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Don’t ever take your eyes off Ja Morant

Morant is showing he can be an NBA superstar, and I don’t want to miss a single move.

Ja Morant mean-mugging and flexing after hitting a game winning shot over the Hornets

I went to a bar with a friend to watch Clippers-Rockets Wednesday night, but the truth was that I was more interested in the Grizzlies-Hornets game that was going on at the same time.

I wanted to see whether Ja Morant could bounce back after two bad games against the Magic and the Spurs in which he scored eight and nine points, respectively. The big teams like the Rockets and the Clippers will still have their moments at the end of the season. Watching Morant right now feels like watching a superstar figure out the league and his own limits in real-time.

Morant’s talent is obvious, but rookies often struggle with consistency. What is just as important as a rookie’s potential is the attitude and determination necessary to break out of a bad streak. The Hornets seemed like the perfect opponent for him to break out of his slump.

I didn’t dare ask for the bartender to change from the bigger game. And by not watching Morant play, I got to see the attention that he garners even when he’s not the night’s main event, a testament to his potential superstar quality. The breaks in Clippers-Rockets gave us highlight glimpses of other games, and the clips of Morant built the suspense to what would be an incredible moment in his young career.

First, there was a fastbreak where he beat the last defender with a smooth and effortless behind-the-back dribble.

Then came a moment in the second quarter, when he showed just how much he can dominate a defender. Morant caught the ball at the top of the key, feinted as if he was about to drive inside of PJ Washington, then dribbled backwards to the midcourt logo to isolate against his defender. He bounced around, came back down to the three-point line, and hesitated as if he was about to shoot, freezing Washington where he stood. He then drove past the Hornets defender before meeting Cody Zeller in the air as he went for the layup. Zeller’s efforts couldn’t deny him.

With the game tight and Morant playing incredibly, it felt as if the contest was building up to be decided by him. At that point I started periodically checking for updates about the game on my phone.

The ending didn’t disappoint. We often talk about the clutchness of players, their ability to make game-winning shots, as an exemplification of their greatness. Those discussions are often problematic; there are a lot of myths and falsehoods involved in deciding who is and isn’t clutch. But beneath the nonsensical denigrations of one great player for another is the idea that boldness and responsibility should be celebrated.

We want superstars to be heroic. That is to say that, when the game is on the line, they should have the faith in themselves and strength of character to make take the deciding shot. Making it is important, but the audacity to take it is what nourishes the myths we tell of the individual hero. And for all of the data and common wisdom we have about players needing to make the “right” play, hero ball is still exciting to watch.

Before Rockets-Clippers ended, the broadcast showed how Morant put an exclamation mark on his great performance against the Hornets.

With the clock down to single digits, he was switched onto Cody Martin at the three-point line. The defender was jittery, as if he knew Morant had him beat before the point guard even started driving to the rim. And Morant did have him beat.

The young point guard breezed by the defender easily, and when he went up in the paint, he encountered the two bodies of Zeller and Miles Bridges. He took the contact and then went under Zeller’s extended arms for a reverse layup. The ball bounced three times and then dropped in. Zeller fell to the ground and Morant flexed and mean-mugged for the home fans as his teammates jumped around in celebration.

There will be more struggles in Morant’s young career, and he will be involved in other games, against better opponents, that will call for him to step into the spotlight again. But he delivered in his first chance at a big moment, and in the process demonstrated he’s becoming must-see TV, even on nights when the country is watching something else.