What to watch for as Ja Morant returns to the Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant - Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant - Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /

Around this time each year, grizzly bears emerge from hibernation. They awake determined to make up for their many lost meals and once again dominate the northern woods. Today, the most famous Grizzly on the planet returns from his own hibernation. In tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets, Ja Morant will take the court for the first time since March 3rd. After that 113-97 loss to the Denver Nuggets, he flashed a gun on Instagram Live, and the Memphis Grizzlies promptly announced he would be away from the team.

That “leave of absence” turned into an eight-game league suspension. He was eligible to return for Monday’s 112-108 win over the Dallas Mavericks, but the Grizzlies chose to rest him one more game to ensure his conditioning is up to speed.

Hence, his hibernation.

Like the grizzly bears coming out of hibernation, it may take Morant a moment to get back to his normal self. His comments yesterday indicated that he focused on counseling and not basketball while at a facility in Florida over the past two weeks. But his resolve to dominate has never been higher.

Just ask Dillon Brooks, who said, “You’re going to see a different Ja out there who’s going to be consistent every single night and who’s going to give us that energy that we need to be that top team in the West.”

The Grizzlies survived, and by the end, even thrived while Morant was out. They went 6-3 including three wins over the Mavericks, two wins over the Golden State Warriors (not a rivalry, y’all), and the biggest comeback of the NBA season so far in San Antonio. The Grizzlies had the sixth-best net rating over the last nine games despite missing Morant, starting center Steven Adams, and top bench-scorer Brandon Clarke.

Yet the Grizzlies will need Ja Morant in the playoffs if they are to be “fine in the West.” While players and pundits around the NBA have forced Morant to eat those words over and over again, they could still ring true. The Grizzlies sit at second in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Sacramento entering tonight’s action. Since the Nuggets and Suns have faltered over the past two weeks, Memphis is playing as well as anyone down the stretch.

Add Morant to that mix – and perhaps Steven Adams come playoffs – and the Grizzlies could be back in the contender conversation just a few weeks after their season looked dead in the water.

Here are three things to look for as Ja Morant makes his long-awaited return.

How does Ja Morant shoot it from three?

Morant started the season on fire from three. He shot 56% from beyond the arc in October. Since November 1st, he has plummeted to 29.1% from three. Shooting from deep is clearly not the key to Morant’s offensive game. He’s one of the best drivers and distributors in the game. Morant averages 14.8 points per game on drives, good for second in the league. He’s also sixth in the NBA with 8.2 assists per game.

But a Ja Morant who’s even league-average from three (currently 36.1%) ascends to a new level. Morant has 10 games with 40 or more points, including playoffs. In those games, he’s shot 58.3% from three.

It would be unfair to expect Morant to shoot it well after taking an extended break from basketball. The more important conversation will be tracking his shooting over the last 11 games of the regular season. Can he creep back toward those October averages?

Teams must go under screens to contain Morant’s attacking. If he can punish them for leaving him open from three, he enters the conversation for most unguardable player in the league. More importantly, Morant’s shooting unlocks the Grizzlies playoff offense, when defenses will sell out to close off the paint.

Can Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane stay involved?

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane picked up the offensive slack in Morant’s absence. Bane averaged 20.1 points and 5.1 assists per game in the last nine.

Jackson Jr. has truly taken off, averaging 22.7 points per game over the last nine and 28.0 points per game in the past four (on an incredible 60.3% shooting). Monday’s game against Dallas, when he had 28 points on 10-16 shooting in just 23 minutes, was the highest usage game of Jackson Jr.’s career according to Cleaning the Glass.

Morant will obviously go back to being the offensive engine for the Grizzlies. But come playoff time, he will need help from the other two members of the emerging Memphis “Big Three.” Morant seemed to recognize as much when he showed the “Call 12” celebration on Monday night, but this time it was for Jackson Jr. getting a clutch bucket to put the game away.

The Grizzlies offense gets more egalitarian when Ja is away. They average 1.9 more assists per game despite missing their assists leader. That likely comes because the ball is shared more equally between two offensive hubs (not to mention Tyus Jones, who’s at 16.3 points and 8.2 assists per game in the last nine games).

When Morant is out there, he becomes the focus of the Grizzlies offense with everyone else several steps below. Can the Grizzlies utilize their Big Three more equally at the end of the regular season? If so, Memphis might have the stars it needs to win a title.

Will Ja Morant play with the same swag?

Morant said Tuesday that he will not be going on Instagram Live or out to clubs for the time being. The focus is on basketball and getting better mentally. He emphasized that he’s realized how his actions off the court reflect not only on himself, but also on his family and organization. But will a toned-down Ja off the court also lead to a different Ja on the court?

He says no. “I’ll always be Ja.”

Morant’s brilliance comes from his swagger and bravado. He flashes the “goggles” celebration after no-look assists. He dunks big men into submission. He levitates for seconds at a time. He breaks defenders’ ankles (Jordan Poole is still dizzy from the spin cycle Ja put him in).

He dances on logos. He is often the smallest player on the court and yet still calls his defender “too-small” after bucket after bucket in the paint. Ja Morant plays with unbridled passion, unabashed arrogance, and unrestrained joy.

Here’s hoping that never changes. People will ask Morant to be different. He needs to act differently off the court. But he should never apologize for his persona on the court. It’s what makes him great. It’s why people love him – including Nike.

Everyone will want to talk about Morant’s mistakes. We can learn so much more from how he responds to those mistakes. He acknowledges he is a role model, particularly to young Memphians. If he can come back better than ever, he will be the exact type of role model kids need. One who is not perfect but who can admit when they’re wrong, take care of themselves and never stop improving. He can be a model not only for the kids of Memphis but for the city as a whole.