Throughout the history of the world, there are examples where the nickname “The Great” may have been overused. After all, what really makes a man (or woman) great may be in the eye of the beholder. Alexander the Great was one of the greatest conquerors of all mankind, but as a government administrator / builder he was mediocre at best. Xerxes of the Persian Empire considered himself a god, until the Greeks rallied and reduced him to his size. As with all mortals, there are flaws even for the most powerful of rulers. Greatness is therefore a mistaken concept.
Unless you’ve seen Ja Morant play basketball. Then you fully understand the concept.
Including last spring’s play-in tournament and the five-game series with the Utah JazzMorant is doing some really historic things right now for someone who has just started their third NBA season. He’s only scored under 23 points once in the last 10 games – his performance against Spurs in last season’s opener – and since then he’s scored 23 or more points by match while shooting over 49% of the field in two-thirds of the matches he has played. With his team’s season on the line against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors last year he dominated an eternal MVP contender and brought his team into the playoffs, where they were outmatched by a top team … but not before Morant rose to prominence as an offensive creator for himself and for others.
Then this season, he hasn’t picked up where he left off. He passed it. In three games, he’s atop the NBA with 35 points per game, shooting an absurd 58% from the field while also racking up 8 assists per game. His masterclass performance of 40 points 10 assists against the the Los Angeles Lakers put him in rarefied air – being the best player on the court in a game that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis were playing. He has (admittedly in a small sample size) found his long-range shot, currently converting 44.4% of his attempts beyond the arc, and although he still has room to grow taller. as a defenseman he has made notable efforts to improve his “stocks”, posting current career highs (again, small sample size) in steals and blocks per 100 possessions according to the basketball benchmark This helps to increase his offensive influence even more – if he can’t be a more defender on the ball and off screens, he can at least get possessions for the offense to score again.
Yes, Ja Morant is playing at a really elite level. A place where all-time superstars and greats dwell, and all Memphis Grizzlies fans are hoping these are more of the attractions to come as they are 22 and the best is yet to come.
But just as previously significant historical figures have shown, “greatness” can be fleeting when it is based on achievement.
So why declare that Ja Morant, before winning a playoff series, is well worthy of the title?
Because he knows what to do when he fails.
Morant had the opportunity to send the game against the Lakers in overtime. Three free throws – that’s what Ja had to do to get his team to take them to an extra frame against powerful LeBron James and company in LA, on the second night of a back-to-back. He did the first two. And the final attempt, arguably the most pressure-filled, failed. Like the Grizzlies did seconds later.
And Ja, like a very great leader, took responsibility.
And wondered very publicly what he was going to do about it.
His teammates know exactly what to expect from their leader – and that’s exactly what makes him a leader in a “big” way. This quote from Desmond Bane, in the aftermath of a difficult loss, demonstrates it.
“We are going to wage war on Ja, he is our leader. He’s going to be an All-Star and probably an All-NBA. “
They believe in Morant. Not just because of what he might be physically. But because of who he is, what he does and the way he does it.
War is not a sport. Life and death decisions do not usually accompany the bounce of the ball. But the comparison, in a smaller sense, is valid because you are spending everything you own physically and mentally on a cause that you perceive to be greater than yourself. In team sports, that’s the beauty of those times when you hear a sincere belief from one teammate in another. That’s when you know a standard has indeed been set. That a culture is absolutely being cultivated. May those who contributed to its construction believe it.
And are ready to fight for it.
This is why another Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great, is someone more than worthy of the title bestowed upon him than those previously mentioned. For not only was he a dominant force on the battlefield, but he was a formidable leader of people outside the east. He believed in what people could be if they were lucky enough to be good – he was a man of mercy (for the sake of full story disclosure, when opposing parties were ready to submit – he fought bloody battles against those who did not want to be part of his empire) who had cities that opened their doors to him with joy, knowing that their way of life would continue and that he would accept them for what they are.
They believed in him. This has remained through the centuries, as the legend of Cyrus has only grown. If you opposed him, you had every reason to fear what was to come. If you were on his side, you loved him – and what he stood for. In a time of intolerance, Cyrus was rare. One of one.
One day, the Grizzlies will be the winners of the NBA. They will have their moment when all fear what Memphis has become – a titan, a towering presence capable of winning a championship. Much of this is because of Morant’s daring talent, but it goes beyond what Ja does by soaring through the air or finishing the dribble. It is directly aligned with what he and his teammates, him and his coaches, are cultivating. It’s a common misconception in sports that you win any game – or especially a championship – on the day or night of the contest to win the title. They’re planting the seeds for this team now.
And that team is led now by the man who will lead them then. And times and lessons like Sunday night will come to fruition. Maturation.
For now, the NBA should take note of what’s going on in Memphis. The young team is at the gates, with their brilliantly violent leader challenging what they should or shouldn’t be in terms of expectations. No, Morant is unlikely to maintain that exact level of production. And failure will surely continue to be part of the development process the Grizzlies are still fully engaged in. They are the third youngest team in the NBA – they will continue to stumble any night. But the Grizzlies’ organization has something very rare on its hands: a young man who understands that adversity does not build character. Failure does. And in bad times, who you are is revealed, not established.
Ja Morant has already shown that when it comes to basketball, his talent is elite.
But it’s in the moments when he fails that he establishes how great he really is – and will be.