Ja Morant, the NBA’s Gen Z star, has taken the Christmas stage

Ja Morant, the NBA’s Gen Z star, has taken the Christmas stage


SAN FRANCISCO — Ja Morant clashed with the officials in Oklahoma City last week, picking up two technical fouls while campaigning for calls in the first half.

The tense exchange with referee Ray Acosta would have been quickly forgotten if not for how Morant, the NBA’s most visible Gen Z star, handled its aftermath. Before leaving the court, the Memphis Grizzlies guard formed a heart sign with his hands to show his appreciation for a fan sitting courtside. Shortly after, Morant’s father, Tee Morant, approached the fans with a cell phone and a surprise: The 23-year-old star wanted to talk to them on FaceTime and assure them that his jokes at the game with Morant. was not responsible for his early departure.

Morant has finished the acrobatic bands and shot up for blocks over the course of his four-season career, but this was one of his most improbable feats to date. He had somehow managed to create a feel-good ejection.

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The scene encapsulated several essential elements of Morant’s growing popularity: his competitive edge on the court, his accessibility to fans and his technological savvy, and his diligence in standing up for himself, his teammates team and the city of Memphis.

While Morant is an impressive scorer and playmaker, his fearlessness, charisma and salesmanship have positioned him as one of several young stars poised to take over an NBA long run by LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. In fact, with Curry sidelined with shoulder injury for a Christmas Day matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Grizzlies, Morant will serve as the holiday headliner.

That kind of attention has been a long time coming for Morant, who didn’t play for a basketball factory in high school or a blue-blood program in college. Despite a game that it evokes comparisons to Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Steve Nash, the 6-foot-2 point guard has rarely gotten top billing in the basketball world. Morant twice led Murray State to the NCAA tournament, but the small Kentucky school failed to crack the Sweet 16. He was selected second in the 2019 draft, but was clearly overshadowed by No. 1 pick Zion Williamson.

Morant joined a rebuilding Grizzlies franchise that plays in the league’s smallest television market and quickly transformed it into a perennial winner. But their best playoff run, a second-round series against the Warriors in May, was marred by one premature knee injury. dying he scored 47 points in the second game win in front of a stupid home crowd, but was forced to watch the final three games from the sidelines as the Warriors closed out the series and won the title.

Last summer, Morant asked for a Christmas rematch, and after doing so a brief sparring match on Twitter with Warriors forward Draymond Green, the NBA granted his wish. Amazingly, Sunday will be the Grizzlies’ first Christmas appearance in their 28-year history.

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That window dressing treatment was no act of charity: According to league data, Morant’s 351 million social media views this season rank second only to Curry’s 485 million views among all NBA players. Morant’s two highlights, a block against the Houston Rockets and a steal against the New Orleans Pelicans, have garnered 35 million and 25 million views, respectively, making them the two most-viewed social media clips in the league . Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have seen the largest percentage increase in Instagram followers of any team, and their regional TV broadcasts rank fifth in the league in domestic ratings thanks to an 82 percent increase year over year.

“Ja Morant has put the Grizzlies on the map,” said Keith Parish, Grind City Media podcast host and die-hard Grizzlies fan since the franchise’s 2001 move from Vancouver. “This is a fan base that has long considered ‘being ignored’ to be a personality trait, so it’s a little surreal to have a superstar become one of the faces of the NBA. To have a Christmas game would have been incomprehensible not long ago.”

Memphis enters Sunday with a 20-11 record, tied for best in the Western Conference, despite injuries to two of Morant’s key teammates, defensive-minded forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and point guard Desmond Bane. Morant has been consistently excellent throughout the lineup changes, averaging 26.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 7.9 assists while rewriting the franchise record books along the way.

After scoring 49 points in an early-season win over the Rockets, Morant has the five highest scoring performances in franchise history, whether in the regular season or the playoffs. And with three triple-doubles in the last month, he has passed Marc Gasol for the franchise record in this category.

The Grizzlies, who tied their franchise record with 56 wins last season, are on pace for 53 this season. Morant captains an offense that has six players averaging double figures, while Jackson, who returned from a foot injury in mid-November, leads a top-10 defense that is physical and aggressive.

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“We’re showing that we have multiple guys that can go out there and score that ball,” Morant said after posting a triple-double in a big win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 15. [scouting report], you must name everyone on the list. We have a lot of guys playing with extreme confidence.”

Morant’s brash approach and the Grizzlies’ take-no-prisoners style have won them fans and haters alike. Memphis Magazine recently named the entire team as a “Memphians of the Year 2022” because they “raised the spirits of our city” and Morant’s “Griddy” dance has become a staple of raucous post-game celebrations. Tee Morant is a local celebrity and track regular, while Morant’s 3-year-old daughter Kaari has more than 119,000 followers on an Instagram account run by his parents. During a recent home win, the Grizzlies joined their crowd in a vigorous rendition of the wave.

“That’s how crazy our team is and our city,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Hopefully we create more moments like this.”

Their swag isn’t for everyone. This month, a two-minute reel with clips of Morant hanging out with her traveling and carrying the ball garnered more than 9 million views on Twitter. The editor of the video stated that “pure basketball is gone” and that Morant “must be stopped.”

During last season’s playoffs, Warriors coach Steve Kerr was outraged when Grizzlies point guard Dillon Brooks committed a flagrant foul that injured Gary Payton II and Green danced around the FedEx Forum court as if to show that he had not been intimidated by the environment. When Morant suffered a knee injury later in the series and blamed Warriors guard Jordan Poole, Bay Area fans and national analysts rushed to Poole’s defense.

“I’m fed up with today’s players” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. “There’s nobody trying to hurt anybody. I’ve been kissed harder than that.”

Morant’s unfiltered and approachable online persona (he’s a high-profile poster with a chip on his shoulder), however, remains central to his appeal among fans and teammates. Grizzlies television reporter Kelcey Wright Johnson noted that Morant has used social media to defend former teammate Grayson Allen from criticism and to credit Jae Crowder with helping him adjust to the ‘NBA, in addition to nominating Jackson, Bane and Brooks for season-ending awards. .

“He’s fiercely loyal already,” Johnson said. “When it comes to his family, his friends and his colleagues, he cares for a lot of people. I would do anything for them. Because of that loyalty, he earns the trust of his boys.”

Curry’s absence over Christmas ensures all eyes will be on Morant, and the rematch at the Chase Center should reignite the feelings of last season’s playoffs while providing a glimpse into the future of the NBA.

There are a lot of boxes left for Morant to check off before the league can be his: an All-NBA first-team selection, an MVP, a trip to the Western Conference Finals and, of course, a championship, but Sunday will see him perform at a stage that he has been longing for.

“We’re playing some of our best basketball right now,” Morant said. “When teams face us, they have to be ready to come out and play. This is the message we are sending to the league.”

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