NEW YORK — Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant will have a major challenge when he comes to play his first game against the 76ers, Friday at the Wells Fargo Center.
The overwhelming leader for the NBA rookie of the year, Morant has accomplished the difficult task of having the opposing crowd frequently cheer for him.
How can the fans help it?
The master of the ball fake, with an assortment of shake and bake moves, the 6-foot-2 Morant often has the crowd in the palm of his hands after making yet another highlight reel move.
It happened during last week’s 127-106 win over the New York Knicks at the vaunted cathedral of college basketball, Madison Square Garden.
Several times Morant drew the "oohs, and ahhs’ from the crowd with his ball fakes, no-look passes, floaters that he got off in congested traffic and one impressive alley oop dunk. The Knicks fans were frequently cheering his work.
Oh yes, and Morant compiled a ridiculous plus 42 rating for the game, along with 18 points and 10 assists.
“It is definitely crazy," Morant said after the game about the fans’ reaction. "Every away game we go, to having fans there cheering for me is something I am not used to, honestly. Coming out of college my second year, it kind of ruled a little bit, but now it is just different.”
And now comes the real challenge - getting the Philadelphia fans, who are not known to be the most cordial group to visiting players, cheer for him.
Whether that happens or not, it’s likely that Morant will give them a show.
The No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft out of Murray State, Morant has certainly lived up to his draft billing.
Morant is averaging 17.4 points and 7.0 assists while shooting 38.7 percent from three-point range.
The best statistic has been the Grizzlies’ record. Memphis is 26-25 after Wednesday’s 121-107 win at Dallas. This is a franchise that was 55-109 the previous two seasons. And the prospect for having a competitive team didn’t look real bright during the preseason.
Fanduel had the over-under for wins for Memphis at 27.5.
A young team that didn’t appear to have a bright future in the preseason is now battling for a Western Conference playoff berth.
There are may reasons, but the addition of Morant is the biggest.
“He has grown in every part of his game, which is awesome,” said first-year Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins, a graduate of Penn, who never played basketball for the Quakers. “He is reading defenses, how they are guarding him, and is now identifying what plays to call.”
When the play breaks down, Morant is at his best, driving to the basket, ball-faking a defender and then going in for the jam, or scoring with his patented floater. In addition to his court vision and wizardry with the ball, he has incredible hops and is a ferocious dunker.
As Jenkins suggested, Morant continues to improve. January was overall his best month, where he averaged 17.5 points and 8.3 assists. His plus-minus average for the month was plus 6.4 the first positive month in that category he has enjoyed.
Morant insists that none of this has surprised him.
“I have a lot of confidence in myself,” Morant said. “I feel the negative energy people have brought to me that only makes me better, pushes me harder and ends up backfiring on them.”
It’s not so much negative, but there was some skepticism. Morant didn’t have the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world knocking on his door to recruit him.
He wasn’t a one-and-done college player. As a freshman he averaged 12.7 points and 6.3 assists on a 26-6 team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament but lost its first game.
Last season he exploded, averaging 24.5 points and 10.0 assists on a team that won its first-round NCAA game over Marquette before being eliminated by Florida State.
So maybe there were some skeptics wondering how he would go from performing in the Ohio Valley Conference to the NBA.
Yet his style has fit in well with this young team. Morant understands how his crowd-pleasing play also has a positive affect on his teammates.
“I just try to do whatever I can to help my team,” said Morant, who had his number retired over the weekend at Murray State. “I feel if we are down, I try to do something exciting and try to pick up the energy a little bit.”
He certainly has done that .
“I don’t do it on purpose, it is just natural,” he said.
And it is playing well in NBA arenas.