Ja Morant has been the face of the Memphis Grizzlies since winning Rookie of the Year two seasons ago.
But ahead of Sunday’s road game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Morant said it was time teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. got his due.
“Enough of me. Jaren is what everyone needs to be excited about,” Morant said after Jackson fueled the Grizzlies’ comeback from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit against the New York Knicks on Friday. “His defensive presence is important for us. We are a totally different team with him on the pitch.
“Like I said, he’s Defensive Player of the Year, in my eyes.”
Jackson had 13 points and five blocks in the 118-114 win, Memphis’ second straight.
The fourth-year big man has raised his game this season, and it has paid off.
Going into Sunday’s game, no one in the NBA other than Phoenix has more wins than the Grizzlies (46).
With 14 games remaining, Memphis already has more wins than it has had in any season since 2014-15, which was also the last time the Grizzlies came out of the first round of the playoffs.
Jackson is tied for the league lead with 2.2 blocks per game, but he’s far from a defensive specialist, averaging 16.4 points per game.
“When he’s very active on the floor, he’s at his best on both ends of the floor,” Morant said of Jackson.
Jackson is averaging 21.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game in two games with the Thunder this season.
Sunday’s meeting is the third and final between the teams this season, and the only game in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder won the last meeting, 102-99, on Dec. 20 after the Grizzlies set an NBA record for margin of victory in a 152-79 win on Dec. 2.
The game is the first of a four-game road trip for Memphis, all against teams with losing records.
Oklahoma City enters Sunday’s game on a four-game losing streak. The Thunder haven’t won at home since Jan. 31, losing eight straight.
The Thunder’s long injury list – seven players who last played with Memphis have been absent recently – has taken its toll, especially defensively.
After spending much of the season in the NBA’s top 10 defensively, Oklahoma City has fallen behind lately.
The Thunder have allowed 130 or more points in four of their last six games.
During that span, Oklahoma City’s 123.7 defensive rating is the worst in the NBA.
“We’re losing a lot of players,” forward Darius Bazley said. “I don’t really think that’s an excuse. It’s just the reality. We’re missing a lot of really key guys, core guys, and that hurts us on both ends of the pitch.”
The Thunder don’t think they have much help on the stretch.
“Apologies are apologies because they are accurate,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “But we want to develop a mentality of having no excuses and focus on what we can control and continue to maintain high standards no matter who puts on the uniform.
“Back blows, injuries, whatever the reasons, that’s very true, but at the same time, it makes no sense to dwell on it.”
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