With a similar career trajectory, can Ja Morant move into title contention, unlike Damian Lillard?
Ja Morant has had a hot start to the 2021-22 season, carrying his small-market Memphis Grizzlies to the 6th seed. His career trajectory looks very similar to Damian Lillard’s, but can Ja find the success that has eluded Dame?
Taken with the second pick of the 2019 draft, Morant won the Rookie of the Year award, beating out the New Orleans Pelicans’ first pick, Zion Williamson. Damian Lillard, taken sixth, also won the Rookie of the Year award over a certain New Orleanian number one pick… you see where I’m going here.
Lillard made an immediate impact on the Portland Trail Blazers, propelling his team to the playoffs in only his second season, and they have not missed the playoffs since. This success did not translate to ongoing recognition by the NBA cognoscenti, with Lillard not appearing in either the 2016 or 2017 All-Star games despite having done so in 2014 and 2015.
Making a name for himself last season, Ja dragged the Grizzlies through the first iteration of the play-in games and past the Golden State Warriors. Morant then torched the stout Utah Jazz defence to the tune of 30/5/8, but the Grizzlies ultimately lost the series 4-1.
Ja is entering his third season without an All-Star appearance to his name, but if his opening few games of this season are any indication, he’ll be in the game this year. Ja is currently averaging a cool 28.7/5.5/7.3 and his Grizzlies have started the 5-4.
On top of great averages, Morant has also added some new moves to his already expansive offensive arsenal. The one drawback to Ja’s game in past years has been his average jumpshot and his hesitancy to take them, only shooting 37 percent from three in his short career. He is currently shooting 38.5 percent from three on 5.6 attempts per game this season. This improved three point shooting includes one long range bomb against Steph Curry’s own Warriors.
Already operating effectively in the pick-and-roll with a strong floater game , Ja has now shown flashes of a more consistent mid-range jump shot as well. As if Rudy Gobert wasn’t already having enough nightmares about the fearless Morant, the threat of a consistent jumpshot will cause an extra half-second of processing time for any defender.
The difference between the trajectory of Lillard and Morant’s careers now are up to their respective franchises.
Lillard has been tied down to underachieving and poorly manufactured Trail Blazers rosters. Portland GM Neil Olshey has shuffled through seemingly countless 3-and-D wings, all of whom can’t shoot threes, nor play D.
Even when all things finally seemed to be going well, high performing centre Jusuf Nurkic went down with a gruesome leg injury, tanking the Trail Blazers’ hopes of any success in the playoffs. Obviously, a freak accident is out of anyone’s control, but it unfortunately only adds another lost season to Lillard’s career.
On the other hand, the Grizzlies are only at the beginning of their roster construction journey.
Ja has proven to find success with whoever is on the floor with him, now the Grizzlies just need to sort through their talent and find the pieces that will take this roster to the next level.
Morant’s potential running mate and second banana Jaren Jackson Jr. recently inked a four-year, $105 million deal. The Grizzlies are in the process of evaluating players like Ziaire Williams, Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton – drafted with the 10th, 30th and 46th picks respectively.
They have found value in players like the steady handed Kyle Anderson and the fiery Dillon Brooks. The firm influence of Jonas Valanciunas last season also provided Ja with a strong pick-and-roll partner as well as the Grizzlies with some inside-out flexibility. Steven Adams probably cannot replicate Jonas’ offensive prowess, but his bone crunching screens should be enough.
They are in a strong position to play the slow route effectively, growing their young talent together and accumulating assets in the meantime. However, they may also flip the talent and assets for a more proven commodity in future.
The health status of JJJ will be key in the future roster construction, whether he too blossoms into a budding All-Star next to Morant or the Grizzlies recuperate his value to the point where he is the linchpin of a star trade.
The Grizzlies are doing everything a smart NBA team should. Trading away mediocre talent for assets, trading up in the draft for players they like and finding value with late draft picks are all key in a new-age hipster GM’s fantasy. Now all they need to do is sign some undervalued free agents and the roster building dream will become a reality.
They have their transcendent star, and they have his running mates, or at least the potential to acquire them. Either way, the Grizzlies are set up for a strong and long-lasting future assuming they do not emulate the pitfalls of the Trail Blazers.
The similarities between early career Lillard and Morant are astonishing and exciting, but most of all they make me nervous. What makes me think they will succeed is the fact that I have infinitely more faith in the Grizzlies front office than I do the Trail Blazers. The Grizzlies have been nothing but a stand-up franchise with a penchant for competence as a minimum.
The blueprint is there for both success and failure, the path is set.
If it’s up to Ja, he’ll make sure that he and the Grizzlies follow it to the promised land.