MEMPHIS – After building on his NBA Rookie of the Year campaign with a record-setting second season, Grizzlies catalyst Ja Morant set the bar of expectations even higher as he eyes Year 3.
There’s only one direction Morant intends to steer the Grizzlies from here after notching their first playoff appearance and winning record in four years.
And that’s up.
Perhaps, even way up.
“We’ve been playing for two years together, and you can see the difference just a year can make, going from not making the playoffs to making the playoffs,” Morant said as he charted the offseason path forward for the Grizzlies. “We’ve got to continue to be locked in and get better together and continue to grow with each other. I’m never satisfied. There are things you know you can work on to get to that next level.”
That’s the mindset the Grizzlies enter the offseason with after fighting valiantly but ultimately falling to the NBA’s top-seeded Utah Jazz in five games during their first-round playoff series.
As the franchise cornerstone and centerpiece of a Grizzlies guard rotation that prides itself on depth and versatility, Morant’s leadership and next developmental steps are crucial this summer. The Grizzlies knew they snagged their point guard of the future when the organization jumped up in the 2019 draft lottery to land Morant with the No. 2 overall pick.
But Morant’s rapid rise during his first two NBA seasons altered the timeline as the Grizzlies pushed into the postseason and put the league on notice that their future is, well, also right now. If Morant’s 35-point effort to close out the Warriors and win the NBA’s Play-In Tournament wasn’t a loud enough statement, the 21-year-old star doubled down on his big-stage breakout by averaging a Memphis franchise record 30.2 points in the series against Utah.
And there’s no ceiling to what Ja Morant and us, with Jaren (Jackson Jr.) also right at the heart of it, what we’re going to be able to achieve together.
No player in league history scored more in their first two career playoff games than Morant, who tallied 73 points in the opening games against the Jazz.
The Grizzlies guard spot is in prolific hands.
“Ja Morant is a massively clear-cut All-Star next year,” Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman said. “And there’s no ceiling to what Ja Morant and us, with Jaren (Jackson Jr.) also right at the heart of it, what we’re going to be able to achieve together.”
That togetherness defines the Grizzlies’ guard rotation, where Morant, De’Anthony Melton and Grayson Allen all produced career seasons in the face of nagging injuries, health and safety protocols and the league’s toughest closing schedule.
Morant led the team in scoring (19.1), assists (7.4) and minutes (32.6) while starting all 70 games he played this season, including the Play-In Tournament and playoffs. Allen started a career-high 38 games and knocked down more three-pointers this season (107) than in his previous two seasons combined (89). And Melton’s two-way versatility was on full display April 19 at Denver, where he scored 25 points, made six threes, grabbed nine rebounds, dished six assists and swiped five steals in 40 minutes of a close overtime loss.
- 2021 Status: Completed 2nd year of 4-year, rookie-scale contract
- Stats: 19.1 ppg., 7.4 apg., 4.0 rpg.
- Outlook: Set franchise playoff scoring average record with 30.2 points against Utah to solidify his status as a rising star on the NBA’s biggest stage. He enters the offseason eager to improve consistency with his defense and 3-point shooting.
- 2021 Status: Due $4.05 million next season in final year of rookie-scale contract
- Stats: 10.6 ppg., 3.2 rpg., 39.1 3PT%
- Outlook: Battled through injuries to post a career numbers across the board in second season with Grizzlies, which included 38 starts in 50 games. He’s a quality rotation piece, but questions persist if he’s a full-time future starter alongside Morant.
- 2021 Status: Completed first season of 4-year, $34.6 million contract
- Stats: 9.1 ppg., 3.1 rpg., 2.5 apg.
- Outlook: Melton’s encouraging start to the season gave way to inconsistency down the stretch. He reemerged to provide a familiar boost midway through the series against the Jazz. Mr. Do-Something will remain a key cog off the bench moving forward.
- 2021 Status: Due $7.6 million next season in final year of 3-year free agency contract
- Stats: 6.3 ppg., 3.7 apg., 91.1 FT%
- Outlook: Jones’ usage decreased late as the Grizzlies tried to work Justise Winslow into a playmaking role. When that experiment ended, Morant took on even more minutes. Which all leaves the reliable Jones’ future perhaps in question as a luxury reserve.
- 2021 Status: Completed first season of a 4-year, $9 million contract
- Stats: 4.3ppg., 3.0rpg., 1.1apg.
- Outlook: The more Konchar plays, the more he’s capable of contributing to winning basketball. His per-36 minute numbers show he’d average nearly a double-double in addition to two steals a night. But breaking through the team’s backcourt logjam won’t be easy.
Rookie Desmond Bane embraced the competition at the guard spots and produced a season that made the 30th and final pick of the first round one of the steals of the 2020 draft. Bane’s 43.2-percent shooting on threes led both the Grizzlies and all rookies this season.
Despite seeing his playing time decreased late in the season, backup point guard Tyus Jones again led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio as the most sure-handed point guard in the league. Morant, Jones, Allen, Melton and Bane are all under contract through at least next season, meaning the Grizzlies could build on the group’s continuity.
Or, the front office could elect to consolidate with a clear-cut starter yet to truly emerge at shooting guard among those candidates. Injuries and attrition late in the season forced Jenkins to shift Dillon Brooks from small forward to starting shooting guard for the postseason run. If Brooks remains in that role entering training camp, it could create a logjam in the backcourt.
But that’s an issue for another day.
I felt like there was a lot of growth throughout the season. We stayed together, fought through a lot of things and never gave up. Those are all good signs, but we have to continue to work and never be satisfied.
Morant is pleased with the progress.
“It was big-time,” Morant said of the group’s collective journey. “I felt like there was a lot of growth throughout the season. We stayed together, fought through a lot of things and never gave up. Those are all good signs, but we have to continue to work and never be satisfied.”
Morant vows to continue setting that tone in the offseason.
He understands that the path to greatness is paved with improvements made over the summer as much as it is with production generated during the season. Morant has reached out to some of the league’s elite players and has also heard from others to share notes and encouragement.
“He had damn-near 50 (against us),” Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell said after Morant scored 47 points in Game 2 to break LeBron James’ record for most points in a playoff game by a player age 21 or younger. “He’s a hell of a player. I respect the hell out of his game.”
Before that, it was three-time NBA champion and league MVP Steph Curry who offered high praise for the path Morant is charting. After the Grizzlies beat the Warriors to advance to the playoffs, Curry took to social media with a live post and addressed his exchange with Morant.
“Ja showed so much love…he just speaks the truth,” Curry said of Morant during his live social media post. “The league is in good hands with him.”
It’s within those hands that Morant holds the key to his team’s next phase of development.
“The guys you see me talk to are great guys, superstars in this league,” Morant said. “That’s where I’m trying to be. And I feel like it’s game respects game. There are a lot of talented guys in this league I want to be in that conversation with, as one of the top players in this league.”
On a league-wide level, Morant has indeed joined that conversation.
The Grizzlies’ guards collectively delivered a statement season, too.
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