Welcome to the dark.
It was a phrase adopted by Ja Morant, after Memphis Grizzlies assistant Blake Ahern introduced him to it. The saying came from “Win in the Dark,” a book by Joshua Medcalf and Lucas Jadin that conveys a powerful message:
“Everyone wants their moment in the spotlight. But you don’t shine under the bright lights. The bright lights only reveal your work in the dark.”
In the context of Morant, it means that his time spent working out this summer when nobody was watching — the proverbial dark — has helped thrust him from rising star to the upper crust of the game’s top players, halfway through his third season in the NBA.
With each highlight reel dunk, block and win, the light has gotten brighter. Morant has won back-to-back Western Conference Player of the Week awards, and he’s leading the Grizzlies (28-14) through a franchise record nine-game winning streak.
“He’s a special talent,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He gets to the rim as easy as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re talking about one of the best players in this league, period,” Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach David Fizdale said. “The guy is a superstar. I don’t see anybody that’s had a real true answer for the guy.”
Morant is averaging 24.7 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds this season, with the points, rebounds and steals (1.4) easily career highs.
Stats alone don’t make a player a superstar. An All-Star can put up gaudy numbers on an average team, after all, but only a superstar can lift a franchise to title contention.
Morant, 22, is busting through that threshold.
Morant’s star power is evident in NBA All-Star fan voting. He ranked third among Western Conference guards in the first fan voting behind Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Dallas’ Luka Doncic. Curry, who will face off against Morant on Tuesday at FedExForum, is the MVP favorite, and Doncic’s European fanbase gives him a significant boost.
But beyond those two, Morant topped Chris Paul and Devin Booker — who are both playing at All-Star levels fresh off of an NBA Finals appearance — and Donovan Mitchell, who plays for a higher-seeded Jazz team and won the Western Conference Player of the Month for December.
“I’m thankful, grateful for everything, but I deserve this,” Morant said after scoring 41 points against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 29. “I know what I do behind close doors. Like I say, in the dark. It’s all just showing now. It’s a blessing, man.”
Indeed, Morant’s rise goes beyond the flashy plays that make him the “most exciting player in the league,” according to Magic Johnson. Here’s a look at how Morant has elevated his status toward superstardom this season:
Leading the way
Morant’s selflessness doesn’t go unnoticed. When coach Taylor Jenkins told him he’d won his first player of the week award, Morant just wanted to get back to work.
Morant doesn’t like to speak about his personal achievements, even after scoring 30 points or hitting game-winners. He usually opts for bragging on his teammates. Because of that, his teammates have been his biggest supporters toward his first All-Star appearance.
“What he’s done against some of the best teams in this league, best defensive coaches, best defensive minds, I mean, it’s just been really impressive,” Fizdale said.
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Shooting for the stardom
Every player enters the league with questions about their game. For as good as Morant was during his first two seasons, his shooting was inconsistent. He went from shooting 33.5% on 3-pointers as a rookie to 30.3% in Year Two. In the playoff series against the Jazz last season, Morant shot 5-for-22 from deep before making 5 of 9 in Game 5.
This season, he has turned into one of the Grizzlies’ most accurate shooters. Morant has appeared in 29 games, including nine with three or more made 3-pointers. That’s already more than he had as a rookie (four) and in Year Two (seven). He played 67 and 63 games, respectively, in those seasons.
“When he’s doing the whole three levels of scoring, there’s nothing you can do,” Lakers star LeBron James said.
Improved shooting has also made Morant a better clutch scorer, giving him a superstar’s most valuable skill. His 4.8 points per game in the last five minutes when the score is within five or fewer points is second in the NBA behind Joel Embiid. His most memorable shot this season was an acrobatic game winner with 0.5 seconds remaining on the road against the Phoenix Suns.
“I like being in those pressure situations,” Morant said. “I like taking on the challenge of being that guy to take that shot.”
Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose are three guards who made jumps to superstardom in their third seasons. Each player won a playoff series in Year 3.
Wade was an All-Star in Year Two, but he led the Miami Heat to a championship in his third season. Iverson was the league’s top scorer in the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Rose, at 22, became the NBA’s youngest MVP with the same pogo-stick explosion Morant displays.
When comparing the four players with the benefit of advanced metrics via basketball reference, it’s clear Morant is on the same track through three seasons.
Morant (25.2) ranks second behind Wade (27.6) in player efficiency rating. His 31.9% usage percentage, which estimates the percentage of plays he was involved in, rates only a half-percent behind the group. In Box Plus-Minus, which estimates his overall contributions to the team, Morant (6.3) trails Wade (7.7) and Rose (6.8) but is ahead of Iverson (5.7), a Hall of Famer. In Win Shares, which assigns value to a player’s contributions toward victory over an 82-game season, Morant (10.2) comes in fourth behind Wade (15.7), Rose (13.2) and Iverson (12.3).
Numbers aside, Morant’s rising fanfare is leading to more team success and also more attention. Just this week, Friday’s game against the Dallas Mavericks at FedExForum will be in ESPN’s 9 p.m. game slot, a sign of the stardom of Morant and Doncic.
The Grizzlies are the second youngest team in the NBA, and they have four players averaging more than 16 points.
Having the right player to lead a franchise is crucial to getting to the next step, and the numbers, teammates and coaches suggest Morant is becoming that player — in and out of the dark.
Contact Damichael Cole at email@example.com and on Twitter @damichaelc