You could feel it coming during the preseason: Ja Morant was about to hit the gas.
After winning Rookie of the Year honors last season and leading the upstart Grizzlies to within one victory of a surprise playoff berth, the 21-year-old lightning bolt looked poised to explode in exhibition play, averaging nearly 18-10-5 in just 26 minutes per game while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and getting wherever he wanted on the court. That Memphis dropped its first two games of the regular-season slate came as a disappointment, but Morant’s play in them—a career-high 44 points on 18-for-27 shooting with nine assists against San Antonio, followed by 28 points and seven assists in a duel with Trae Young—most assuredly did not.
The Grizzlies got off the schneid on Monday, scoring a 116-111 overtime win against a Nets team playing without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the injured Spencer Dinwiddie, but it was one of them Pyrrhic victories. Just before halftime, Morant hustled to try to snuff out a late-shot-clock attempt by Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, but landed awkwardly on the Brooklyn swingman’s foot; Morant immediately hopped off the court, writhing in agony, and eventually needed a wheelchair to get back to the locker room.
Ja Morant suffered an apparent ankle injury vs. the Nets and had to be wheelchaired out of the court area. pic.twitter.com/KUySJRfZZy— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 29, 2020
Morant later returned to the Memphis bench wearing a walking boot following negative X-rays. (Thank heaven for small mercies.) His night was over; all that was left was to determine how many more nights he’d miss. The Grizzlies announced Tuesday that it will be quite a few of them: An MRI revealed that Ja had suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his left ankle “with an expected recovery time of 3-5 weeks.” That timeline would put Morant’s return somewhere between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the start of February; this would cost him somewhere between 11 and 18 games, potentially as much as a quarter of the curtailed 72-game schedule.
Given the severity of Morant’s response, it’s no small blessing that the injury wasn’t worse. Still, though, a month or so on the shelf stings for the second-year star …
dis one hurt ngl— Ja Morant (@JaMorant) December 29, 2020
… and for a Grizzlies team that has struggled mightily in the early going with Morant off the court. Through three games, Memphis has outscored opponents by 12 points in Morant’s 81 minutes of floor time, and been outscored by 29 points in 68 minutes without him, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Last season, Tyus Jones, 24, was one of the league’s better backup point guards, chipping in 7.4 points and 4.4 assists in 19 minutes per night with a sparkling 5.2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio; his absence in the bubble due to a knee injury played a significant role in the Grizzlies sputtering through seeding-game play. But Jones has had a hard time finding both his stroke—he’s just 3-for-21 from 3-point range between the preseason and the first three games—and his playmaking rhythm with fellow second-unit linchpins Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton (who’s currently sidelined as part of the league’s COVID-19 protocols). As a result, what was one of the league’s better benches has fizzled early; in 140 non-garbage-time possessions without Morant, the Grizzlies have mustered a dismal offensive rating of 93.6, according to Cleaning the Glass—a number culled from a vanishingly small sample, yes, but also one that calls to mind the offensive efficiency of the 2011 lockout season Charlotte Bobcats, who were, and you must trust me on this, not a team you want to be compared to, in any context.
Memphis is in trouble without Morant; no team should be expected to play particularly well without its leading scorer and top facilitator. How second-year head coach Taylor Jenkins attempts to plug the gaps should be interesting, though. Jones is the only other “pure” point guard on the roster; you’d expect him to slide into the starting spot, especially with both Melton and Justise Winslow (who played point guard in Miami once upon a time, but whose ongoing back and hip injuries have kept him from suiting up for the Grizz yet) unavailable.
You wonder, though, whether Jenkins might be better served keeping Jones and Clarke tethered to try to rediscover their flow and putting more playmaking responsibility in the hands of someone else. Kyle Anderson scuffled for most of last season as he came back from shoulder surgery, but he started to look sharper after the All-Star break, and at times looked like Memphis’s second-best table-setter in the bubble. He’s shooting 54.3 percent from the floor and 46.8 percent from long distance in seven preseason and regular-season games, and scored a career-high 28 points to help deliver Memphis’s first win in Brooklyn with Morant looking on from the bench:
Even if “Slo Mo” can maintain a high level of play as an unlikely savior at point power forward and if Jones can return to last season’s form, a Grizzlies team already missing several key components could be hard-pressed to weather three to five weeks without the straw that stirs their drink. That doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost in Memphis this season, though, especially in a Western Conference in which a number of teams—the reeling Warriors, the Harden-saga-stricken Rockets, the future-considerations-considering Thunder, the Karl-Anthony Towns–less Timberwolves—appear to be in flux.
There are two different best-case scenarios here, depending on your preferred outlook. In one, steady diets of Anderson’s herky-jerky drives, Jonas Valanciunas mauling in the post, and Dillon Brooks pulling up from wherever he damn well pleases keep the Grizzlies afloat for a berth in the play-in tournament, and the eventual returns of Morant, Jackson, and Winslow make Memphis the proverbial Team Nobody Wants to Play come springtime. In the other scenario, the Grizz fall off the pace quickly; the injured stars take their sweet time getting back; Jenkins and executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman get extended looks at how youngsters like Clarke, Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman, Jontay Porter, and Killian Tillie might fit into Memphis’s future plans; and Memphis finds itself in prime position to land a top 2021 draft pick and add another blue-chip prospect to the Ja-JJJ core.
Either outcome would be more or less fine, because of the presence of that inside-out tandem. Tuesday’s update hurts, but as soon as the X-rays came back negative on Monday, Morant had already avoided a more severe injury and Memphis’s worst-case scenario; so long as Morant is able to make a timely return, the Grizzlies have plenty to look forward to. Even if they have to wait a bit for it.