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The Memphis Grizzlies are the new darlings of the NBA. And why not? They’re young, brash, likable, fun to watch, and they have a signature player in third-year point guard Ja Morant. This season, the 22-year-old made a gigantic leap and has dragged Memphis right along with him. Selected second overall in 2019, Morant is now an All-Star starter, an MVP candidate, and likely soon to land an enormous extension.

The Grizzlies are solidly third in the Western Conference at 36–18 and are 25–8 since Dec. 1. In late November and early December, Memphis shocked the NBA with a 10–2 run while Morant recovered from a sprained knee. Since losing the first two games after the third-year pro returned, the Grizz are 17–4. If that seems good, it is — as in best-in-the-NBA-over-that-span good. And Hall of Famer Alex English, among others, is paying close attention to some of the Ja-dropping plays coming out of the Bluff City.

These Memphis Grizzlies are not your older sibling’s Grit-‘n’-Grind

In 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies reached the playoffs for just the fourth time in franchise history. The No. 8 seed in the West then dismissed the San Antonio Spurs in the first round. For seven seasons, Memphis rose into the elite group in the conference, reaching the conference finals in 2013. The team’s identity was as blue-collar as it gets. The Grit-‘n’-Grind Grizz outworked teams, suffocating them defensively with Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley.

Memphis got just enough offense to win, fueled mainly by Zach Randolph. When the core group aged, the fall was fast and hard. A turning point in 2019 changed everything.

First, the Grizzlies hired Mike Budenholzer’s disciple, Taylor Jenkins. Next came the selection of Ja Morant. Memphis shipped Conley to the Utah Jazz and appeared to settle in for a long rebuild. But after a surprise appearance in the Orlando bubble ended with a play-in loss, the Grizzlies took another step last season.

In the expanded play-in tournament, Memphis held off the Spurs in the 9-10 game, then went on the road and clinched a playoff berth with an overtime win over the Golden State Warriors. A Game 1 win at Utah raised hopes before the Jazz closed out the series with four consecutive victories.

The NBA’s fourth-youngest team is eighth in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season and doesn’t back down from anyone. The Grizzlies trash-talk everyone. They run, they fly, and they win — a lot.

Ja Morant’s improvement opened the eyes of Hall of Famer Alex English

The NBA of the 1980s was nothing like the league circa 2022. The Denver Nuggets were at the forefront of a fast-paced era during which teams ran often, scored a bunch, and defended occasionally. When Alex English won his lone NBA scoring title in 1982–83, his Nuggets led the league in pace at a whopping 112.1 possessions per game. The league average was 103.1.

English was the master of the mid-range. Teams took a whopping 2.5% of their shots from behind the arc. The future Hall of Famer scored 2,326 points in 1982–83. Precisely six of those points came from three-point shots. He was 2-of-12 from deep. But he was a career 50.8% shooter inside the arc on nearly 21,000 attempts.

So if English is taking note of Ja Morant’s mid-range game, it’s noteworthy. Inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the 68-year-old South Carolina native took to Twitter to praise another star from the Palmetto State.

“Ja Morant has worked on his game between the three-point line and the basket,” English wrote. “He has developed the part of the game that’s most beautiful. The mid-range game. He hasn’t spent all of his time working on shooting the three like most NBA players today. Love to see it.”

English isn’t wrong about Morant. But the young point guard’s rise has been at all three levels.

The emergence of Ja Morant starts at the rim

The Memphis Grizzlies have the NBA's third-best record and Ja Morant's jaw-dropping improvement is a big reason why.
The Memphis Grizzlies have the NBA’s third-best record and Ja Morant’s jaw-dropping improvement is a big reason why. | Rich Graessle/Getty Images

Let’s play a game of “One of These Is Not Like the Others.” Here’s a list of 10 NBA players, ranked by their positions on said list:

  • Ja Morant
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Nikola Jokić
  • Anthony Davis
  • Deandre Ayton
  • LeBron James
  • Jarrett Allen
  • Domantas Sabonis
  • Bam Adebayo
  • Jakob Poeltl

The group includes eight big men, the ultra-versatile legend James, and a 6-foot-3, 174-pound guard.

It’s the top 10 scorers in the paint this season. Morant leads the NBA with 16.0 points a game in the paint. If you think he’s the generational next step of Allen Iverson, you’re probably on to something.

He’s shooting 70.7% in the restricted area, where he takes 31.6% of his shots. That’s contributing to his career-high 52.7% mark from two-point range.

But he’s improved with the deep ball, as well. His 34.2% shooting on 4.6 attempts per game isn’t Stephen Curry-esque, but both marks are career highs. The advanced metrics bear out his improvement; Morant’s 52.4% effective field-goal and 56.6% true shooting percentages are also the best of his career.

The Memphis Grizzlies locked up Jaren Jackson Jr. to a four-year, $104.7 million extension last offseason. Now Memphis faces a decision on Morant. A max extension would be five years and $181 million at 25% of the salary cap. However, an All-NBA selection this season (which seems a good bet at this point) ramps up the price of poker significantly.

A supermax rookie extension for the budding superstar is an estimated $217 million, based on next season’s cap projection of $119 million. In October, Morant told Joe Vardon of The Athletic that he wasn’t interested in leaving the Grizzlies.

The Memphis Grizzlies rose quickly with a young core including Ja Morant, Jackson, Desmond Bane, and Dillon Brooks. It’s going to be fun to see what this group’s ceiling turns out to be.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Contract information courtesy of Spotrac.