by Ed Marlowe
The Paducah Sun
MEMPHIS -- A massive electronic billboard -- just outside of his new arena -- bore his likeness in larger-than-life fashion.
At his introductory press conference, fans roared before he even spoke a single word into the microphone.
And he even committed his first turnover, when it was pointed out he had -- wrongfully, it seems -- compared South Carolina's barbecue with the meats of Memphis.
"I'm sorry," he quipped, bringing a barrel of laughter from the swarm. "But (the Memphis 'cue) was good."
Yes, Murray State's Ja Morant belongs to the Grizzlies now ... following a whirlwind week in Brooklyn and his No. 2 selection in Thursday's 2019 NBA Draft with an introductory meeting in front of Grizzlies media on Friday in the packed foyer of the FedEx Forum.
Joined at his sides were newly-minted Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins -- most recently a top assistant for the Milwaukee Bucks -- and Zach Kleiman, the team's executive vice president of basketball operations.
And with questions, came answers.
What would he say to Racer fans right now, if he could?
"I just want to start off by telling them 'thank you' for a wonderful two years at Murray State," Morant said. "I'm always a Racer. That's family, and I think it's going to show the type of relationship we have in Murray, Kentucky, when RacerNation fills out this arena."
Will he keep the same edge he did while at Murray State, after now making the world's greatest league?
"I'm still going to be the same Ja," he said. "I don't think that'll ever change. Obviously, coming from what I came from with my story, I'm always going to play with that chip on my shoulder. I'm not going to force anything. Just going to go out and continue to play my game and continue to help the team."
Is there any pressure being the No. 2 pick overall?
"I don't think it's any pressure," he noted. "Obviously, I have some big shoes to fill from Mike Conley. He's a great player. I wish him the best. I just want to thank the Memphis Grizzlies, as a whole, for believing in me to pick me, and put me in this position that I'm in."
Yes, lots of questions ... and many more to come.
But for now, Morant will get some rest -- at least physically -- as Grizzlies officials doubled down on Thursday statements and stated their newly acquired point guard wouldn't be playing in the 2019 Summer League, which is set to begin
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the first week of July.
However, there's hardly any need for concern for Morant's health. His knee scope went well, and Kleiman went into great detail what Morant means ... and will mean ... for a proud franchise best known for its "grit and grind" style.
"I think what stands out, first and foremost, about Ja when people talk about him ... is the athleticism and explosiveness," Kleiman said. "Everyone has seen his SportsCenter highlights dunking on guys, which is unbelievable.
"But the thing that really stood out to us about Ja is the basketball IQ. When he breaks down defenses and gets into the paint, he's two steps ahead of everybody. And categorically what we want to emphasize here as we're building out the Grizzlies is that combination of basketball IQ and competitiveness. We think that if we -- across the board as we're working through the roster from here -- find like-minded guys like that who want to work ... who want to get better and have that mentality ... things may just turn out okay here."
A month ago, Jenkins was in the middle of a riveting NBA playoff series against the Toronto Raptors -- in which the Bucks grabbed a 2-0 lead before Kawhi Leonard and company locked down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the gang to advance into the 2019 NBA Finals (and an ensuing title).
Now, he's got a young roster with guys like Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke (2019, 23rd pick) at his disposal -- and a swathe of savvy veterans he can wrap around them.
Thursday night, he was in the "war room" with team officials, helping pick apart the options at No. 2 and No. 21 for the team.
Clearly, Morant stood above the rest.
"I definitely think there's a maturation at any position on the floor, but especially the point guard position," Jenkins said. "(Morant's) ability to break down defenses, read defenses, see a play before it even happens ... So many players when they come into this league, one of the many adjustments are the reads of the game. The fact that he has that at such a young age and an early stage of his career is exciting because he's already got that in place. He's only going to get better."
What they said
"It's been tough. At a young age, jumping on those tires wasn't fun at all. I used to get kind of mad. But obviously it all paid off. ... my dad had the opportunity to play professionally, but turned it down and stayed to raise me. (Thursday) night was a big night not only for me, but for my family. We all achieved a dream (Thursday) night." -- MSU's Ja Morant, on making it to the NBA
"Obviously during March Madness, I got to have a few moments to watch their tourney run. And as I was going through the interview process here in Memphis, we were diving into the potential players that were going to be selected at No. 2. I had a lot to catch up on. It was pretty easy and pretty apparent, watching the film and speaking with Zach about the individual we were getting ... that (we were getting) the (right) person, first and foremost, and the few games I was able to watch and dive into some more film, the unselfishness. That's going to be a big part of our program. It's a team sport, and he epitomizes it." -- Memphis HC Taylor Jenkins, on Morant