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Ja Morant risks his body every game, and that’s what makes him thrilling to watch

The Grizzlies point guard isn’t built to play the way he does.

Ja Morant winks on the court for the Grizzlies.
Ja Morant is a reason to watch Memphis.

Against the Houston Rockets, Ja Morant had a moment which exemplified so much of what makes him one of the most compelling and dangerous young players in the NBA.

In the fourth quarter, he tried to put Danuel House on a poster, and everything went wrong. He had the height and speed he needed to throw down, but when he collided with House in the air, their bodies both flew out of control. House fell backwards. Morant went horizontal and landed on the floor with his left leg bent backwards. It looked like he had snapped it, and it was a miracle that he didn’t.

Morant is incredibly talented and gifted, and he’s always capable of embarrassing his opponents. But he can often also be a danger to himself.

He is built like a soccer player at only 174 pounds. He’s lean and springy, and moves over the court elegantly. His movements feel as if they’re being painted by Picasso, each sprint and crossover like a swift and clever brush stroke. Watching Morant is like watching the old artist paint a bull.

He’s fast, but that speed is only made obvious by how everyone else seems to slow down when he’s in motion, rather than it being captivating on its own like young John Wall’s or Russell Westbrook’s. He’s not shot out of a rocket. Rather, he has wings on his feet, a Hermes flitting from one space to the other in the blink of an eye. Morant is impossible to catch and easy to miss.

For his first points of the game, he got the ball on the left wing, right on top of the Grizzlies three-point line. When he received the ball, all the Rockets players were ahead of him. But as he weaved down the court, going past James Harden and then around two players in the paint for an easy layup, it looked as if he was jogging and everyone else was in slow motion. He got to the rim before any of his opponents were able to get down the court and turn to face him, and it wasn’t the result of mere laziness from the Rockets.

When Morant was asked about who his favorite player was, he said that he modeled his game and his attitude after Westbrook’s:

“I would say who I try to play like is Westbrook. He’s my favorite player and I just like how he plays all around: He scores, rebounds and passes. And also just the aggressiveness he plays with just like he’s got a chip on his shoulder.”

The comparison is surprising considering the delicacy of Morant’s movements in contrast to the violence and rage of Westbrook’s. When Morant dribbles, the ball seems to barely touch the floor. When Westbrook dribbles, he seems to want to pound the ball right through the court.

But the similarities are also obvious. Morant tries to be as well-rounded, and is probably a much better shooter. They’re both fearless, unrelenting, and unshakable. They walk around nursing grievances. Westbrook says he has no friends on the court, and Morant says his father was his first hater. And when they dunk with an opponent near the rim, they’re both going to do their best to emasculate the defender.

That aggressiveness comes at a price. In trying to destroy everyone in front of them, being so bold and domineering, that attitude can lead to things like the failed dunk against House.

Earlier in that game, Morant was able to dunk on P.J. Tucker through a put-back. But that came because Tucker was mostly unaware of Morant’s presence. Had the Rockets forward challenged the Grizzlies guard, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it end in the same way as the House collision.

The difference between Morant and Westbrook is what is so fear-inducing as a fan about Morant. Morant is small in stature, made of gentle and fluid lines. Westbrook is built like a Greek hero, all big muscles and broad shoulders. He’s still only 190 pounds, but he can torpedo through most opponents and still maintain his balance. Even Kyrie Irving, whose artistry of play is similar to Morant’s, is almost 20 pounds heavier, and doesn’t risk his body in the same way.

Morant, with his small frame and big attitude, illustrates the risk that is present in some of the most exciting basketball plays. These risks are usually mitigated by the fact the people who approach dunks in such violent manner have the bodies to keep them relatively safe. But Morant is driven to dominate his opponents despite his size. He wants those posters. He wants to humiliate House and Tucker. He wants to be like Westbrook. But every time he goes up in the air against someone 200 pounds or above, he puts his young career in jeopardy.

Things can always go wrong for anyone who tries to dunk on a defender. That danger is part of the thrill of the combat. But it’s much easier for them to go wrong when the person trying to dunk is almost 50 pounds lighter than his opponent.

The shame of it all is Morant doesn’t need to dunk over people for his game to stand out at all. It stands out because his general game has less to do with pure physical force and is more about the marriage of aesthetics and precision. Every time he goes up in the air, it’s a small shock and a reminder that he is super athletic, even in a space where being a super-athlete is a prerequisite.

The solution to the problem of him being too small for the way he wants to physically impose himself, would be for him would be to give up that compulsion to throw himself into people, at least until he’s gained more weight and muscle. But that would be antithetical to who he is. Which is the ultimate problem. He may play in an aesthetically pleasing manner, but what drives that style is the same ruthlessness and desire to destroy his opponents that Westbrook has. It doesn’t seem possible for either of them to be any other way.

Morant will almost certainly be a great player. He has all the talent in the world. There’s not much any outside power can do to prevent him from realizing his potential. The worry is that he may hurt himself badly before he can realize the extent of his powers. But the reason that’s such a danger is exactly what makes him such a talented player to begin with.