Former Murray State point guard Ja Morant played his first meaningful minutes in Memphis on Sunday, as the Grizzlies topped the Israeli national team Maccabi Haifa 123-88 at the FedEx Forum.
He wasted little time scoring his first professional basket, lingering in the left corner behind the 3-point line before dribble-driving the baseline for an uncontested layup and a quick 2-0 Grizzlies lead.
In all, he’d finish with 10 points, seven assists, three rebounds, one steal and just one turnover in 19 minutes — shooting 5-for-8 from the floor while missing his lone 3-point attempt.
“I had to be strong, not try to get emotional or anything,” Morant told Memphis media following Sunday’s win. “The first NBA game, even though it’s preseason, it’s still a wild moment at the end of the day.”
His other notable highlights:
— Late in the first quarter and Memphis leading 19-14, Grizzlies guard Marko Guduric was facing a double-team near the halfcourt line, when he found a curling Morant wide open and down the lane. A simple bounce pass turned into Morant’s first NBA dunk, a two-hander with no one in the way.
— Leading 73-48 with 7:01 left in the third quarter, Morant corralled an offensive rebound amidst three defenders, shrugged a double team and dished to a cutting Dillon Brooks for a layup down the lane.
— Morant capped a 10-3 run to open the second quarter with back-to-back drive-and-dishes to former Gonzaga big man and fellow first-rounder Brandon Clarke, who found easy slams in traffic.
— And with the Grizzlies toting a 60-38 lead late in the second quarter, Morant sauntered just inside the arc and easily buried an uncontested jumper.
Morant did find himself in sticky situations multiple times in pick-and-roll defense, often battling to get past a much larger player on the pick.
He also had one defensive possession where he wound up guarding former University of Kentucky guard James Young (31 points, 9-for-20 shooting, 4-for-6 from three) down low in the post, and the 6-7 at-one-time Boston Celtics first-round pick was able to bully in for a foul and two free throws.
But first-year Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins lauded Morant’s effort, especially considering his No. 2 pick missed all of Memphis’ run to an NBA Summer League championship due to rehab on a minor knee surgery.
“Great,” Jenkins said of Morant. “I challenged him before the game to really set a tone for us defensively. Loved how he competed on the ball. Definitely can get a little bit better with some of the nuances of our pick-and-roll defense. I thought he did a pretty solid job keeping his guy out front and try to keep them out of the paint. Big priority of ours defensively.
“And offensively, again, I’m just going to keep challenging him to give more pace and pace and pace. I thought he did a pretty good job there, weaving himself into the paint and making unselfish plays. He had seven assists and one turnover in 19 minutes, and that’s obviously not going to be his normal game minutes. That’s obviously very impressive for a rookie point guard. Another guy where we’ll start diving into individual film and see where we can grow his game. Super confident, coming off shooting a three behind a screen. And then, the other piece is just him being very vocal. He pretty much did a good job, but I’m going to keep steering him to be more vocal, vocal, vocal. It helps (putting) teammates in the right spots.”
Ja Morant has freakishly good court vision, and this is the kind of play he can make because of it. Drives off the ball screen, stops on a dime, doesn't panic, then fires a bullet to an open Brooks in the corner, leading to an open 3. Not a lot of rookies have this in their bag. pic.twitter.com/DSUgRjOdyK— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) October 7, 2019
3 things we learned in Ja Morant's Grizzlies preseason debut vs. Maccabi Haifa https://t.co/pqEsPrfKg5— Commercial Appeal (@memphisnews) October 7, 2019
Ja Morant makes a midrange jumper. Haven't been many midrange attempts for then Grizzlies so far, as expected— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) October 6, 2019
Morant’s competition will certainly ramp up as the preseason continues into his first NBA regular season, beginning this Tuesday when the Grizzlies host potential 2020 lottery pick RJ Hampton and the New Zealand Breakers at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.