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Defining Moments of the NBA Season: Ja Morant Educates James Harden

The Grizzlies’ rookie sensation had already made a strong first impression, but he audaciously announced his arrival against the former MVP

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is on hold for the foreseeable future. To help fill the void, we’re looking back at the defining moments of the 65-ish games of the 2019-20 season so far.

By mid-January, if you weren’t already eminently aware of who Ja Morant is, well, that was a “you” problem. The no. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft had long since emerged as what the god Walt “Clyde” Frazier would admiringly call a precocious neophyte. Forty games into his rookie season, Morant displayed a combination of scoring touch, advanced playmaking, and irrepressible courage that stamped him as the early leader for Rookie of the Year honors. He was winning, too: When Memphis hosted the Rockets on January 14, the young Grizzlies had won five straight games, making a surprising slide into playoff position in the Western Conference.

Houston superstar James Harden had already gotten an up-close-and-personal look at the damage Morant could do. After watching Ja pop for 23 points, six assists, and five rebounds in a 107-100 Rockets win on November 4—a game in which the Grizzlies outscored Houston by 12 points in Morant’s 28 minutes—Harden told reporters that he thought the newcomer was “a beast, man … He has no ‘nervous’ at all. He’s aggressive. He’s in full attack mode.”

But Morant was still a 20-year-old freshman, and one who’d entered the league with some questions about his jumper, so when Houston faced Memphis again in January, Harden decided he was still going to make the kid prove it. Midway through the first quarter, Morant corralled the ball above the 3-point arc and sized up Harden, who hung back well behind the line, inviting the rookie to pull up and sing for his supper. The kid didn’t sing. He screamed.

Tell that motherfucker about me. I’m here. I’m here. It’s the kind of pronouncement that gives you goosebumps—an ice-cold statement of purpose. The audacious arrival of something special.

It wasn’t the first impression Morant had made during his sterling rookie season—he’d already battled and bested Kyrie Irving in just his third career game, famously annihilated Aron Baynes, nearly killed Kevin Love, and become a staple of the NBA’s nightly diet of jaw-dropping highlights—but it was a damn good one. It wasn’t enough, though. He wanted to make sure that Harden and the Rockets knew exactly how the hell he got down, and he did it over …

… and over ....

… as the FedExForum faithful were overcome by the spirit and started speaking in tongues, as the Grizzlies started putting the hurt on their guests, and as the first-year phenom made a believer out of the former MVP.

With Memphis up six and just under 2:30 to go, Morant once again sized the defense up from beyond the arc. This time, though, Harden was up on him, feet straddling the 3-point line, waiting for the kid to make his move. So Ja did. Which is to say: He made his move.

A stepback 3, right in the mug of the dude who made the stepback 3 an art form, to effectively ice an impressive and emphatic win. He didn’t say the line this time. It was implied.

The game-sealing stepback over Harden was the exclamation point punctuating a brilliant game by Morant, who finished with 26 points on 10-for-11 shooting—including a 3-for-4 mark from long distance—to go with eight assists, five rebounds, a block, and a steal in 37 minutes. It was also the perfect bookend to a commanding performance that began, in earnest, with a barked 12-letter expletive.

There’s no shortage of plays and moments to choose from when you’re looking to sum up what made Ja Morant such an instant sensation in his first season, and why his arrival (among other additions and continued evolutions) makes Memphis’s present and future look so bright. I like this one, though: a clear exhibition of his imperial swagger and incandescent skills, a combination that makes him a perfect fit for an organizational culture long built on grit, grind, and not bluffing, and a cocktail heady enough to make him feel perfectly comfortable woofing at one of the best players in the world.

“I just ... don’t care, honestly,” Morant told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols in a February interview. “I just feel like everybody put they shoes and stuff on the same way I do. So it’s no reason to be afraid of anybody.”

Especially when you prove you can back it up. Ja Morant is fucking scary. It’s the rest of the league that should be afraid.