After preseason wins against Maccabi Haifa (an Israeli national team) and the New Zealand Breakers, Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies got a taste of a more level playing field on Monday night at the FedEx Forum, falling 120-99 to the visiting Charlotte Hornets.
And it was another strong stat line for the former Murray State Racer and No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft: 15 points on 4-for-13 from the floor with six assists, one rebound and just two turnovers in 23 minutes of action.
Still without his first NBA 3-pointer after an 0-for-2 effort on Monday, Morant instead chose to attack in transition – and led all players in free throw attempts (nine) and makes (seven), offsetting what ended up being a tepid shooting night.
“For me, I'd rather scale a guy back a little bit,” noted Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins. “With that mentality, I need him to attack – especially through the 45 (feet to the rim) aggressively. He's so gifted at finding seams to get inside the defense. I don't want to take that away from him. It's the first layer of when to attack before the 3-point line and, ultimately, when he gets inside the 3-point line, and whether to score or kick.
“It's an ongoing of just trying to find the right balance, but I'd rather him be thinking about 'I've got to go through a brick wall,' and then...over time...as he discovers that brick wall's there, what he's got to do. Trust the ball, ball comes back, and everything he's capable of doing.”
Perhaps the more promising note was Morant's 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio against the Hornets, after he posted 17 assists and just four turnovers through the Grizzlies' first two preseason games.
And again, Morant wasn't without some signature highlights.
Ja Morant getting fancy with the handles 😮 pic.twitter.com/kYKHl14mtW— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 15, 2019
Twice, the Grizzlies were within a basket midway through the third quarter, when Morant made a sprinting layup to cut it to 61-59, then later found Brandon Clarke (16 points, 12 rebounds) cutting through a low-post double team for an easy layup and manageable 66-63 deficit.
But trailing just 90-85 at the start of the fourth frame, the Grizzlies fell behind considerably after a 13-2 Charlotte run – capped by a dagger 3-pointer from former Kentucky Wildcat and NBA lottery pick Malik Monk.
Morant then nearly came away with his first massive highlight of his professional career, when – down 103-87 – he broke his defender and went in for a dunk over 6-7 forward Miles Bridges.
The Internet will burn when Ja Morant finishes this one next time. The defender here is is 6-foot-7 Miles Bridges, who has a pretty good vertical jump himself. pic.twitter.com/aPK32T5MB5— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) October 15, 2019
He had the elevation, but just missed, sending the ball high into the air for a Charlotte rebound.
“Just picking my spots when to be aggressive is the number one thing,” Morant told the Commercial Appeal's David Cobb. “I did have some good plays, but I had bad plays, too, so I'm not satisfied at all.”
I told bro @JaMorant he better not ever try to dunk on me like that again 😂😂— Miles Bridges (@MilesBridges) October 15, 2019
Former Louisville Cardinals point guard and key Boston Celtics reserve “Scary” Terry Rozier led all scorers with 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting, adding eight assists, seven rebounds and just one turnover in 28 minutes, pushing his new team to its first win of the 2019-20 preseason.
Memphis has two more preseason games – at Oklahoma City on Oct. 16 and at San Antonio on Oct. 18 – before Grizzlies open the 2019-20 regular season on Oct. 23 at Miami.