Ja Morant will have a painful memory from his first NBA season to help remind him — and the rest of the league — just how far ahead of schedule the Memphis Grizzlies' rebuilding project is.
"How close I was to the playoffs," Morant said Saturday after the Grizzlies' postseason hopes ended in a 126-122 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference's play-in game.
"Obviously, now I feel like I kind of know what it takes to make it. We're some games away. I learned a lot through the amount of games I played this whole season. I say people try to put a lot of pressure on me, but I'm a rookie. Just turned 21 a couple days ago. At this point, I'm still learning."
The young star capped his season by scoring a career-best 35 points despite playing with a broken thumb the final four games of the NBA's restart in Florida. Only three Grizzlies rookies previously scored 35 or more in a regular-season game: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr.
Better yet, Morant finished the regular season as the seventh rookie in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven assists per game. He finished at 17.8 points and 7.3 assists, joining Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Damon Stoudamire, Allen Iverson and Trae Young.
A very nice debut indeed for the former Murray State Racer who was the No. 2 overall draft pick last summer.
"I feel like I got better as the season went on," Morant said. "Obviously not the outcome we wanted, but we have to be proud of what we accomplished this season coming in, being projected to be 27th in the league and was right there in the play-in game."
The Grizzlies went to the NBA's restart in Florida with a 3 1/2-game lead for the eighth spot only to go 2-6 in the seeding games. That left them needing to beat Portland not once but twice, and now the franchise's playoff drought extends to a third straight season.
The league's bubble, intended to safeguard against the coronavirus, did not protect Memphis from injuries that took out Justise Winslow with a displaced left hip during a team scrimmage soon after arriving in Florida. Tyus Jones never played in a seeding game because of a sore right knee. Then Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick in 2018, tore the meniscus in his left knee and played only three games.
That left the heavy lifting to Morant and veteran center Jonas Valanciunas. They became the first Grizzlies teammates to have triple-doubles in the same game, getting Memphis into the play-in game. Morant followed with his season high in points and minutes played (42).
One thing is certain: The Grizzlies need more of Brooks' good shooting and less of his bad. Memphis went 20-6 when Brooks scored 20 or more points and 4-16 when he was held to single digits during the regular season. Greyson Allen hit 24 3s off the bench during the seeding games, though, providing a strong scoring threat when healthy.
The Grizzlies set a trio of franchise records by averaging 112.8 points per game and ranked second in the NBA by averaging 26.9 assists and sixth for a pace of 103.31 during the regular season. They also led the NBA in scoring 55.9 points a game in the paint. During the seeding games, they ranked sixth in defensive rating at 108.1.
Valanciunas got more comfortable as the season went on and finished sixth in the NBA in rebounds, with a career-high 11.3 per game. He was second after the All-Star break, averaging 13.2 rebounds.
Brandon Clarke may have gotten lost in all the attention earned by Morant, but he set an NBA rookie record by shooting 61.8% this season, topping the mark of 61.3% set by Steve Johnson in 1981-82.