lottery. Doubt is nothing new to Ja, and even as his footprint across the NBA landscape expands there will be those that feel he is not deserving of the attention and accolades finally coming his way (not to mention the massive contract extension connecting him to Memphis most of the rest of this decade).
So why should he be exactly where he is? Simple — because he has, more than anyone else on this list, defined the organization he is a part of. And because of his overarching impact, the Memphis Grizzlies are primed to do things never before dreamed of while led by a player that transcends the game.
Having a game in the social media age that very easily can go viral on a nightly basis surely helps. Those of us that grew up in the days of SportsCenter the morning after remember watching Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal and thinking “wow, that’s amazing”. Now those moments happen almost simultaneously, a shared national virtual experience as Ja Morant snatches souls on dunks and finishes shots that are seemingly impossible. Whether it be passes that suggest he has a third eye or the elite blocked shot that would make any volleyball player proud, the style that Morant plays with makes him more accessible than any player with this younger generation of fans that watches highlights on Twitter and TikTok more than on television.
Morant’s own involvement on social media feeds into that as well. Ja perhaps should tweet less at times, but it’s that mirage of accessibility that really makes Morant feel like a man of the moment. He actively asks for more attention to be paid to his teammates on the national NBA stage. He interacts with fans and tips very well, leading to a feeling that Ja is simply “one of us” that’s been given some of the greatest physical gifts we have ever seen.
The “one of us” aspect really drives home the Memphis culture as well. The South Carolina product never was seen as a threat to want to play for the New York Knicks, or as someone that Los Angeles Lakers fans could look forward to coming to their franchise as soon as Morant had the chance. That’s not Ja — he rocks grills at media day and shouts out local media members. He is a willing and able representative of the city of Memphis not just athletically, but personally, showing the community almost as much love as they feel for him.
In a shockingly almost normal way, the ultra-athlete that will make more money in one month when his new extension kicks in than most see in a lifetime feels like an extension of whoever takes the time to get to know his story. He didn’t come from a blue-blood college program. He wasn’t touted as a can’t-miss prospect that had played professionally since his early teen years. He was nothing, until he was something. But he was always something…he just needed someone to see him. To feel him.
Safe to say, we all see and feel Ja Morant now. To focus solely on the numbers wouldn’t do justice to Ja’s role in the future of basketball. Maybe another player can be argued for as more efficient, more versatile, and a better “fit” for the top of this list. But the reason most folks start bouncing a round, orange ball when we are young isn’t data. It’s how the dimples of the ball feel on our hands. The smell of the floor walking into the gym for your first practice or game. The sights and sounds from blacktops to arenas of a beautiful game that enables all that play it on any level to physically feel rhythm, how a pass can seemingly flow through you.
What draws you to the game is joy — unbridled, unconquered, joy. It brings energy and emotion to people that you may never meet because their experience is a shared one even when it isn’t.
Ja Morant makes you feel that, on a level that no other player on this list is currently capable of. He is the Griddy-dancing, highlight-dunking, over-Tweeting, face of the future of the National Basketball Association. And if the old guard isn’t careful, he will become the current face sooner rather than later.
Ja Morant was given nothing. Now, he’s coming for everything the NBA world knows.