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Morant lifts Grizz in return as confidence pays off

SAN FRANCISCO — Memphis Grizzlies star rookie guard Ja Morant is not lacking confidence as he continues to leave his imprint on the NBA.

After missing the last four games because of back spasms, the 20-year-old made his return to the lineup a big one by scoring 26 points and dishing out seven assists in Monday’s 110-102 win over the Golden State Warriors.

“I’ve been confident,” Morant said, while discussing his jumper. “I feel like the outside noise just wasn’t confident. They just try to take stuff and they try to put stuff on certain players. I don’t pay attention to none of that. I play my game. They want to give me the shot, I’m going to take it. It showed tonight.”

Morant acknowledged that a couple months into his first season, he can already feel most defensive scouting reports put even more focus on him, but it’s the fourth quarter where the Murray State alum continues to shine most. Morant had 13 points in the fourth quarter on Monday night, the fifth time he has had a double digit scoring quarter — all of which have come in the fourth quarter, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

“I just feel like in the fourth quarter, most people get tired,” Morant said. “Everybody knows I like to compete. I train myself to be able to play all 48 minutes. So the fourth quarter, when I feel like I have the advantage, I know that I’m in good shape to play so I’m going to just push it and just put pressure on the defense.”

Morant’s ability to break down teams late has given the Grizzlies players and coaches a large jolt of confidence in a developmental year.

“A lot of trust with the ball in his hands to make the right play,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “To have a guy that you can give the ball in, especially as a rookie, and then you see teams are going to try and take him away. And we’ve got to get better as a coaching staff and as a team, how we got to face some of that pressure that we see late game. But big moments for him and it’s awesome to see so early in his career.”

Morant’s ability to rise to the occasion at the end of games may not come as a surprise to him, but he continues to open up more eyes wherever he goes around the league. Monday’s win marked the fourth time Morant has scored at least 25 points and tallied at least five assists in a game, breaking a tie with former Grizzlies Pau Gasol and Shareef Abdur-Rahim for the most such games by a rookie in team history.

“I feel like that’s every point guard’s dream,” Morant said. “That your coaches go out and let you play with that amount of freedom, just have that trust in you to make the right play. Coach [Jenkins], he always tells me to continue to play my game, he know I can make the right play so I just don’t go out and worry about it at all. I go out and just play.”

Warriors rookie Eric Paschall appreciates both Morant’s game, and the fact that he has taken the reigns for his new team so early in his career.

“He’s a young, great talent,” Paschall said. “And Memphis gives him the chance to showcase his talents. I feel like he takes advantage of that … I feel like his quickness, he has a great IQ, he knows how to play the game. He uses his athleticism to his advantage and does a great job of playing the game the right way.”

To that point, Morant was asked specifically why he thinks teams continue go under on him on pick and rolls. The soft-spoken rookie didn’t hesitate with his response.

“That’s a question that needs an answer,” Morant said. “I don’t know if it’s disrespect or respect, honestly. But they can keep doing it, I’m going to take it. So I ain’t mad at all.”

Morant also isn’t mad about the praise that continues to come his way — while noting that he believes his play will speak for itself. As Zion Williamson continues to rehab a knee injury, Morant’s early success has become a discussion point for a league waiting to see what else this rookie class can do. For his part, Morant, the early favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, said he isn’t having a hard time blocking out all the accolades and goodwill coming at him.

“I know all that’s going to come,” Morant said. “I just don’t focus on it. I can’t win Rookie of the Year without my teammates. So I can’t go out there and win a game by myself at all. So all the credit goes to them. They make me look good. Obviously I can’t get an assist or score a bucket unless they on the floor. So if that award comes, credit goes to my teammates.”

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