Shaquille O’Neal Adds to the Ja Morant MVP Train With an Intriguing and Personal Comparison

Late in Monday’s game the Chicago Bulls, Memphis Grizzlies star point guard Ja Morant got into a bit of a scuffle with Bulls reserve center Tony Bradley. Despite the Grizzlies already leading by 18 points at the time and Bradley towering over Ja, the overlooked NBA MVP candidate showed no signs of backing down. That moment alone practically validated a pregame comparison made by Shaquille O’Neal.

The Diesel sang Morant’s praises before Memphis’ Martin Luther King Jr. Day tilt with the Bulls. He also drew on personal experience in making a comparison that feels more resonant with the Grizzlies surging up the Western Conference standings.

Shaquille O’Neal watched Kobe Bryant blossom into a star

Shaquille O’Neal’s arrival in Los Angeles coincided with the Lakers acquiring Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets. Over the course of the next several seasons, Shaq watched the high school kid become a full-blown star.

Bryant struggled to get minutes in his rookie season under former Lakers head coach Del Harris. But O’Neal immediately understood that Kobe’s work ethic and hunger could mold him into one of the best players in the game.

Indeed, Bryant rapidly ascended to the top of the NBA. He became the youngest All-Star starter in league history in his sophomore season. By his fourth season, Kobe was a perennial All-Star and All-NBA guard, as he and an MVP Shaq led the Lakers to a title.

That first championship only seemed to stoke the fires in the Black Mamba. He made All-NBA First Team in 2001-02 as LA capped its three-peat and averaged 30 points per game the following season.

Ultimately, a difference of opinion resulted in perhaps the greatest one-two punch in NBA history splitting up. Shaq still felt he belonged at the epicenter of the Lakers organization. However, Bryant knew his stock would only continue to go up. He never settled for star status, though he embraced it all the same.

O’Neal sees a lot of young Kobe’s arrogance in Ja Morant.

Shaq likened Ja Morant to a young Kobe

Confidence has never been an issue for Ja Morant.

Before the season began, Morant said he feels he is the standard-bearer for the next generation of stars. He’s backed up those words with NBA MVP-caliber play, leading the Grizzlies to a 31-15 mark and the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference.

Ja’s attitude appears to rub off on teammates, as rival executives claimed that Memphis talks a ton of trash despite being one of the youngest teams in the league. It’s also what garnered a Kobe Bryant comparison from Shaquille O’Neal.

During the TNT pregame show, the Big Aristotle said (h/t Mark Giannotto of the Commercial Appeal) that he sees parallels between Morant and his former Lakers co-star.

“Ja Morant knows he’s a star. He reminds me of a young Kobe Bryant.”

–Shaquille O’Neal

Conviction is one thing. But Morant also possesses a certain level of fearlessness.

The Grizzlies star point guard never shies away from taking the rock into the teeth of the defense and trying to dunk on everyone in sight. He’s been adamant about improving his outside jumper each season. And as Monday’s dust-up with Tony Bradley shows, confrontation does not bother him.

Shaq’s words carry more weight because of all the time he spent with Bryant. However, the bigger question is whether Morant can keep channeling his success and putting it toward the Grizzlies’ pursuit of the ultimate team goal.

Will Morant prove Doctor O’Neal right?

L-R: Shaquille O'Neal attends an LSU football game and Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant celebrates a win after an NBA game against the Chicago Bulls
Shaquille O’Neal (L) and Ja Morant (R) | Left to Right: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images and Justin Ford/Getty Images

Racking up comparisons to all-time greats like Kobe Bryant sets an incredibly high standard for any young player. That said, Ja Morant appears more than capable of upping that standard and lending credence to Shaquille O’Neal’s lofty analogy.

Morant is in the midst of his finest individual season, one that deserves NBA MVP buzz. Through 24 games, he’s averaging 24.4 points, 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals. The former Murray State star has a career-high 57.2% true shooting mark, and his .172 win shares per 48 minutes dwarf the numbers in those categories in his first two seasons.

Morant ranks eighth in the NBA in box plus-minus and 10th in player efficiency rating (PER). At just 22 years old, he’s already among the best guards in basketball. As Shaq stated, Ja is well aware of that status, too.

The Grizzlies still have a long way to go as contenders in a loaded Western Conference. Still, Morant’s on-floor growth and Mamba mentality are helping to lift Memphis, a franchise that rival clubs will likely fear come playoff time.

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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