Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies have been counting down the days until the two-time All-Star’s 25-game suspension ends.
For Morant, almost literally.
The point guard suspended for flashing a gun on social media twice in the span of three months has posted the hourglass emoji a couple times, the last on Monday with “return soon” followed by that emoji with the number of days and games left until he plays again for the Grizzlies.
Morant will speak to reporters Friday morning after a shootaround in Memphis. His season debut will be Tuesday night in New Orleans.
Coach Taylor Jenkins said Morant has been “unbelievable” working to be ready the moment his suspension ends.
“I expect him to be full go come Game 26,” Jenkins said. “He’s really excited. He understands the process that’s gotten him here.”
Still, it’s up to Morant to prove the undisclosed steps required during the league-imposed timeout actually worked with everyone watching and waiting for any slip-up or mistake in his behavior off the court.
The NBA and Grizzlies have said little about the specific terms of Morant’s second suspension in four months for holding a gun during a friend’s livestream on social media in May. On draft night, general manager Zach Kleiman called the punishment “appropriate” and time for Morant to change his behavior.
The Grizzlies announced Oct. 2 that Morant was allowed to practice with his teammates, travel to road games and even take part in shootarounds. But the guard has not been able to sit on the bench or even be inside arenas for games.
The NBA also had checkpoints for Morant to meet throughout his suspension, which Commissioner Adam Silver said last weekend in Las Vegas that he has monitored closely. Silver also planned to check in with Morant himself this week.
Morant and his team have been in weekly contact with both the NBA office and the NBA Players Association making sure the high-flying guard has followed the program laid out for him. Silver said Morant has done everything asked of him to the best of his knowledge.
“We will review the program and make sure the conditions are in place for him to be successful going forward,” Silver said.
Morant has stayed busy, supporting a local high school team and being the Grizzlies’ biggest cheerleader. On Monday, he testified in a civil lawsuit involving his punching a teenager at a pickup game last year after being hit in the chin with a basketball.
He countersued in April, noting the lawsuit had jeopardized Morant’s sponsorships along with some “unconsummated deals.” Nike so far has stuck with Morant and his Ja 1 shoe line.
Morant will be rejoining a very different team from the young, cocky Grizzlies who earned the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed each of the past two seasons. These Grizzlies are one of the NBA’s worst with a 6-17 record that’s ahead of only Washington, San Antonio and Detroit.
The franchise that posted a league-best 35-6 record at home last season was the NBA’s last to win on its own court this season. The Grizzlies are 1-10 in Memphis, where empty seats have often outnumbered fans.
Only Jaren Jackson Jr. and David Roddy Jr. have played every game. Jackson, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Desmond Bane have been trying to carry Memphis during Morant’s suspension.
Bane, who missed his first game Wednesday night because he was sick, ranks 16th in the NBA averaging a career-high 24.8 points a game. He had a career-high 49 points Dec. 6, tying Morant for the second-highest point total for a single game in franchise history.
Jackson scored a season-high 41 points Monday night in a loss to Dallas, then had a career-high 44 Wednesday night losing to Houston.
As if Morant’s suspension wasn’t painful enough, injuries have decimated the Grizzlies.
Center Steven Adams was ruled out for the season with an injured knee just before the season started. Marcus Smart, the 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Luke Kennard have been out since both were hurt in a Nov. 14 loss to the Lakers.
Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, also missed games with an injury.
So it’s a good thing the Grizzlies designed a plan to help Morant ramp up for his return. They need him desperately to have a chance at clawing back into the playoff picture. Only the Spurs are below Memphis in the West as of Thursday morning and 6 1/2 games back of Phoenix for the 10th and final play-in spot.
Jenkins said Morant has been “unbelievable” with what the Grizzlies designed to have him physically ready. Morant still must build chemistry with new teammates in games along with his conditioning while working his way back into a starting lineup that has been carried by Jackson and Bane.
“He’s pushing extremely (hard),” Jenkins said.
AP Freelance Writer Clay Bailey contributed to this report.
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