Why Ja Morant is more than just a highlight-reel player

NEW YORK — Memphis Grizzlies rookie sensation Ja Morant didn’t begin getting recognition until he attended Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp after his freshman season at Murray State.

That’s when the mid-major prospect was really able to show off his star potential on a bigger stage.

“Not many people knew of him before the camp, and then he blew up,” Paul told Yahoo Sports.

Morant parlayed his high-flying exploits and a fabulous sophomore year with the Racers into becoming the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. He’s continued to exceed expectations ever since, averaging 17.6 points and seven assists for the surprising Grizzlies (32-32), who just might make the playoffs.

And if they do, the 20-year-old point guard just might beat out No. 1 pick Zion Williamson (23.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) — who has been performing on another level after missing the majority of the 2019-20 campaign due to injury rehab — for NBA Rookie of the Year honors.

“He’s been great, and I think he’s only going to get better,” Paul said of Morant. “When you get the opportunity to come into the league and the coach puts the ball in your hands, there’s nothing like it. I had that opportunity in New Orleans. Trae Young has that opportunity in Atlanta. So you get that on-the-job training.”

But despite his early successes as a pro, Morant will always have a chip on his shoulder. That’s what happens when you’re unranked and unnoticed during your high school career in South Carolina, counted out so many times, and discovered by a Murray State assistant in an auxiliary gym only because the coach was hungry.

El  base de los Grizzlies de Memphis Ja Morant clava el balón en el duelo ante los Nets de Brooklyn del miércoles 4 de marzo del 2020. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Memphis' Ja Morant is averaging 17.6 points and seven assists per game. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

“Still am. I’m sure everybody sees it. Still am,” Morant told Yahoo Sports of being counted out by naysayers. “And that’s what motivates me. My family motivates me. My daughter [Kaari Jaidyn] motivates me. What I’ve been through motivates me [Morant’s cousin, Trey, died following a motorcycle accident in 2017]. I just continue to keep that chip and go out and play.”

Morant remains motivated by words of wisdom his parents instilled in him, including “beneath no one” and “trained to go.” A Nike ad featuring the 6-foot-3 dynamo features the phrase, “Underrated to Undeniable.”

“Honestly, I don’t care,” Morant responded when asked if his mentality will ever change. “I feed off negative energy, so I appreciate all that.”

A year ago, Morant was in the middle of March Madness with the Racers. Now, he’s in the middle of a postseason fight with the Grizzlies. Memphis wasn’t supposed to be fighting for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. But under the direction of coach Taylor Jenkins, its talented young core is ahead of schedule, with Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. (20), Dillon Brooks (24) and fellow rookie Brandon Clarke (23) leading the way.

“I think it would mean a lot,” Morant said of making the playoffs. “I mean, we’re a whole new team, we’re young, and making the playoffs would be big. I can’t tell you the last time they made the playoffs [2016-17], but for us to make it would be special.”

Morant quickly set the tone for what was to come in the third game of his career, going toe-to-toe with Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. He finished with 30 points while blocking Irving’s shot to send the Oct. 27, 2019, matchup into overtime, and the Grizzlies ended up winning.

Since then, there have been many more highlights, with Morant always looking to posterize opponents and detonate the rim. Even his missed attempts at dunking over Los Angeles Lakers star Anthony Davis and Cleveland Cavaliers big man Kevin Love quickly went viral.

“It’s where I wanted to be. That was my goal,” Morant said of his transition from college to the NBA. “At the end of the day, it’s still basketball for me. It’s a different level. But I still want to go out there and play my same game.”

Morant and Paul have maintained a close relationship since CP3 was teaching Ja about how to handle ball-screens at his camp. Big bro and little bro exchanged jerseys after facing one another in December, with Morant saying Paul’s court vision was on his “NBA Christmas wish list.”

“I’ve texted him a few times,” Paul said. “A lot of stuff you learn on your own, but I told him I’m always here to talk about anything. It’s going to be cool to watch him over the years.”

Morant recently insisted he doesn’t care about winning Rookie of the Year. “They can give that to who they want,” he said.

As for Paul, well, he wouldn’t answer. The Ja vs. Zion debate will have to be decided by someone else.

“Man ...” he responded. “Ja has been competing all year long. He’s got that team in playoff consideration, and I tip my hat off to him for that, too.”

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