It wasn’t that long ago that Ja Morant was navigating through his rookie season with the Memphis Grizzlies. The former second overall pick from Murray State quickly established himself as the top player in the 2019 NBA draft and was named the Rookie of the Year.
Morant has since become one of the elite players in the league. Only in his fourth season, Morant already has quite a resume to his name: All-Rookie first team, Most Improved Player, All-NBA second team and All-Star with another appearance all but guaranteed again this year. In other words: Morant is emerging as one of the next faces of the NBA.
He also has another role on his plate: Leader of the Grizzlies.
Since arriving in Memphis, the Grizzlies have ascended up the standings each year in the Western Conference with Morant leading the way. The group has made the playoffs in back-to-back years and is heading toward a third-straight appearance.
As a team on the rise, head coach Taylor Jenkins has relied on plenty of young players since assuming the position in 2019. The Grizzlies are the fifth-youngest team in the NBA this season with an average age of 24.27 and feature a core of Morant, Desmond BaneDillon Brooks Brandon ClarkeJaren Jackson Jr. and Ziaire Williams. The organization got even younger and added five rookies to the roster this year: Jake LaRavia (19th pick), David Roddy (23rd), Kennedy Chandler (38th), Vince Williams Jr. (47th) and Kenneth Lofton Jr. (undrafted).
With such high expectations after tying a franchise record of 56 wins and advancing to the conference semifinals last season, it wasn’t clear how much their rookies would contribute. However, Jenkins said at the beginning of the season that they would have the opportunity to play and Roddy has emerged as a key player off the bench.
Jenkins loves what Roddy brings to the court.
I think his biggest impact is just the competitiveness and the fire he plays with every single day. He is constantly learning the game still at this level — the physicality, the speed, the game-planning. The confidence that we have to throw him on guards and wings and bigs and just accept those challenges is really impressive.
I think he has shown those moments where he is finding a little bit more consistency as a rookie early in the season. Through all of that, (there is a) confidence in him that he is going to go out there and play with max force and try to take charges, try to keep guys in front of him. When he is open, he isn’t going to be afraid to knock down a shot.
Roddy is averaging 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds on 41% shooting from the field in 37 games this season. He has scored in double figures nine times, including a season-high 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists on Dec. 15 in a win over Milwaukee.
Listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 255 pounds, the team likes the versatility Roddy brings off the bench. He can seemingly be used in multiple ways in the frontcourt, something that has been valuable to the team.
“I take pride in whatever role I’m assigned to do,” Roddy told Rookie Wire. “If that’s coming off the bench and guarding to the best of my ability or using my physicality and bringing energy off of the bench. If that includes knocking down shots on a certain day, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Those numbers by Roddy may not jump off the page but considering the 21-year-old is logging fewer than 20 minutes per game, that production has been beneficial at times. His per-36-minute stats offer a better idea of what Roddy could do in a larger role: 12.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 assists.
Morant values what Roddy brings to the second unit.
I feel like bench production is a big piece to a good team. I feel like we’ve been having that since I’ve been here and now having younger guys come in and play a big part is even better for us. I feel like his development of him over the games we’ve played has been good.
He is finding his spots on the floor and where he likes to be. I pretty much know if I pass him the ball (he’ll) shoot it. He also can put pressure on the defense by attacking with his strong frame and being able to bulldoze through everybody and finish.
Roddy was thrown into the fire rather early in the season with the team dealing with injuries to Jaren Jackson Jr., Xavier Tillman Sr. and others. Those minutes helped Roddy learn on the fly and adjust to different coverages by opposing teams.
It also helped him get acclimated to his new teammates.
The veterans on the roster constantly encourage Roddy and the other young players on the court. Arriving in the NBA as a rookie can be a daunting task, but the experienced players have made it exponentially easier for him.
“It is very freeing,” Roddy said. “They instill confidence in us. They do what they do and it is also just like: ‘Find some opportunities within the offense to show what you got and be free and be aggressive.’ It definitely helps the team as a whole just with moving the ball and sharing and everything. It’s great that they do that.”
Instilling confidence is something Morant wants to do.
He has proven to be the ultimate teammate and has each of their backs through the good and the bad. He often leads by example and is constantly hyping up his teammates on and off the court, and even on social media.
One example: During a game last season on the road versus Philadelphia, Morant found Williams for what would have been the game-winning shot in overtime, but the rookie missed it and the Grizzlies lost. Morant defended Williams afterwardsand said he’d make the same play if that situation came up again.
Why are those moments important for Morant?
“I’ve been in that position but I’m a leader on this team,” Morant said. “I’m also the point guard. I feel like if I’m a leader, I have to be vocal. It’s just me always trying to instill confidence in each one of our guys. Obviously, with the younger ones, there are going to be ups and downs. You’ll have a stretch where you can’t make anything and you have a stretch where you’re feeling good but you can’t let it change how you attack the game and how you play.”
With Morant and the rest of the players on the team, the Grizzlies’ group of rookies has been surrounded by some great experience and has been put into a position to succeed this year and beyond.
That is a direct result of the buy-in from Morant as their leader.
“He is such a pleasure to be around so I just want to make his job better,” Roddy said. “It definitely helps us jell together more. He is always accepting and always trying to make us better and make himself better.”
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