I was a music critic for a while, and though the whole dancing about architecture aspect of that job is overstated, there is a fundamental difference between the visceral pleasure of music and the best of what criticism provides. If you’re trying to communicate the immediacy of a song using prose, you can approximate it, but you’re always going to fail. Nothing reads as good as something beautiful sounds. The closest analogue to, like, Lil Wayne’s mixtape hot streak or the Velvet Underground in the late 60s is found in literature, not Lester Bangs or Jeff Weiss writing about them. Which isn’t to discount the value of the latter thing.
What do you like about basketball? You like to be surprised by world-class athleticism, the suddenness of a fourth quarter comeback. And then you go read Zach Lowe nerd out about the Clippers’ two-man game. Your interest in the sport is more like two parallel interests: the thing itself, and the discussion of it.
This is where I cop to not knowing what my purpose is. Because I don’t really care about out-of-bounds sets, the finer points of pick and roll coverages. The minutiae doesn’t move me; it’s a matter of taste. But then what do I have to say that matters? Nothing, a decent amount of the time. Whatever pleasure a certain sequence of words brings. The intoxicating sweep of a narrative that might not hold up. The validation you feel, seeing something you believe in print, some false authority agreeing with you. There’s a rule in stand-up comedy, which I’ve also dabbled in, that you shouldn’t point out how tenuous your relationship with the audience is: you’re just some schmuck on a stage, talking at a bunch of people, and they’re giving you an extraordinary amount of patience. They’ll only laugh if they let themselves. If they decide you’ve got no insight or wit, that you’re no more a comedian than they are, you’re in for the longest ten minutes of your life.
The enormity of the sport overwhelms me when I watch a player like Ja Morant. The guy’s a basketball miracle. He plays like he finds his own athleticism upsetting. His rookie year highlight reel, which includes defenders falling over, a lay-in out of a behind-the-back dribble move, and the six-foot-three guard hurtling toward the rim as if on a zipline. It’s also packed with melodramatic flourishes, half-second staredowns and post-dunk flexes. I’m not sure if Ja talks all that much on the court but he communicates with his body like a stage actor. He growls with his shoulders.
He’s aggressive in the way that only young players are. He reminds me of a young Blake Griffin, who tried to dunk everything he caught within seven feet of the basket. Blake had spent his sophomore year at Oklahoma pushing other big guys around. He was too strong for the Big 12. He’d back down any forward or center you threw at him, pull the rim down over his head. While this limited him somewhat early in his career—he had to develop some finesse, work on his jumper—he was also delighted to find out that he could push around many NBA players too, and that he could outleap every last one of them. Young Blake was a terror, in large part because he didn’t even understand the game all that well. He was getting by on ability and instinct and still put up 22 and 12 in his rookie season.
As he honed his skills and picked up a few tricks from vets and coaches, Blake became an MVP candidate. By his fourth year in the league, he was still gobsmackingly powerful, but he didn’t rely on his natural gifts quite as heavily, having developed as a playmaker and refined his face-up game. He still dunked plenty, it just wasn’t the only thing on his expansive mind.
Morant is going to be a better player at 25 than he is now. Provided he doesn’t wear down like Blake did, he might be at the peak of his powers at age 30 or 32. But this is a special time because he hasn’t fully harnessed what he’s got. He’s not a smart or careful player. He hasn’t suffered a scary fall yet. He bangs his knee, sleeps it off, and feels better the next morning. He probably shouldn’t try to vault that stringbean frame directly over every seven-footer he encounters in the lane, but he does it because it’s fun. Being heedless, when you can still afford to be, is one of the great pleasures of being young. And seeing Ja romp and rage—it’s a kind of metaphor for being young, a heightened representation of it. Basically nobody can or could at 20 years old do what he does. But when you’re 20, truly in the thick of being 20, it sometimes feels like you can. It’s easier to transcend, at that age.
What the Grizzlies have in Ja Morant will reveal itself over the next few years. He’s definitely a good player, could become a great one. Most franchises would be elated to have he and Jaren Jackson Jr. signed up for the foreseeable future. But you don’t need to project in order to enjoy the two of them, especially Morant, who is already one of the most purely entertaining players in the league. He’ll probably continue to be, but the shape of his charisma is going to change slightly as he gets older. This narrow slice of time is one that Grizz fans and sympathetic observers will look back on with nostalgia: when Ja Morant hadn’t figured it out yet, had all his bounce, and seemed to play solely for the thrill of being wild. That’s it, that’s the point. We’ll save the analysis for later, when we might find value in it.
More 2020 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
2017 Futures: Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz, Washington Wizards
2016 Futures: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards