MEMPHIS, Tenn. — With LeBron James‘ gold No. 23 uniform folded on his chair behind him, Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant reflected on beating one of his idols for the first time as the Grizzlies avoided a season sweep in what could be an NBA playoff preview.
“That’s big bro — the King,” Morant said Saturday after posting 27 points, 14 assists and 6 rebounds in a 105-88 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. “I mean, I feel like everybody knows who he is. Just somebody that I look up to, a great [role] model. He’s just one of a kind. I don’t think there can be another LeBron.”
Morant, a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year as he has the Grizzlies (29-31) in the thick of a postseason race, could have people saying the same thing about him someday.
“The kid is super special,” said James, whose totals of 19 points and 10 assists were dwarfed by the production of the No. 2 overall pick out of Murray State. “Like I said when we just played him in L.A., Memphis got a great one. They got a great one. So, the sky’s the limit for the kid.”
The Grizzlies’ guard soared through the air on a second-half dunk attempt on Anthony Davis. He was called for a charging foul, as Davis set up outside the restricted area and held his ground, but just the sheer audacity of the attempt will make highlight reels.
“I think he would probably try anyone that was there,” Davis said. “He’s done that a couple times this year. So I’m just trying to get a body in front of him and make him run me over.”
Morant explained the strategy behind the aggressive take, even if the whistle didn’t go his way.
“I mean, if I had went for a layup, it would have been a charge, but if I go up and try to dunk, then it’s 50-50,” he said. “So my mindset is just going to finish the play at any time, no matter who’s down there, and it was just one of those plays.”
It was one of those nights for Morant that made you marvel at Memphis’ future. After losing to the Lakers three times already this season and playing short-handed without franchise big man Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee sprain), the Grizzlies dominated on Saturday from the jump, snapping L.A.’s seven-game win streak.
Morant made a career-best four 3-pointers off his six attempts from deep and recorded his 11th double-double, which leads all rookies. It was his second straight 20-point, 10-assist game, joining Luka Doncic and Trae Young as the only rookies since the 2011-12 season to hit those numbers in consecutive games.
He also gave James something to add to his luggage for the Lakers’ flight to New Orleans on Saturday for a date with Zion Williamson and the Pelicans on Sunday, as Morant’s blue No. 12 uniform was draped on the seat next to James’ locker.
“I didn’t even know I was getting his jersey actually,” James said. “I gave him mine, for sure, but I didn’t know he was returning the favor. But it’s pretty cool.”
James and Morant, over the course of their four regular-season meetings, have clearly developed a rapport. After their previous game in L.A., James could be heard telling Morant, “whatever you need, on or off [the court],” he would be willing to help him.
James has played Williamson only once — a 118-109 win for the Lakers on Tuesday in which James scored a season-high 40 points to better Williamson’s 29-point night — and he said afterward that he had yet to speak to or even meet the Pelicans’ No. 1 pick.
When asked about Williamson on Saturday, James told ESPN he has an “open-door policy” with anyone in the sport who reaches out to him.
He also went out of his way to heap praise upon some of the rising stars in the league, Williamson included.
“I’ve always thought about that,” James said. “Like, what young guys are coming up in the ranks that will be able to continue to carry it on after I’m gone. You look at Ja and you look at Zion. You look at Jayson Tatum. You look at Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and the list goes on and on. Those guys are just not only great on the floor but also, more importantly, off the floor. And that’s a great thing to have. … Our league is in a very, very good place.”
Morant — who told Fox Sports Southeast during his postgame interview that his performance Saturday night was motivated in part by a Twitter critic who told him he didn’t “have the fire in my eye no more” — sounded comfortable being grouped with the league’s next generation of stars.
“That’s what we’re called here, ‘Next Gen,'” he said. “So there you go.”
The Lakers have a 5½-game lead over the Denver Nuggets for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. Saturday’s win gave the Grizzlies a 2½-game cushion over New Orleans for the No. 8 seed.
James’ and Morant’s rapport could be tested on the postseason stage.
“I think it’s just mutual respect,” James said. “I’ve watched him for quite a while now. And once he obviously got to the league you start to pay attention more and more and the relationship starts if that guy wants it, from my side.
“And it’s just all about understanding what those guys are going through because I was in that position before as well.”