Ja Morant received a standing ovation from the Memphis crowd when he arrived courtside just before tip-off Monday night in his return from an eight-game NBA suspension.
The two-time All-Star guard slapped hands with some of his teammates and was part of the line greeting starters as they prepared to begin the game. Morant then took a seat on the bench and watched the Grizzlies rally to be beat Dallas 112-108. It’s unclear exactly when he’ll play but he could return Wednesday.
“He is going to be part of practice (Tuesday), and obviously we’re hopeful for Wednesday so long as everything medically clears out,” Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said, adding the delay is part of the “ramp-up process.”
The Grizzlies host the Rockets on Wednesday in the first of two consecutive home games against Houston. The teams meet again in Memphis on Friday.
The Grizzlies know Morant has been working out, trying to be ready for this moment. Memphis was off Sunday after back-to-back wins, and Jenkins said he would like Morant to practice or at least participate in a shootaround before seeing game action.
Morant first stepped away from the team March 4, hours after he livestreamed himself on Instagram displaying a gun at strip club in Colorado following a game against the Denver Nuggets. The Grizzlies said on March 8 that Morant would be sidelined for four more games.
Morant met with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in New York before the NBA announced his suspension last week, including six games he already had missed.
The league investigation found that Morant was “holding a firearm in an intoxicated state” — but did not prove the gun was owned by Morant “or was displayed by him beyond a brief period.” The NBA also did not find that Morant had the gun with him on Memphis’ flight to Denver, or that he possessed the gun in any NBA facility.
Police in Colorado conducted their own investigation and concluded there was no reason to charge Morant with a crime after looking into the circumstances surrounding the video.
Morant said in an ESPN interview that the gun was not his and that he takes full responsibility for his actions.
But the strip club incident wasn’t Morant’s first eyebrow-raising move. The Grizzlies had been talking with Morant about his off-court conduct even before the March 4 incident.
“I can see the image that I painted over myself with my recent mistakes,” Morant told ESPN. “But in the future, I’m going to show everybody who Ja really is, what I’m about and change this narrative that everybody got.”
Morant, whose suspension cost him $669,000 in salary and possibly a chance to max out the five-year contract he signed last July by making the All-NBA team, also has to keep working on himself away from basketball.
Morant said he underwent counseling during his suspension.
“He’d probably be the first one to tell you: ‘Nothing is going to change immediately overnight. I’m going to learn and grow, but I’m going to get the skills and methods to do that both personally and professionally,’” Jenkins said.
On the court, the Grizzlies are pleased with the growth of the 23-year-old Morant. After Memphis selected him with the No. 2 draft pick in 2019, he was named the 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year and last year earned NBA Most Improved Player honors.
He is averaging 27.1 points and has six triple-doubles this season.
He rejoins a Memphis team in the middle of a competitive postseason race. The Grizzlies, who were second in the Western Conference before the March 4 incident, are tied with Sacramento — four games back of West-leading Denver with 12 games remaining.
Jenkins knows Morant will be “chomping at the bit” to rejoin his teammates, but the Grizzlies have a plan ready for his return.
Jenkins said that all starts with what’s in Morant’s head and in his heart.
“He’s doing a really good job recognizing the improvements he’s making,” the coach said, “and that he has to continue to make.”
In his pregame comments before the game with Dallas on Monday, Jenkins seemed ready to move on as the Grizzlies prepare for the stretch run.
“Good first day back, and excited to have him back with the team,” Jenkins said.
Associated Press freelance reporter Clay Bailey contributed.