Ja Morant is on the precipice of so much to gain, but has even more to lose

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Ja Morant is at an inflection point.

He’s replaced Kyrie Irving as a top pitchman for Nike, been tabbed as an endorser for Powerade and is one of the brightest, young superstars in the NBA.

He’s far too important to the NBA’s future to find himself caught in what, at best, could be described as immature behavior — and at worst, dangerous.

In a report from the Washington Post, it outlined three separate incidents — one where he allegedly assaulted a teenager in his neighborhood where the teen alleged Morant had a gun in his waistband (the police report did not say Morant pulled out the weapon), another where he and nine friends pulled up at a Finish Line in a mall to handle a dispute concerning his mother and the most recent allegation where someone riding in Morant’s car apparently pointed a laser at members of the Indiana Pacers’ traveling party — none of which paints Morant or people in his circle in a positive light.

Morant denies each instance, with his lawyer and agent issuing a statement in the aftermath of the story. And for the record, he hasn’t been formally charged with anything criminal. Punching a teenager repeatedly after a backyard basketball game, or threatening a mall security guard by saying aloud you’ll find out what time he gets off isn’t something the NBA can wrap its arms around, even if it wants to.

On Saturday, Morant was seen on an Instagram Live video flashing a gun. The NBA said it would investigate, and later, the Grizzlies suspended him for at least two games.

You can’t even file “immaturity” as a misdemeanor.

For now, perhaps, he has the benefit of the doubt because there’s been no reported priors of bad behavior. One incident by itself can be written off in the micro. But the macro doesn’t look good in the moment.

It is now part of his social credit report. Some things, through time, manage to dissipate. But only through a pattern of behaviors that indicate a full distance from these instances will they roll off in the long term.

Morant is living off currency Allen Iverson unwillingly curated, both on the floor and off. Iverson, in his own words, “took the ass whooping for guys to be who they really are” back in his day. He was a rebel, loved by the grassroots, but largely misunderstood by the masses who didn’t know how to contextualize someone who didn’t fit into the clean-cut image of NBA players back then.

Iverson certainly made his share of mistakes, things he doesn’t run from to this day, but the heavy hand of the media and public often came down harder on him than his peers. Because of that, players like Morant are looked at through a different lens.

Morant’s unbridled authenticity is standing on the shoulders of Iverson’s battered ones, as he’s cashing in on those mistakes. The public is paying it forward with Morant in ways it can’t issue Iverson an apology from 20-plus years ago.

Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant during an NBA game on Feb. 28, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant during an NBA game on Feb. 28, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

Morant isn’t getting any Iverson-like “ass whoopings.” He’ll receive a more big brotherly touch in the meantime while everyone hopes and prays the approach doesn’t backfire.

Doing the Griddy with his adorable daughter and having his dad courtside for every game — even through some uncomfortable moments — paints a picture of a close-knit family that should be embraced.

Especially when juxtaposing that with the team he plays for, the Memphis Grizzlies, it seems to fit right in with a counterculture image that somehow seems to embody the culture. The Grizzlies are the closest thing the NBA has to villains, even if they’re not. They’re not the family-friendly Golden State Warriors — Draymond Green’s antics notwithstanding — and they’re in a place that isn’t a big market, a perfect place for an underdog in the NBA’s big picture.

His teammates love him and play for him — which sounds simple on its face but one can find plenty of situations around the NBA where a team’s star isn’t particularly liked or embraced by his teammates.

There’s so much fertile ground, with his entertaining brand of play — one that wins, it should be said — that he’ll be on the marquee for years to come if this is just a blip and not a continuing, escalating pattern of misbehavior.

LeBron James has been in the public eye for decades, and we know the names of his circle firsthand. While James took criticism from mainstream media for placing his friends in such prominent positions, none of them has been in the crosshairs of anything criminal or anything that deserved benefit of the doubt.

James set the tone and everyone followed, dispelling the stereotypes about “posses” and “entourages,” especially considering these were young, Black faces.

Morant is one of the few young NBA superstars from the States, which also means one can assume he’ll factor into USA Basketball in the coming years. It’s not that many marketable, young, available superstars, especially as the Kevin Durants and Stephen Currys get closer to the twilight.

At some point, the next crop of magnetic players will take the mantle, but there aren’t many Americans to go around.

The NBA needs Morant to succeed, regardless of the market he’s in. And Morant has to help himself in the meantime.

But Morant — and the Grizzlies, by association, have flown a little too close to the sun. There was the Friday night incident with Fox Sports television analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe in Los Angeles, where verbal shots were served and volleyed headed into halftime. Even Morant’s dad, Tee Morant, was barking at Sharpe before things settled down.

In some ways, it adds to the texture of the league, the proximity of its players getting into it with a famous athlete and fan in Sharpe. But that texture has to be careful before it turns into something trending toward dangerous.

Let’s assume the laser-pointing incident toward the Pacers wasn’t a gun and just something with a red dot that could get the unsophisticated civilian spooked and concerned in the moment.

Considering the Grizzlies play their home games in Memphis, Tennessee, does that seem like a smart move for Morant or someone in his circle to randomly be playing around like that?

The common thread you’ll hear about Morant is he’s not a bad guy — as if that matters. As if we can identify the difference between good and bad, or locate where the line is between the two. Whatever he is inherently only matters but so much, while what he shows is far more critical. Not only to his reputation, but his future in this very big but very small ecosystem. It’s one that can be unfair and unforgiving while similarly showing grace if it is decided he’s one of the chosen ones.

Morant has so much to gain, if he recognizes what’s in front of him. But just as important, he — or someone he holds close — must realize he has just as much to lose.

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