Ja Morant has been the story of the year in the NBA. The third-year guard has exploded onto the scene (literally) as an MVP candidate and has his Memphis Grizzlies second in the Western Conference standings as of March 16.
But Ja has been the first to deflect praise to his teammates all season, despite his individual accolades and highlights. Oh, the highlights.
The latest teammate hype train Morant has jumped on is Jaren Jackson Jr. JJJ is having a breakout season of his own, just not entirely on the same level.
But his point guard clearly recognizes how valuable Jackson Jr. has been to Memphis’s ascent.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has been one of the NBA’s best defenders in 2021-22
JJJ was the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The allure of his 6-foot-11 size, fluid athleticism, defensive promise, and three-point shooting was too much for Memphis to pass up.
But the big man had trouble staying on the floor his first three seasons, and even when he did play, didn’t translate those skills to the NBA in the way a No. 4 overall pick would be expected to.
The Michigan State product missed 24 games his rookie year, 25 his second, and only played 11 last season. He averaged 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks with shooting splits of 48/37/77.
Not bad stats by any means, but not what Memphis hoped for.
This year has been a different story across the board, however. He’s averaging more than 16 points and nearly six rebounds, but more importantly, he’s become dominant on the defensive end.
Heading into a March 15 matchup with the Indiana Pacers, JJJ led the league in blocks, block percentage, was second in defensive field-goal percentage, and third among centers in three-pointers contested, per StatMuse.
He then had 19 points and eight rebounds in a Grizzlies win without Morant. He added three blocks and two steals and was a team-high plus-29 against Indiana.
All while Ja continues to yell from the highest mountaintop he can reach that his teammate deserves to win DPOY.
Ja Morant has shouted out his teammate wherever and whenever he can
JJJ had 13 points and five blocks in a win over the New York Knicks on March 11. Morant scored 15 of his 37 points in the final quarter of the comeback victory.
But that wasn’t the story the MVP candidate wanted to tell.
“Jaren is what everybody needs to be excited about,” Morant said via ESPN. “His defensive presence was big for us. We’re a totally different team with him out there on the floor. He sparked us.”
Ja was even more blunt about his feelings after the March 15 edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Ladder on NBA.com was released.
It came complete with a guy-throwing-away-trash emoji and everything.
Giannis, Gobert, and Bridges are all worthy choices. Even Draymond Green thinks he should win despite playing only 35 games this season.
But it’s fair to say we know where Ja stands on the subject.
Morant, JJJ, and the rest of the Grizzlies are gunning for more than individual accolades, however
Ja is a legitimate MVP candidate. He won’t win this season, but he’s vaulted himself into the middle of the race.
Ditto for Jackson Jr. and Defensive Player of the Year.
The Grizzlies’ two projected franchise players — two top four NBA draft picks — are coming together and playing their best basketball at the same time. The right time.
But Morant tweeted something else all the way back on Oct. 7 before this season even started.
“winning is the main goal.”
All the accolades could come. There’s a decent chance they will eventually. And even though this Grizzlies team is young with little playoff experience (or none for some players), they’re here to win.
Not next year or the year after. Right now.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.