MEMPHIS – Former Murray State point guard Ja Morant opened his Sunday afternoon efforts with a 24-second violation in remembrance of former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, then helped the Memphis Grizzlies close out the visiting Phoenix Suns in a 114-109 victory at the FedEx Forum.
Teams across the league paid their respects with the violations, some also coming in the eight-second variety, following the untimely death of the future NBA Hall-of-Famer (who donned No. 8 and No. 24 in his career) and eight others (including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna) in a Sunday morning helicopter crash in the hills surrounding Calabasas, California.
Standing ovation as Ja Morant runs out the 24-second shot clock in honor of Kobe Bryant and Gianna. Then Ricky Rubio picks up an eight-second violation. Then, more cheers after a man holding a Kobe jersey is shown on the Jumbotron pic.twitter.com/m6c3AiSu0e— Omari Sankofa II (@omarisankofa) January 26, 2020
Morant scored 14 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth frame, adding eight assists, five rebounds and just three turnovers with 8-for-18 shooting.
“Growing up, AAU, 8 years old, that's who I watched,” Morant told reporters after the win, when asked about Bryant. “Lakers versus Celtics. Shoot, I feel like every kid – when you were young, if you had anything to throw in the trash – you would shoot it and say, 'Kobe!'”
The Grizzlies, now 22-24 and still clinging to the Western Conference 8-seed, needed all 23 from Morant, as Phoenix got 36 points from former Kentucky star Devin Booker, 27 points from Kelly Oubre Jr. and a double-double (17 points, 15 rebounds) from Deandre Ayton.
His performance follows a 16-point, 12-assist effort against the Detroit Pistons last Friday, a 125-112 road win, and comes four days after NBA All-Star voting from fans, coaches and players returned with him nabbing the seventh-most votes for all Western Conference guards – just ahead of Oklahoma City's Chris Paul and Golden State's D'Angelo Russell.
Ja Morant makes passes like this all the time. It's wild. A Mahomes style sidearm bullet crosscourt through traffic, no problem, hit the open 6-11 sniper. pic.twitter.com/hJLY3QdQ8Z— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) January 26, 2020
Morant, LHL finalist
Last Friday, The Lexington Herald-Leader and its award-winning columnist, Mark Story, announced that Morant was one of 10 individuals named as a finalist for the prestigious annual “Sports Figure of the Year” award for 2019.
Chosen by media from across the Commonwealth and using a wide swathe of criteria, Morant is the second figure in Murray State history to crack the top-10, as former Racer football coach Houston Nutt finished fifth in overall voting in 1995.
Others who have come close in voting include Jeff Martin (14th in 1988), Popeye Jones (11th in 1990, 11th in 1991, 11th in 1992), Billy Kennedy (19th in 2010), Isaiah Canaan (14th in 2012), Steve Prohm (19th in 2012) and Cameron Payne (22nd in 2015). Nutt also finished 13th in 1996.
Voted on since 1981, the Lexington Herald-Leader will announce the winner on Tuesday at 9 a.m. on kentucky.com. Full coverage and results will be printed in its Wednesday editions. Morant is up against a stacked field that includes Kentucky Wildcats WR-turned-QB Lynn Bowden, Los Angeles Dodgers star pitcher and former Henry Clay High School star Walker Buehler, former UK star softballer Abbey Cheek, former Louisville Cardinals star hooper Asia Durr, former UK star volleyballer Leah Edmond, current UK hoops phenom Rhyne Howard, former Louisville Cardinals star and likely NFL MVP QB Lamar Jackson, first-year Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield and entrenched UK football coach Mark Stoops.
Following a two-game stint with the Shangxi Loongs in the Chinese Basketball Association, former Murray State Racer point guard and 2015 NBA lottery pick Cameron Payne is back in the G-League – acquired by the Texas Legends on Saturday.
Payne averaged 22.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 7.5 apg and 4.5 spg in the two overseas contests, landing there following his cut from the Toronto Raptors roster prior to the start of the 2019-20 NBA season.
Speaking of the G-League, another former Murray State Racer – Isaiah Canaan – is rolling.
The 2013 second-round pick and seven-year NBA veteran, upon his return from the CBA, has played in 16 games for the Stockton Kings, and is currently sixth in scoring (22.2 ppg) on 43.6% shooting from the field, 42.4% shooting from the arc, 85.7% from the stripe, 6.3 apg, 4.1 rpg, 1.2 spg and just 2.1 turnovers per game.