Ja Morant Is the N.B.A.’s Newest Phenom

LOS ANGELES — Ja Morant grabbed a seat in the gymnasium bleachers at a Los Angeles-area high school following practice with the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday afternoon. It was a rare moment when he was not in motion. A rookie point guard, he tends to play with the smooth, relentless rhythm of ocean surf.

Morant just keeps coming — at defenders, at the basket, at the lofty standards he sets for himself — and he has already done a good deal to validate the Grizzlies’ selection of him with the No. 2 pick in the N.B.A. draft. Entering Saturday’s game against the Phoenix Suns, he averaged 17.5 points and 5 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from 3-point range.

But as fast as he plays, and as seamlessly as he has made the transition from Murray State to the N.B.A., Morant is still absorbing some of the most fundamental lessons about life in the league. Near the top of that list: The schedule seldom slows. Game after game. Road trip after road trip. Tough assignment after tough assignment.

“Just how quickly you need to turn the page,” Morant said. “You can’t worry about the last game so much, because you’re always moving on to the next one.”

“I didn’t like that part of my game,” he said. “I did feel like I competed well.”

By Tuesday, though, Morant had moved on — in part because he had no choice. Against the Lakers at Staples Center, he spent much of the evening in the suffocating presence of Avery Bradley, a 10-year veteran and one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. The larger problem for the Grizzlies was Anthony Davis, who had 40 points and 20 rebounds in three quarters for the Lakers in a lopsided win that dropped Memphis to 1-3. Morant had 16 points and 2 assists in 25 minutes. He was asked what he had learned from the experience.

“Really just coming into an environment like this,” he said. “Hard to win on the road. My old coach used to always say, ‘Good teams win at home; great teams win on the road.’”

It is all about learning experiences now for Morant, who has gone from relative obscurity as a lightly recruited high school prospect to renown as one of the brighter young stars of the N.B.A. in less than three years. Perhaps the most remarkable part of his journey is that he does not seem rattled by any of it — at all.

Morant had never met Irving before facing the Nets, nor had he ever met LeBron James before facing the Lakers. (Morant was 4 years old when James was a rookie.)

As Morant’s star rose, the university’s athletic department took the unusual step of hiring security personnel to accompany the team on the road, once it became apparent that overzealous fans were camping out in hotel lobbies. Amid the attention, McMahon said, Morant kept striving to improve. McMahon sensed that Morant’s habit of grading himself was a tangible way for him to hold himself accountable and to remind himself that there was always room to grow.

McMahon recalled early-season games when Morant was particularly hard on himself for committing too many turnovers.

“Granted,” McMahon said, “we had the ball in his hands 40 minutes a game.”

Yet Morant never gave himself a grade of better than a seven, even after he eviscerated Marquette in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament with 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds.

McMahon said he offered Morant one piece of parting advice before Morant left campus last spring: “Don’t ever change.”

“That’s where we’re ultimately going to be at our best,” Jenkins said.

A couple of weeks ago, before the start of the season, Jenkins asked Morant if there were certain players he was excited to go up against. After all, he was about to see his share of high-profile point guards. But Morant did not name any names. Instead, he made it sound as if he were entering graduate school.

“He goes, ‘Every single night I play, I’m going to learn something from someone else that I can apply to my game — something that helps me play better the next time,’” Jenkins recalled. “He’s just focused on the basketball element of his job, which is really encouraging.”

So was Morant’s performance against the Nets. McMahon watched the game at home with his wife and their three young children, who have yet to grasp that an N.B.A. season is long and that they may need to pace themselves.

“They were celebrating like it was the N.C.A.A. tournament,” McMahon said.

That was in Morant’s past. He has to keep on moving.

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