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Ja Morant is proving his stardom on the NBA’s biggest stage

After a tough second season, Ja Morant is back to looking like a star in the NBA Playoffs.

Ja Morant’s second season in the NBA hasn’t been the coronation it was supposed to be. After a tremendous debut that saw the former No. 2 overall pick win Rookie of the Year, Morant stagnated a bit in Year 2. He fought off an early season ankle injury that caused him to miss eight games, and shortly after he got back, his Memphis Grizzlies had to deal with a potential Covid outbreak that put multiple players in the league’s health and safety protocol and caused six games to be postponed.

Morant had to play the majority of the season without Jaren Jackson Jr., the young big man who supposed to be his co-headliner. Perhaps as a result, Morant looked like he was pressing for much of the season. While scoring efficiency skyrocketed around the league, Morant’s true shooting percentage slipped from 55.6 percent as a rookie to 53.7 percent in his second year, a mark well below league average. He wasn’t getting to the rim as often, his three-point percentage dropped to a meager 30.3 percent, and his other numbers remained flat.

Morant was still viewed as an ascendent star in Memphis, but his star wasn’t shining as bright. While other young players across the league like Zion Williamson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and De’Aaron Fox were leveling up, Morant’s performance had stayed about the same — if not gotten slightly worse. It served as a reminder that development in the NBA isn’t always linear.

Despite a tough season, the Grizzlies lived up to their self-proclaimed ethos and grinded their way into enough wins to make the play-in tournament. After outlasting the San Antonio Spurs in their first game, Memphis upset the Golden State Warriors to punch their ticket to the postseason behind a brilliant 35-point effort from Morant, who iced the win with consecutive buckets late in overtime.

In the biggest moment of Memphis’ season, Morant again looked like a superstar in the making, showcasing his signature blend of downhill drives, creative finishes, and tear-drop floaters. Maybe that game got Morant right, because since he entered the playoffs, there has been no stopping him.

Morant helped power the Grizzlies to a shocking Game 1 win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz — who were playing without their own young star, Donovan Mitchell — with 26 points. Even as Memphis fell in Game 2 on Thursday night, Morant was absolutely electric, finishing with 47 points on 15-of-27 shooting and adding seven assists.

This was a masterpiece even in defeat. Never has the vision for Morant one day becoming one of the league’s best players been so clear:

It was a historic performance in multiple ways. It was the most points ever scored by a Grizzlies player. At 21 years old, Morant became the fourth youngest player to ever drop 40+ points in a playoff game, with the other three being Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and Luka Doncic. Only George Mikan had scored more than the 73 points Morant put up in his first two playoff games.

This was a game Utah should have ran away with, but Morant wouldn’t let it happen. The Jazz led by as many as 22 points just before halftime. Near the end of the third quarter, it was a one possession game. Morant was the catalyst, burning Utah’s pick-and-roll coverage repeatedly by forcing his way into the paint and finding ways to drop shots over the league’s most intimidating interior defender, Rudy Gobert.

Morant even challenged Gobert head on late in the first half for what would have been an all-time dunk had he gotten it to go. Jazz fans mocked those who praised Morant for failing rather than celebrating Gobert’s block, and perhaps there’s something to that. There’s no denying Gobert’s greatness, particularly in a game where he finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, and frustrated Memphis center Jonas Valanciunas. To see Morant consistently score over someone as talented as Gobert is part of what made his performance so spellbinding.

Even if Morant didn’t get his poster attempt to go, he did still find a way to get complete another memorable dunk with this reverse alley-oop finish.

Morant’s future stardom has always been about more than raw numbers. It was incredibly impressive so see him post league-average scoring efficiency on a huge usage rate as a 20-year-old rookie last season, but it hardly captures what makes him special. Morant slithers around the court in a way that can’t be taught, freezing defenders snake drives, crossover flourishes, and unique angles to get what he wants. To watch him is to give yourself the opportunity to see something on an NBA court you’ve never seen before. He does it all with a distinct joyfulness that transcends that advanced metrics meant to capture all-around impact.

Even after such a great game, Morant still wasn’t satisfied with himself.

The Grizzlies should not have much of a chance against a team as good as the Jazz. Utah won the most games in the NBA this season and lapped the league in net-rating — this is no paper tiger, it’s a legitimate title contender. Even with Mitchell back in the lineup, the Grizzlies still had Utah on its heels. If the Jazz don’t shoot a scalding 19-of-39 (48.7 percent) from three-point range, it’s possible Morant would have done the unthinkable and put his team up 2-0 in the series.

Memphis likely will not win this series, but the masterful performance from Morant and his teammates will remain in the mind of NBA fans moving forward. The Grizzlies have a fun, young team that embodies a similar spirit as the franchise’s former Grit-n-Grind phase. With Morant leading the way, the Grizzlies know they have the cornerstone for their next great era.