Morant among the NBA rookies who made noise in their debuts
MIAMI — The first three baskets of the season for the Memphis Grizzlies were all reminders of why the team wanted Ja Morant.
Getting free inside for a layup.
An acrobatic reverse layup off a lob.
A swooping score over two defenders in transition.
Those were his first three NBA shots, his first three NBA makes and with that the career of the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft is off and running. It wasn’t storybook — Memphis flopped in the fourth and wound up losing 120-101 to the Miami Heat on Wednesday night — but Morant’s debut was impressive nonetheless, one of many eye-catching performances by rookies getting a chance to have their openers this week.
“I’m real close with Ja,” Heat rookie Tyler Herro said. “He’s a great player. He was drafted No. 2 for a reason and I thought he showed that tonight, just the way he controls the pace on the floor and gets his guys in the right spots. He’s a great point guard.”
Morant had 14 points, four rebounds and four assists in his debut. Those numbers might sound modest — but no one in Grizzlies history has ever finished with such a stat line when playing their first NBA game.
“When you sit down with the guy and you talk about basketball, you talk about what he’s seeing on the floor, he’s a step ahead,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “He’s already seeing plays before they develop. I think our entire team is going to benefit from his unselfish style of play.”
No. 1 pick Zion Williamson is likely to miss the first couple months of the season while dealing with the aftereffects of meniscus surgery, so Morant is the highest 2019 pick to take the floor so far this season.
No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett scored 21 points in his debut for New York on Wednesday, coming in a loss at San Antonio. No. 4 pick De’Andre Hunter is expected to make his debut Thursday when Atlanta opens against Detroit. No. 5 pick Darius Garland had eight points in Cleveland’s season-opening loss in Orlando.
Other notable rookie openers so far include No. 12 selection P.J. Washington hitting seven 3-pointers and scoring 27 points for Charlotte on Wednesday in its win over Chicago, No. 7 pick Coby White’s 17-point debut for the Bulls in that game, No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura’s 14-point, 10-rebound effort for Washington in a loss at Dallas — and undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn scoring 24 points for Miami in the win over Memphis.
Nunn is 24, making him one of the older rookies who have gotten their NBA debuts this week. He had a 40-point preseason finale last week and turned more heads Wednesday.
“Man, it’s been a long journey,” Nunn said. “I was in the G League last year, all season and got a last-day callup with the Heat. That worked out and it’s been just an unbelievable ride.”
Morant shot 6 for 12 and had six turnovers in 25 minutes. He had a dunk attempt swatted away by rookie Chris Silva in the fourth quarter, that play coming during a run where Miami outscored Memphis 24-1 to pull away.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow, practice,” Morant said. “That’s where we can get better, study film and go out there and fix our mistakes.”
He was asked his goal for the season and didn’t hesitate.
“To be the best Ja I can be,” he said.