Ja Morant was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year on Thursday. Out of 100 first-place votes, he got 99. Zion scooped up the other to keep it from being consensus. Morant was better than advertised this year, some kind of basketball luchador who could Rey Mysterio himself into the rim’s immediate vicinity. He led the Grizzlies to the postseason play-in, a neighborhood nobody thought they’d be in at the start of the season, and kept swinging until the combination of Dame’s nukes and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s absence shut the door on their playoff hopes. Morant went for 35 in that play-in game. Did so with a fractured thumb. Sometimes, in the air, it’s like he’s in space.
A Morant highlight mixtape is a feast for the senses. Call it Portrait of an Antigravity Plane. There are sword swallowers and men on fire. People sticking their heads inside the mouths of alligators. A half-dozen under-glowed Ford Lightnings doing burn-outs in the parking lot of a Dollar General. He moves like a jaguar and has every pass. If it needs mustard, the condiment bar is fully stocked, little sparks kicking off the back of the ball.
I’m not a big goggles guy. Typically, when I go swimming, I’m not very prepared. It’s a miracle if I have dry clothes to put on afterward. I usually drive home in damp trunks making my seat wet and my haunches itch. I’m not anti-goggles. If they’re available and fit and won’t make my face look weird with the lines and all that, I’ll wear them. It’s fun to go underwater and be able to see. But goggles just have not become part of my everyswim experience.
Morant, though? His goggles are part of him. He lives in them, works in them, breaks them out all the time. Might as well be Furiosa in a sandstorm. Personally, I’m grateful for the eyewear. They make magic and look fantastic.
Spectacles of great renown, absolutely stunning. His eyes are privy to a world the rest of us don’t get to know. He sees things we can’t, so he’s constantly coming out of nowhere, quickly, ready to eat a soul and put on a show. One day he’ll light the rim on fire and dive through it.
Morant makes buildings loud, even the hostile ones. Yammed on Aron Baynes in Phoenix earlier this year and the crowd found a way to groan and yell at the same time. Morant caught the Aussie in a switch, got into the lane, got on the rim.
Calling Morant athletic is like calling the Grand Canyon big. Doesn’t really do reality justice. This dunk was so disrespectful it made a guy (just under the net in the picture below) go full KG with the camcorder at the Vince Carter slam dunk contest. I especially enjoy the kid in the upper-left-hand corner. Morant got Baynes so bad the young man had to cringe. Pained expressions on so many faces. There’s shock. There’s horror. There’s intrigue.
Even after the explosion of noise at detonation, there’s that murmuring in the stands that permeates every arena anytime a visiting player does something amazing. They don’t want to betray their team and cheer for the enemy, but they have to release something. The dunk was so surprising—Morant rose so quickly—the Phoenix broadcast team didn’t even do the thing where the local announcers homer it up and act like the play wasn’t great because it was made by someone on the other team. It would’ve been futile anyway. Some things are undeniable. Anyone with eyes would tell you that play was cool as hell whether they knew anything about basketball or not. For the announcers to pretend otherwise would’ve been dishonest. He did this with under a minute left to play in a game they led by only four. The kid’s a mad man.
The greatest players control the volume in the arena. They lean on the knob in either direction, get the decibels where they want them. Before the bubble, the fans at FedExForum were his choir and he conducted them with vigor and style. Sauce is added to certain moves, assorted pieces of flair, all carefully selected and intricately designed to bring someone out of their chair. His Flubber legs shoot him to the stars.
I’ve mainly not missed the fans during these bubble games. The fake crowd noise is convincing enough and the moments you can actually hear the players’ voices are enormously exciting for those of us who haven’t been fortunate enough to sit in the first few rows at an NBA game. I love that there are no fans sitting courtside or under the basket. It’s enabled players to get more creative than they would be otherwise. This Chris Paul pass, for instance, something so surreally beautiful that people did not think it was real, doesn’t happen with fans sitting courtside.
There’s no way. Somebody’s nachos or knees or beer would be nearby, a wall of people behind and beside him. The ref might be crowding him some. Maybe a few fans are trying to get up and go to the bathroom. Maybe a couple more are getting back to their seats from getting concessions. They have their drinks in tow. They’re carrying them like how people (used to) do at packed parties sometimes, where the drink’s over their head or out away from their body. I’m thrilled nobody was there so this pass could happen. I’m thrilled to have gotten to see that.
But we do lose something. Home crowds have established relationships with players, know their games best. As the people of Memphis learn Morant and he learns them, whatever year fans are allowed back, they’re going to combine for delirium. Imagine Dame doing what he did in the bubble in Portland. The camera would’ve been shaking. Same thing with Luka and Dallas when he hit his buzzer-beater against the Clippers. Same thing with Denver or Utah during any of the laser light shows Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray put on.
Sometimes it’s the anticipation of the wondrous, when people can watch it develop in front of them, that leads to the best reactions. Morant had a play against the Jazz this season where he almost lost the ball in the backcourt only to get it back and continue his trip up the coast. He crossed up Joe Ingles at half-court. He kept heading toward the rim. With every dribble the crowd got louder, more and more people seeing the way the defense was set, what might be coming. He may as well have been a running back with one man to beat, a bunch of green ahead of him. Ingles wound up a half-step behind when Morant took off, from the dotted line, with both hands, and made the place boom. Some people were already standing when he left his feet. They knew the future and raised their hands with him. Two men sat behind the Memphis bench in loud shirts, one orange, one baby blue. They looked like friends. Morant hung on the rim a little to punctuate the dunk. The men threw their fists in the air to celebrate. They looked like a W. Go to 1:53.
May the basketball gods smile on his bones and ligaments forever. May we get a decade and a half of this stuff.
He inspires great quotes. Sometimes it’s the announcers.
“There aren’t many players that you can’t take your eyes off. He’s one of the very few.” —Jay Bilas
“Morant has the Lakers grasping at shadows.” —Memphis Grizzlies play-by-play man Pete Pranica
Sometimes it’s his family.
“I was worried about his athleticism, you know, because he wasn’t dunking. So that’s when I got the big tractor tires in the backyard. So, after every drill I had him jumping on it 25 times. And then after that, the bounce got crazy.” —Tee Morant (father)
These quotes are all from Clinton Yates’s E60 piece on Morant—a truly great seven minutes of television that details his rise from unknown and underrecruited South Carolinian to projected no. 2 pick in last year’s draft. I have to say, if I had a kid who was 5-foot-7 as a freshman and they weren’t dunking yet, I wouldn’t be worried. They’re 5-foot-7 and a freshman in high school. Of all the 5-foot-7 freshmen in the world right now, how many of them can dunk? Can even one? Would you direct me to their highlights so they might become a viral sensation and bring some joy to this senseless world? Maybe if the kid were 6-foot-7 and a senior or something I’d be worried, but this is one of the many reasons why I’m an idiot and Tee Morant’s the genius father of one of the greatest athletes to ever grace the planet.
Morant even inspires great quotes from himself.
It makes sense. If I were Morant, I’d be inspired by myself. I’d watch myself play every chance I got. I’d build a full-size basketball court surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors so I could watch myself hoop all day. I’d revel at the things my body was capable of. I’d set up video cameras in there at various angles and watch my reflection’s reflection’s reflection do 360 windmills until the fluorescent bulbs burnt out and I had to get some more.
Morant told SportsCenter that his play of the year was the game-winner he had in Charlotte back in mid-November. He finished at the rim with his left over a couple Hornets, 0.7 secs left on the clock, bunch of sad faces in the stands.
The Baynes baptism is certainly in the running. So is this one-handed alley-oop he caught against the Cavs.
I would not fight anyone who said it was the block he had on Kyrie early in the year.
And I would not suplex anyone who said it was the time he crossed up Jerome Robinson, turned him around, and had him looking for his dignity on the ground.
Morant’s such a showman there’s an argument to be made that his two best plays this season were misses, both of them almost-dunks that would’ve entered every greatest dunks compilation on YouTube and whatever replaces YouTube from now until the sun swallows the earth. One miss was against Kevin Love. The other was against Anthony Davis.
The Grizzlies need to figure out a way to license Kevin Harlan shouting his legendary call of LeBron’s dunk on Garnett during the 2008 Eastern Conference semis. “With no regard for human life!” has never fit a player more. With Morant, make or miss, it’s always appropriate. He will try anyone at any time, self-preservation be damned.
“My mindset is I’d rather miss a dunk than a layup,” Morant told Velveeta. “So obviously, I feel like I’m going into the paint aggressive. You anywhere close to that charge circle, good luck.”
Sometimes it’s like he fast-forwards himself. During a January game against the Pelicans he got a pick from Jonas Valanciunas and found himself in the middle of the lane with Nicolò Melli on a platter in front of him. Morant wiped the drool from his mouth and went behind the back to go by him. It happened so fast I wondered whether the video glitched and I missed something. You watch his highlights and he makes you think there’s something wrong with your phone. Go to 1:38.
He did something similar to Deandre Ayton. Had a live dribble just below the left elbow and faced the sideline opposite the scorer’s table. Ayton tried to corral Morant but Ja hit him with a crossover, went left to right and to the rim. Go to 7:59.
It’s like the tape skips. He’s disorienting, one of those astronaut training chairs. He delivered an oop to fellow rookie revelation Brandon Clarke during a game against the Rockets and took the time to smile about it.
It’s important to appreciate cool things. Most things aren’t. He broke out the goggles directly after this.
How could he not? I did not watch every Grizzlies game this year. I wish I had.