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Ja Morant is the NBA’s Newest Superstar

Ja Morant, the most exciting player in the NBA, is impressive from even the dry, neutral-tone vantage point of a Basketball Reference page. Averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds, the 22-year-old point guard is the talisman of a maybe-elite, definitely-for-real Memphis Grizzlies team. On an eggheaded macro level, he’s one of the 10 best offensive players in the world (and the youngest in that dectet), according to Estimated Plus-Minus, the current gold-standard of wonky basketball stats. On a more micro scale, Morant’s game log is littered with sneakily signature performances as he’s stolen wins from putative contenders and hung 30-pieces (and sometimes even 40-pieces) on them in the process; over the course of the Grizz’s on-going ten-game winning streak, Morant has char-broiled the Warriors, Lakers, Suns and Nets.

But these gaudy numbers are mere metonymy for the full Ja Morant Experience. Sure, his  57.5 percent True Shooting is a career-high number, but it doesn’t inspire much hootin’ and/or hollerin’. It’s one thing to see that the budding superstar is having one of the most prolific age-22 seasons in NBA history and it’s another thing entirely to witness him control a game with the swagger and confidence of a mega-preacher. There are lots of guards who can amass similarly gaudy numbers; there’s only one Ja Morant.

Whereas most All-NBA-caliber guards are expert shooters, Morant exists within a more (Steve) Francis-can order. A scoring point guard whose success lies in his overwhelming athleticism and rim-pressure, he’s the byproduct of an early-aughts hauntology, unrelentingly hurling himself into the paint just as Steve Francis, Baron Davis and Allen Iverson did before him. 

He imbues his drives with gyroscopic motion, varying the length and speed of his strides on a step-by-step basis so that no defender could possibly mirror them. Like a noble gas or somebody playing Wordle, Morant fills whatever space is available. Give him an open lane and he’ll imposingly storm down the middle of the court, daring a big man to fuck around and find out. Cede space to him on the perimeter to try to goad him into a jumper, and he’ll use it to build momentum before trebucheting himself towards the rack. Sardine the paint with help defenders to cut off one of his drives and he’ll squirm his way to freedom. As such, Morant’s true genius isn’t that he’s faster and bouncier than everyone else, but that he can pair his explosiveness with such a heightened sense of proprioception—on the rare instances that he can’t zoom past an opponent, he’s still able to wiggle by them. 

Interestingly, Morant’s usage this year isn’t radically different than it was in his first two seasons. The main difference is that Morant has just gotten better at everything. This year, he scores 13.4 points on 20.3 drives per game, up from 9.5 points on 18.4 drives per game in his sophomore campaign,; he’s now in the 73rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and the 85th percentile as an isolation scorer, after placing in the 41st percentile and 57th percentile respectively last season (all stats courtesy of NBA.com). Despite the fact that he’s always been a stylish player, this is the first year he’s been able to translate his entertaining-ness into elite scoring production.

Beyond his bucket-getting, Morant has continued his maturation as a high-level playmaker, exploiting the rotations that his rim-pressure provokes. He cruelly blends his deliveries into his dribbles and finishes—one-handed skip passes are disguised as harmless dribbles, contested lay-ups evolve in mid-air to become dump-offs to open teammates. When Morant has the ball, opposing defenses short-circuit themselves trying to stop him, so paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing that they end up not doing anything at all.

Although Morant’s on/off splits are skewed by the fact that the Grizzlies essentially didn’t miss any shots during the 12 games that he missed with a knee injury, his playmaking impact is obvious. When he’s in the game, the Grizzlies’s offense scores 4.2 more points per 100 possessions than when he’s on the bench, per Cleaning the Glass. Similarly, the Grizz put up an efficient 56.2 percent True Shooting as a team with Morant, which is nearly three percentage points higher than their Morant-less mark.

Almost single-handedly, Morant has restored the feeling in Memphis after he parachuted in from Murray State to rescue the Grizz from their post-Grit ‘n Grind wilderness. In the 137 weeks since Morant was drafted, he lifted the Grizzlies out of their rebuilding doldrums and transformed them a fringe playoff team, and then into an actual playoff team and, now, into an actual contender. The vibes: they’re good. At 29-14, the surging Grizzlies have more wins than every team besides the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns. Since December 1st, the Grizzlies have won 18 of their last 22 games with a net rating of +12.6.

More than any other player in the NBA, Morant possesses a somatic magnetism so powerful that even opposing fans can’t avoid succumbing to it; outside of his dad, Morant has no haters. He’s an accelerant for hope, embracing his entire team within the valances of his good vibes. Flanked by rabid, skilled sous chefs like Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr and Dillon Brooks, he’s made the Grizzlies the NBA’s most vital squad. There’s a new team in town: it’s Memphis

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NBA Highlights From January 3rd-9th

With the holiday season and the wave of Covid disruptions (hopefully) behind us, the first week of 2022 delivered some thrilling NBA action, Klay Thompson played in his first game in two and a half years and looked as if he never left. The Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant and bulldozed their competition, stretching their win streak to nine consecutive games. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

Thompson’s return elevates a already-great Warriors team

For the first time in 941 days, Steph Curry’s fellow Splash Brother returned to action, and it seemed like the old times again. In his first game since the 2019 Finals, Klay Thompson rediscovered his rhythm and scored 17 points in 20 minutes as his Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 96-82.

As previously mentioned when discussing what to expect from Thompson in his return, the All-Star shooting guard the Warriors’ offense a new dimension. He was fluid in his movement without the ball, successfully drove to the basket (even punctuating his return with an uncharacteristic dunk in traffic), and was sound on defense.

The Grizzlies are entering the conversation of title contenders

It’s becoming a distant memory when some people thought of the Memphis Grizzlies as a playoff team, who would be fodder for an exciting yet predictable first-round exit. Instead, the Grizzlies, who are three and a half games out of first place in the Western Conference, are forcing their way into the conversation about the league’s title contenders.

Led by rising MVP candidate Ja Morant, the Grizz succeed because their depth and athleticism have produced the league’s No. 1 defense over the past six weeks (Allowing 101.8 per 100 possessions).

Don’t count out the Heat to lead the East

Despite experiencing many injuries and a schedule that had them play 25 of their first 41 games on the road, the Heat are the third seed in the Eastern Conference– only two and a half games out of first. So what can happen next? A realistic run to the NBA Finals.

With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo eventually making their return to the starting lineup, the Heat have all the necessary talents and coaching to challenge for the Eastern Conference crown, just as they did in the Bubble over a year and a half ago.

The Nets get Kyrie back but are still struggling

Even if the season debut of Kyrie Irving (who will only play road games because of NYC’s vaccination mandate) reignites the second-seeded Brooklyn Nets, it doesn’t fully erase their struggles over the last two-plus weeks. their struggles over the past two-plus weeks. Besides a rousing fourth-quarter comeback against the Pacers or rookie Cam Thomas’s game-winning floater against the Spurs on Sunday, the Nets have been fairly listless, losing four out of their previous six games.

And although every team has stretches where they play below their standard, it still feels as if we haven’t watched the Nets play their best basketball yet. But, with Irving now in tow and Durant still in MVP form, maybe that isn’t a bad thing.

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NBA Highlights From December 27th-January 2nd

The last week of 2021 gave NBA teams a unique opportunity to finish strong before aiming for a strong start in the New Year of 2022. As we approach the halfway point of this regular season in a matter of weeks, the action will intensify amongst teams determined to build their momentum further or drastically improve their situation. Down below are my four takeaways from the NBA’s latest week in action.

DeMar DeRozan should be on your MVP ballot

Even with fans and media members quick to name the usual candidates for this year’s MVP award (I.E., Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry, to name a couple), their dialogue lacks something if DeRozan isn’t mentioned. The multi-time All-Star has not only led the Chicago Bulls to the first seed in the Eastern Conference, but he’s easily the NBA’s most clutch player right now.

During the same week, DeRozan became the first player in league history to make game-winners on consecutive days; he averaged 28 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game during the Bulls’ ongoing seven-game winning streak.

Ja Morant’s leap into superstardom is happening

While some may have expected this to happen, it doesn’t make it less exciting than it is. In Morant’s third NBA season, he is taking that leap into superstardom which consists of a career-best production, team success, and signature moments that could make him a dark-horse MVP candidate this season.

To conclude 2021, we watched the former second overall pick outduel LeBron James two days after making a game-winning shot against the 28-8 Phoenix Suns on the road.

To say Jalen Smith has potential is an understatement

Even though the Phoenix Suns found a successful big man in Deandre Ayton (Selected first in the 2018 Draft), it was a rare bit of success for a team who has failed multiple times when looking for high-quality big men. But that could change again with the pending emergence of Jalen Smith.

The second-year power forward, who is thriving as a center at the moment, gives the Suns another very athletic and flexible big man to play regardless of Ayton’s availability. Over his past four games, Smith has averaged 16 points and ten rebounds per game while playing less than 30 minutes each game.

Kevin Love is turning back the hands of time

After months of hearing about a potential breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers and having a slow start to this season, Love is back to playing at the level one would expect from a multi-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist. Throughout December, Love averaged 17 points and over seven rebounds per game, but he’s entering the new year amid his best stretch in a long time.

Over his last five games, Love averaged 25 points and eight rebounds per game, including his 35-point and 11 rebounds performance against the Atlanta Hawks on New Year’s Eve. Love’s reemergence is a welcomed sight for a Cavs team that needs all contributions as they compete for a playoff berth.

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Five Random NBA Predictions In 2022

In its 75-year history, 2021 will go down as one of the most transformative years in the NBA. Several franchises saw their fortunes change overnight. A once-mediocre franchise became an NBA champion and was led by a player many didn’t expect to become the best in the world. And lastly, the league continued to navigate through a global pandemic. As 2022 is mere hours away from happening, I have five predictions for what could happen in the NBA next year.

Ja Morant will win the MVP

As crazy as this sounds, it will only be accurate when it happens. The former second overall pick is taking that “superstar leap,” that consists of producing a career-best stat line (24 PPG, 5 RPG, 6 APG, and nearly two steals per game), team success (The Grizzles are 22-14), and MVP-like moments— Morant outdueled LeBron James two nights after making a game-winning shot on the road against the 27-7 Phoenix Suns.

Even if Morant doesn’t win the MVP this season, you can expect his name to pop up in the conversation, and he will probably begin the 2022-’23 season on the shortlist of viable candidates who can win the award.

The league’s interest in expansion will come to fruition

For years, the NBA’s reported interest in expansion sparked conversations that have only gotten hotter due to the number of potential teams growing. But with significant support from the general public, especially when it comes to giving the city of Seattle a team again, the NBA could make expansion a reality by the end of next year.

And besides Seattle getting a team, cities such as Las Vegas, NV, and Kansas City, MO have been mentioned as the following locations to receive an NBA team, specifically the former.

Ben Simmons will be traded… in February

Since last summer, the former first overall pick has been in a stalemate with the Philadelphia 76ers, and there have been few indications of when he’ll play for them again. As much as 76ers general manager Daryl Morey wants to get his “bang for the buck” in any deal for Simmons, there’s a reported expectation that the team will trade him by this coming February’s trade deadline.

With a sizable list of teams interested in the three-time All-Star point forward, most notably the Portland Trail Blazers, there will be a loud reaction on the day Simmons gets traded and how much the 76ers received in exchange for him.

Everyone will love an in-season NBA tournament

Even though some people, including a few teams themselves, are still against the NBA’s play-in tournament, the truth is it’s a massive success from both a competitive and entertainment standpoint. The league has been motivated to find a way to make their regular seasons more critical, and they believe a mid-season tournament can help make that happen.

Fueled by several financial and competitive incentives, as well as European soccer’s ability to hold tournaments seasonally within their schedule, commissioner Adam Silver has championed this cause, with hopes it happens between next season and 2024-’25.

LeBron James will retire after the 2022-’23 season

It’s insane to believe that LeBron James and retirement hasn’t been realistic to us NBA fans because of his insanely-high level of play, but as the man himself said on Tuesday, “he is on the other side of that hill.” So given what it takes to play at the level the four-time NBA champion and MVP is required to play at, it wouldn’t be a surprise if James made the 2022-’23 season his last one.

Other than what is happening with the Los Angeles Lakers and their title chances, James will be playing in his twentieth season and could surpass Kareem Abdul Jabbar for most points scored by a player in league history. And minus the historic chance to play alongside his oldest son, Bronny James (who’s currently draft-eligible in 2024), King James doesn’t have much to play for at this point of his career.