Way back on June 20, we were told to watch the 2019 NBA Draft to witness history in the making - the selection of perennial No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
The coverage of Williamson prior to the NBA was unlike anything we had ever seen before, even including the high school days of "The Chosen One" LeBron James. The talks surrounding the sure-fire first pick went far beyond the assumed Rookie of the Year trophy he had already seemingly been entitled to before even hearing his name called on draft day. Could he be a rookie All-Star? What about All-NBA? Does he make the New Orleans Pelicans an instant playoff team despite losing an all-world talent in Anthony Davis?
It was overwhelming, the shadow he cast over the rest of the 2019 rookie class.
But some players thrive under those conditions. Some guys don't need the attention or the bright lights.
For example, let's say, a player who was unranked coming out of high school, receiving one Power 5 conference offer before committing to a mid-major school.
With the Barclays Center crowd still in a ruckus over the massive presence of No .1 pick Williamson, commissioner Adam Silver moved down the draft board.
"With the second pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Memphis Grizzlies select Ja Morant, Murray State University."
Loss in Zion-mania was the introduction to another potential superstar in the league, but if we'd been paying attention we might have seen it coming.
Morant was a problem in his two seasons at Murray State. His explosiveness on full display, his playmaking ability through the roof, a triple-double threat with a relentless attitude. Like most highly selected mid-major prospects, there were questions to be asked of the 20-year-old guard. Is he big and strong enough to attack the rim the way he did in college? Is his decision-making polished enough to run an NBA offence? Can he shoot well enough for teams to respect his perimeter jumper?
The Grizzlies were willing to take those chances.
The day before the NBA Draft, Memphis traded away arguably their greatest player in franchise history in Mike Conley Jr., fully committing to handing the keys of the franchise over to their No. 2 pick.
In return, Morant provided answers to those pre-draft doubts very quickly in what became a breakout rookie season, leading to the 2019-20 NBA Rookie of the Year.
Per OddsShark.com, the Grizzlies opened the season with an over/under win total of 26.5 - less than seven wins of what they would actually achieve over a shortened 62-game season.
If you asked former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala at the start of the season, he'd probably tell you that projection was about right.
The now Miami Heat forward Iguodala was on Memphis' roster to kick off the 2019-20 season but refused to report to the team until he was bought out or traded to a contender. He had no interest in being part of a rebuilding process.
Morant had other ideas and a much quicker timeline in place for that "rebuilding process."
It didn't take long for the rookie guard to explode on the scene. Three games into the season, he went toe-to-toe with one of the best guards in the NBA in Kyrie Irving. In an absolute duel, Morant poured in 17 fourth-quarter points then blocked Irving's game-winning shot attempt to send the game into overtime where the Grizzlies would come away with a win.
Kyrie Irving gets the iso on the rookie in the clutch... Ja Morant locks him down.- Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) June 21, 2020
Only his 3rd NBA game. pic.twitter.com/PsGT5TiX8a
Two weeks later, we saw him put Memphis on his back with another fourth-quarter outburst that concluded with the first game-winner of his young career, taking on the entire Charlotte Hornets team at the rim for a tough, contested layup.
From there forward, the rookie sensation became must-watch TV. If you weren't paying attention, you were guaranteed to miss some sort of electrifying play that would send NBA Twitter into a frenzy.
Let's go back to those pre-draft questions...
"Is he big and strong enough to attack the rim the way he did in college?"
Ask Aron Baynes.
JA MORANT OVER ARON BAYNES. OH MY. pic.twitter.com/GWQD3I3S2i- Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) December 12, 2019
"Is his decision-making polished enough to run an NBA offence?"
See for yourself.
Goodness this Ja Morant pass 😱- Dime (@DimeUPROXX) January 15, 2020
"Can he shoot well enough for teams to respect his jumper on the perimeter?"
Ask James Harden.
Ja Morant hit a 3 and said "tell that Mother F***** about me" to James Harden pic.twitter.com/Yw6zfLDWRM- Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) January 15, 2020
And those are just a few highlights from the fearless guard's rookie campaign in the league. There was more where that came from and then some. Morant didn't back down from anyone, on or off the court.
When No. 1 pick Williamson made his return and the masses looked for ways to crown him Rookie of the Year, Morant had none of it. He kept his foot on the gas to assert the Grizzlies into the playoff picture, years ahead of schedule.
When the league started back up after a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, those same masses awaited on Memphis' downfall in hopes that teams like the Portland Trail Blazers or Phoenix Suns would take the final two spots to face off in the first play-in game in NBA history.
Morant didn't care for those thoughts either, dropping a triple-double in a win-or-go-home scenario against the Milwaukee Bucks to reach said play-in game.
Without budding star forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (who was sidelined due to a torn meniscus), the Grizzlies weren't given much respect to do damage to the Blazers in the first-ever play-in game. While they fell short of forcing a second game, Morant did all he could to keep his team alive, going for 35 points and eight assists in his unofficial playoff debut.
The aforementioned feats became all that much more impressive when reports surfaced shortly after that contest that Morant battled through a broken thumb for the final four games of the season. Toughness and perseverance exemplified.
It capped off a remarkable rookie season in which Morant averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game shooting 47.7% from the field and 33.5% from 3-point land.
Those numbers are much more impressive than they look, too.
Morant joined the most elite company, becoming the third rookie guard in NBA history to average over 17 points and seven assists per game shooting better than 45% from the field.
The only other two to achieve those numbers? All-time greats Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson.
Morant's success as a rookie has jumpstarted Memphis' rebuild in a hurry. Surrounding their new floor general with talented players like Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and Justise Winslow can only help the Grizzlies get back to the playoffs well ahead of expectations.
Over a year after drafting the mid-major prospect there is one thing for certain: Memphis got a future superstar in 2019-20 Rookie of the Year Ja Morant.
The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.