NEW ORLEANS — Hours before a mid-December fixture against the Houston Rockets, Ja Morant, dressed in Memphis Grizzlies practice gear, is nestled in a courtside seat and smiling to himself while scrolling through his phone, winding down after morning shootaround.
Morant is in a particularly jocular mood today. Perhaps it’s because the days of his suspension are winding down and the 24-year-old is edging closer to his return but he’s not the only one in good spirits today. There’s a cheerful mood around the Toyota Center, from teammates to staff members.
The mornings before games are usually like this — a relaxed, calm setting where players can enjoy some camaraderie, at least before whatever the evening brings. And for a 6-16 Memphis team dealing with the pressures of a regular season campaign without key players and struggling to keep up with the Western Conference Joneses, it’s the eye of the storm.
A few minutes later, a Grizzlies social team staff member is seen walking two rows behind where Morant is seated, camera in hand. In what has become a tradition of sorts, Morant asks the employee for his camera. He’s a full-time point guard but for the time being, he’s also the team’s unofficial photographer.
Morant, now with the camera, shuffles over to the opposite side of the court where Xavier Tillman and Jake LaRavia are still taking jump shots. Morant is in point guard mode — he doesn’t know how to turn that off — taking control and snapping pictures of his teammates from different angles.
“My boy got that flick for the ‘Gram!” Morant exclaims.
He crosses half court and heads over to veteran guard Marcus Smart who wants in on the fun, embarking on his photo shoot with poses galore. Like an All-NBA guard scanning a defense, Morant quickly spots center Bismack Biyombo seated near the baseline, stretched out as if he’s in first class.
“I gotta get this one,” Morant says, as Biyombo gives him a thumbs-up. The room fills with laughter.
“Our mood’s been the same,” Grizzlies forward Ziaire Williams told The Athletic. “We haven’t been winning games, but still come in with the mentality that we’re going to win the next game, we’re going to play together and play hard.”
Moments like these — funny, silly times with teammates — are when Morant seems happiest. They’re not things to be taken for granted. Not anymore.
Six months ago, Morant was suspended by NBA commissioner Adam Silver for a minimum of 25 games “for conduct detrimental to the league,” after Morant was seen on Instagram Live posing with a gun, his second such offense in three months. Before he could return, he would have to comply with Silver and the NBA fully.
That time away from the team, not being able to actively contribute in games, cost the Grizzlies dearly. It also cost Morant, being removed from something he truly loves.
“You could tell the suspension was wearing on him a little bit as it would anybody who gets the game taken away from him,” Desmond Bane told The Athletic. “But through his work, his family, us, playing cards, whatever the case may be, just interacting helped him get through it.”
Morant is back now. But for him and the Grizzlies to pick up where they left off and get Memphis back in the contender conversation, it first starts with maturity on Morant’s part. It’s also going to take a certain level of comfort, inclusiveness and most importantly, communication. Fortunately, for both sides, the bulk of the work has already been done.
“He’s been awesome outside of not being able to play in games,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said last week. “He’s taken every opportunity to be with his teammates. He’s really leaned into the team a lot — off-court stuff, leadership role he’s taken. The voice, he’s Zooming in during games talking to his teammates, connecting with them after the game and on plane rides.
“Conversations I’ve been having with him, he’s been impressed with the structure put in place for him from a workrate standpoint, making sure he was doing everything physically and felt the support as much as possible throughout this process. Very impressed with his commitment to the process. When it comes to what he does every single day inside these walls with his teammates and coaches, fellow staff, he’s been awesome.”
Having played over a quarter of the season already, both Morant and the Grizzlies understand there’s going to be a natural adjustment period, not only as Morant gets reacclimated to his teammates but as they adjust to him as well. Some games will be easier than others from a chemistry standpoint.
Without Morant, it’s been an uphill battle all season, with a few moments of frustration leaking out for a Memphis team that expects to be in the mix yearly. There have been moments at the opposite ends of the spectrum — Jenkins going off on the officials after an embarrassing home loss to the Utah Jazz and a lifeless performance on the road against the No. 1-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, prompting a Smart profanity-laced intervention.
The injuries also have been prevalent. Starting center Steven Adams is out for the year after having surgery on a nagging right knee. Brandon Clarke is still unable to suit up, recovering from an Achilles injury sustained nine months ago. Even Tillman, Adams’ stand-in, has missed time, prompting the Grizzlies to sign free agent Biyombo. Add that to the time missed from the collective of sharpshooter Luke Kennard, Smart and veteran point guard Derrick Rose and it’s clear why this team has had an arduous time keeping afloat. It’s often said that phases in the NBA don’t last forever, but it’s been a sudden and stark fall for a Grizzlies team that hadn’t just learned to play without Morant in seasons past but was putting wins together.
But even with the chaos that has accompanied Memphis’ first 25 games of the season, Morant has been able to maintain a close view of the action, within league parameters. Without the benefit of live game action to reflect on, film study has increasingly become a focus for Morant as the next-best alternative to being on the floor.
“It pretty much has been film study for me,” Morant said last week. “Obviously, I’ve been with the majority of the players for a while now, and obviously, we’ve got some new pieces, so me being the point guard, that’s guys I have to learn and find out where they want to be on the floor.”
The conversations and the work can take place anywhere, from the practice floor to while flying at 30,000 feet on the team plane. And a lot of those sessions don’t just take place between Morant and Jenkins. Bane, his backcourt compatriot, spends a lot of time with Morant as well.
Bane, a fourth-year guard from TCU who signed a $207 million max extension over the summer, had to bear the brunt of the Grizzlies’ sputtering offense while Morant was away and was thrown into the playmaking deep end on most nights. He’s averaging a career-high in assists (5.2) but is also turning it over at a career-high rate as well (3.0 per game).
“A lot of the mistakes I’m making, he’s been in those same shoes,” Bane said. “So we can relate and he’ll help slow the game down for me and tell me what they’re going to do and where you should be looking. Once I get into the games, it’s natural. Not a whole lot of thinking, just playing.”
There’s a special bond between Morant and Bane that goes beyond sharing the floor. On the road, their lockers are next to each other. In the air, their competitive spirit only heightens, whether it’s discussing schemes or even playing cards.
“It’s competitive for sure,” Bane said. “He’s up some money on me right now. I’m pissed about it.”
But Morant also understands a lot of what Bane has had to experience this season, being tasked with carrying an offensive scheme on his shoulders and having defenses primed to slow him down. That connection lends itself to conversation.
“I’ve obviously learned a lot from him,” Bane said of Morant. “He’s been super engaged around the team whether it’s practice, games, giving his input wherever it can help. It’s been good to be able to learn from him, break down film. Definitely been a positive experience.”
On Tuesday night, Tee Morant wanted to blend in as much as possible. He wanted to be close to his son on the day of his emotional return, but he didn’t want to be the center of attention. He didn’t want to say or do too much. He had seen the negative effects that come with it in the past.
But with each twist and turn the game brought, watching his son Ja give everything he had to drag the Grizzlies over the finish line against the Pelicans, it was impossible not to be swept up in the emotion. When Ja had a big moment or a tough finish at the rim, Tee was the first to stand up and cheer his son on. When the game called for serious moments, Tee followed suit. It was an emotional roller coaster that ended with Ja sending the Pelicans packing on a buzzer-beating layup, an ending that could have only been written by destiny.
“It’s a lot of emotions throughout the whole family,” Tee Morant told The Athletic. “We all were excited. Having him back courtside, being able to not only root for him but for this team was big time.”
After the game with members of the Grizzlies in playoff-esque euphoria, Tee and Ja shared a long embrace. There’s perhaps no better person who understands what Ja has been going through than his father, who has repeatedly taken a fair share of blame for his son’s actions over the last eight months.
“S—, everything,” Tee said when asked about the significance of the moment. “Everything. All the dedication. All the dedication that we put into everything. That kid ain’t did nothing to nobody. I feel bad as a father because I want to take all the (blame) for anything he does wrong — give it to me. But don’t do him like that if he doesn’t commit a crime. Everybody writes what they write, but now when y’all see, the proof is in the pudding.”
One game alone doesn’t tell a story, but Morant showed Memphis everything they had been lacking in his absence. His fearless drives to the rim put pressure on a lengthy New Orleans defense that was forced to adjust throughout the game but cracked at the worst possible time. The Grizzlies scored a whopping 62 points in the paint, nearly 20 points higher than their season average, and Morant was at its epicenter, steering the ship.
For the first time in a long time, Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. were able to take off their Batman costumes and revel in being Robins. Both have recently elevated their games out of necessity — which will certainly come in handy down the line.
“Just feeding off of one another,” Bane said. “He’s one of the best players in the league and we’re going to lean on him to create a lot and do a lot for us. When he’s doing that, I’ll be the beneficiary on the backend of some of that, making each other’s life easier.”
“We work on our game in the summer a lot to be able to add different offensive things,” Jackson added. “We’ve been playing together for a long time now, so it helps.”
Morant’s heroics were enough to grab the 115-113 victory, but there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done. Memphis has a tough schedule to end the calendar year, having to come back to New Orleans and also seeing the likes of the Nuggets, Clippers and Kings. The new year will bring its challenges. The Grizzlies also will have to monitor Morant’s fitness and energy, ensuring they don’t burn him out too early. There’s still the question of solidifying Jenkins’ rotation once everyone is healthy and improving on Memphis’ 27th-ranked offense.
But these are tasks Ja is prepared for. He’s spent the last eight months preparing for these moments. His actions forced him to take a step away from the game. But he’s said he’s sought help, learned about himself through therapy, got closer to God and spent time with family and loved ones. The Grizzlies aren’t free-falling but need all the help they can get. If anyone is built to handle pressure, it’s Ja Morant. Now, it’s time to get to work. The grit and grind way. The Memphis way.
“Man, I love every minute I spend with my kid,” Tee said. “But to see him going through this when he didn’t need to go through? He didn’t commit a crime. But at the same time, everything is about this kid proving who he is as a man and as a hooper. Train to go.”
(Top photo of Morant: Chris Graythen / Getty Images)