The Knicks will get another painful reminder of what could have been when Ja Morant comes to town Wednesday night.
The freshly named All-Star starter, who might have been a Knick had the lottery balls bounced a little differently in 2019, will visit the Garden with a Grizzlies team he has elevated nearly to the top of the Western Conference.
Morant, who has become a human highlight reel, has lifted the Grizzlies to a 35-18 record, good for third place in the West, thanks to a recent 11-game winning streak. The 22-year-old point guard is averaging 26.4 points, 6.8 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game.
“It’s crazy. His speed is so electric,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said Tuesday after practice. “It puts so much pressure on your defense and his ability to get into the paint, he does everything. He forces your defense to collapse. He scores, he creates easy offense for everyone around him. He’s unselfish, he plays hard.
“That position, when you have someone who can break a defense down and play with the speed he does and his athleticism and size — that’s the other part of it — but it gets everyone running the floor and puts pressure on you.”
The Knicks, who drafted RJ Barrett with the third pick in 2019 after Morant went second, will get a first-hand look at the jump the former Murray State star has made this season, which has taken his game to another level.
Barrett has made his own strides, especially coming off a January in which he said he played “some of the best basketball I’ve played since I’ve been in the league.”
But no one from the 2019 draft class, including the injured Zion Williamson, has changed a franchise’s fortunes quite as much as Morant has.
“He’s having a great year,” Barrett said. “They’re doing well. He’s a very talented player, he brings it every night. I’m happy for him.”
Barrett said he looks at every player — not just those who were drafted before him — as someone he wants to prove he can be better than. Though the 21-year-old has not yet joined Morant in a move into the NBA’s upper echelon of stars, Barrett has grown his game this season. He averaged 21.8 points per game in January — including three 30-plus-point nights — while often shouldering more of the load as Julius Randle has gone through a funk.
“I thought he was steady last year with how he kept going up, and he’s doing the same thing this year,” Thibodeau said. “He’s started coming back, putting a lot of extra time in at night. I think it grooved his shot, he started feeling better about it. He’s always had the size and ability to get downhill, but when he’s working on his shot and he feels good about it, he plays a lot better.”
Despite Barrett’s improved play, the Knicks went just 7-8 in January and are stuck in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, which would be just outside of the play-in tournament — a big letdown after a surprising fourth-place finish last year.
Morant, meanwhile, has the Grizzlies rolling, looking as if they will steer clear of the conference’s play-in tournament, which they won last season.
“Incredible,” Randle said of Morant. “He reminds me of Derrick [Rose] a little bit, I was thinking that. Just as far as a point guard that athletic, that’s able to finish over bigs and live in the paint, ambidextrous, can finish with both hands, floater, all that different type of stuff. That speed, how he plays, it reminds me of ‘D’ a little bit.”