One of the reasons Stephen Curry’s game resonates so much with so many people—beyond the fact that it’s, y’know, incredible—is that his relatively small stature for an NBA player makes it easier for fans to relate to him. Few of us can fathom what it would be like to stand 7 feet tall and overwhelm other elite athletic marvels with sheer size and power. The barrier to entry for casting yourself as the 6-foot-2, 185-pound dude—a guy who looks a lot more like people we might interact with on the regular, save for the part where his jumper always goes in—seems a lot lower, by comparison. (This take has always undersold the quieter but no less remarkable aspects of athleticism—the dexterity, balance, hand-eye coordination, and agility—that have made Curry a two-time MVP, but still: you get it.)
It struck me on Monday night, as I watched Ja Morant dunk Jakob Poeltl into the ninth circle of hell, that the Grizzlies superstar occupies a kindred but inverse space. The fact that Morant’s 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds might make him seem more ordinary than the lion’s share of larger NBA players. What makes him so goddamn compelling, though, is how impossible it is to imagine our own bodies working this way—how immediately, nakedly, blindly obvious it is that he is, very literally, Built Different.
Morant took an outlet pass from Grizzlies center Steven Adams, blithely dribbled past Spurs rookie Josh Primo, and, after one more bounce, found himself face to face with Poeltl. He planted his right foot outside the paint, touched his left foot down just inside it, and—without any hesitation—soared into the air. Of course he didn’t hesitate. If you could do that, why in the world would you?
This dude Ja Morant dunked and posterized everyone from HERE. pic.twitter.com/ahy1WXxafC— Jared Block (@jaredrblock) March 1, 2022
As in the Ohio Valley, so in the NBA—against a 7-foot-1 245-pounder who’s sixth in the league in blocks, no less. It made Memphis play-by-play broadcaster Pete Pranica unleash a primal scream. It turned Grizzlies radio voice Eric Hasseltine into Duke Tango. It made us all quite grateful to receive our nightly allotment of absurd Ja highlights. Daren’t ask for more. Wouldn’t want to be greedy.
Except that, with Morant, you might only have to wait a couple of minutes for another serving. Like, literally. Two minutes later:
With just four-tenths of a second remaining in the first half, Adams launched a length-of-the-court Hail Mary—seriously, who taught the Ent how to play quarterback?—and dropped it perfectly in to Morant in the left corner, where he had just enough time and space to leap, catch, and splash a buzzer-beating jumper from the baseline, sending Memphis into intermission up 10 … and sending a FedExForum full of geeked-out Grizzlies partisans into hysterics yet again.
This is the face of a man who believes he can do absolutely anything, because he is a man of science, and he has seen the proof:
The beauty part: A Spurs team vying for a play-in berth and to get legendary head coach Gregg Popovich the win that would tie him with Don Nelson atop the all-time coaching leaderboard continued to fight its ass off in the second half. That forced the Grizz to play a tight game … which forced Morant, who’d already put up 29 and a pair of highlights that’d lead off most players’ career mixtapes, to keep his foot on the gas.
Thank you, Spurs. And also: sorry, Spurs.
As if he hadn’t terrorized Poeltl enough, Morant just kept pounding the Spurs’ drop pick-and-roll coverage, drawing the San Antonio center out to the perimeter before exploding past him into the lane again, and again, and again. He had 39 after three quarters. He tied his career high and franchise record of 46, which he’d set just two nights earlier, with 4:16 to go.
His teammates just kept feeding him, and the Spurs just kept obliging him, and before you knew it—thanks in part to Adams diving out of bounds to save a loose ball and Jaren Jackson Jr. hustling to snare a steal and hunt for his running buddy on the perimeter—Ja Morant had not only his first career 50-point game, but the first in the 26-year history of the Grizzlies franchise. He’d tack on a couple of free throws in the closing minutes of Memphis’s 118-105 win, finishing with 52 points in just 34 minutes of work. Only eight other players have ever scored that much in a game in so few minutes, and it’s a list of Hall of Fame–level company: Bird, Kobe, Gervin, Harden, Kyrie, Karl Malone, T-Mac, and Klay.
How Morant got there, too, is different. Ja scored 34 points in the paint on Monday—the fifth-highest number any NBA player has produced in the past quarter-century, and more than double his already-league-leading season average. (That’s right: A 6-foot-3 point guard averages more points in the paint than Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic.) He also made just four free throws; only nine other 50-balls since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976 have featured fewer freebies.
Morant’s incredible ability to dismantle a defense in the pick-and-roll has made him one of the game’s great scorers and playmakers, and one of its most devastating offensive players period. Since Christmas, he’s averaging more than 30 points, six rebounds, and six assists per game while making more than half of his shots, which is something that only Michael Jordan has ever done for a full season. That sort of offensive production, delivered in service of a team that now sits just a game behind Curry’s Warriors for second place in the Western Conference, tends to land you on MVP ballots. Just ask another undersized destroyer who delights in recognizing real:
Sooner or Later!!! @JaMorant pic.twitter.com/KshIUz01B6— Allen Iverson (@alleniverson) March 1, 2022
pass the torch OG https://t.co/xt6FSayiqY pic.twitter.com/8tdRSsaVe3— Ja Morant (@JaMorant) March 1, 2022
Beyond the numbers and the accolades, though, it’s the emotions and sounds that Morant inspires—the sheer awe, the roars, the jaw-slackening wonder—that make what he’s doing every night so incredible.
No other player in the league matches Morant’s combination of relentlessness, fluidity, finishing skill, leaping ability, and unabashed showmanship—the willingness to say fuck it and scale a mountain, and the capacity to not only reach the summit but break the whole thing down to gravel once you get there. He is the most aesthetically satisfying and singularly thrilling player to watch in the NBA right now; every night, every quarter, every possession bursts with fresh possibilities to watch the 22-year-old do something that takes your breath away. And, just when you think he’s reached his grand finale, he reaches into that impossibly deep bag of tricks and unveils an even more astonishing encore.
“Petey, I thought we’d seen it all,” Grizzlies color commentator Brevin Knight said after Morant made Poeltl into a poster. “We have not seen it all.”