Ja Morant, the NBA’s signature Gen Z star, set to take Christmas stage


SAN FRANCISCO — Ja Morant ran afoul of the officials in Oklahoma City last week, picking up two technical fouls as he campaigned 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 Generation Z star, handled its aftermath. Before leaving the court, the Memphis Grizzlies guard formed his hands into a heart sign to signal his appreciate for a fan seated courtside. Not long after, Morant’s father, Tee Morant, walked over to the fans with a cellphone and a surprise: The 23-year-old all-star wanted to speak to them on FaceTime and to assure them that their in-game banter with Morant wasn’t responsible for his early exit.

Morant has finished acrobatic layups and soared for blocks throughout his four-season career, but this was one of his most improbable feats yet. Somehow he had managed to craft a feel-good ejection.

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

While Morant is a stunning scorer and playmaker, his fearlessness, charisma and salesmanship have positioned him to be one of several young stars who are preparing to take the reins of an NBA long led by LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. Indeed, with Curry sidelined by a shoulder injury for a Christmas Day showdown between the Golden State Warriors and Grizzlies, Morant will serve as the holiday headliner.

This type 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 evokes comparisons to Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and Steve Nash, the wiry 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 couldn’t 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 reshaped it into a perennial winner. But his best playoff run — a second-round series against the Warriors in May — was spoiled by an untimely knee injury. Morant poured in 47 points in a Game 2 victory in front of a raucous home crowd, but he was forced to watch the final three games from the sidelines as the Warriors closed out the series and went on to win the title.

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

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This showcase 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 top two highlights — a block against the Houston Rockets and a steal against the New Orleans Pelicans — have pulled in 35 million and 25 million views, respectively, making them the league’s two most-watched social media clips. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have seen the biggest percentage increase in Instagram followers of any team, and their regional television broadcasts rank fifth leaguewide in household rating thanks to an 82 percent year-over-year increase.

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

Memphis enters Sunday with a 20-11 record, tied for the best in the Western Conference, despite injuries to two of Morant’s key sidekicks, defensive-minded forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and scoring 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’s 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 playoffs. And with three triple-doubles in the past month, he has moved past Marc Gasol for the career franchise record in that 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 in 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 we’ve got multiple guys who can go out there and score that ball,” Morant said after posting a triple-double in a blowout win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 15. “When you go through your [scouting report], you’ve got to name everybody on the list. We’ve got 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 “2022 Memphians of the Year” because they “lifted the spirits of our city,” and Morant’s “Griddy” dance has become a staple of raucous postgame celebrations. Tee Morant is a courtside regular and local celebrity, while Morant’s 3-year-old daughter, Kaari, has more than 119,000 followers on an Instagram account run by her parents. During a recent blowout home win, the Grizzlies joined their crowd in a vigorous rendition of the wave.

“That’s the swag that our team has and our city has,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said. “Hopefully we create more moments like that.”

Their swag isn’t for everyone. This month, a two-minute reel featuring clips of Morant getting away with traveling and carrying the ball garnered more than 9 million views on Twitter. The video’s editor declared that “pure basketball has vanished” and that Morant “must be stopped.”

During last season’s playoffs, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr was irate when Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks committed a flagrant foul that injured Gary Payton II, and Green danced around the FedEx Forum court as if to prove he wasn’t intimidated by the environment. When Morant suffered a fluky 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 sick of today’s players,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said. “There’s nobody trying to hurt nobody. I’ve been kissed harder than that.”

Morant’s unfiltered and accessible online persona — he is a high-volume poster with a chip on his shoulder — nevertheless 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 for aiding his adjustment to the NBA, in addition to nominating Jackson, Bane and Brooks for end-of-season awards.

“Ja is fiercely loyal,” Johnson said. “When it comes to his family, his friends and his teammates, he takes care of a lot of people. Ja would do anything for them. Because of that loyalty, he gains trust from his guys.”

Curry’s absence on Christmas ensures that all eyes will be on Morant, and the rematch at Chase Center should rekindle the hard feelings from last season’s playoffs while offering a glimpse of the NBA’s future.

There are plenty of boxes left for Morant to check before the league can be his — an all-NBA first team selection, an MVP, a Western Conference finals trip and, of course, a championship — but Sunday will see him perform on a stage that he has long coveted.

“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. That’s the message we’re sending to the league.”

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