Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
About six minutes into Promise Land, a new film documenting the rise of Grizzlies star Ja Morant, the camera takes us into his childhood bedroom, its walls decked with NBA iconography. It stops briefly on the space over his door frame, where a quote from LeBron James has been painted: “You can’t be afraid to fail. It’s the only way you succeed.”
It’s as good a place as any to start, and it pretty well captures the audacity, ambition and competitive drive of the Grizzlies’ dazzling 21-year-old guard. From the moment Morant arrived in the NBA, as the No. 2 pick of the 2019 draft, through a pandemic-altered rookie year, through a lockdown and a restart, through six weeks in the NBA bubble and a surprising playoff push that fell just short, fearlessness has been his primary calling card.
You see it every time the 6' 3" Morant flies to the rim, challenging the game’s giants, and every time he takes on—and frequently outshines—the game’s most decorated stars. That fearlessness propelled him to Rookie of the Year honors last year, and has the Grizzlies once again pushing to make the postseason despite their collective youth.
“I feel like it's that simple—like, you can’t be afraid to fail at something,” Morant told Sports Illustrated. “So as far as me, I always took my chances, and no matter whatever the outcome was, it helped me be a better person, on and off the court. I felt like I learned something every time I failed—but it all turned into a win.”
That lesson is evident from the start of Promise Land and will surely be a running theme throughout this six-part docuseries, directed by Dexton Deboree, which is set to premiere June 3 on Crackle.
The term promise land, Deboree explained, “is meant to represent that place that he’s striving to get to, that place he holds so special in his mind as the destination to his journey.” On a literal level, that means the NBA, but Deboree said there’s more to Morant’s journey and the film.
“It’s really meant to symbolize that place that he [or anyone] visualizes as the destination—that place you commit your life, life’s work, all your energy, passion and determination to reach,” Deboree said.
The documentary includes exclusive, behind-the-scenes footage from throughout Morant’s rookie season—some of it shot by Morant and his family after the NBA season was suspended in March 2020 and the nation went into a collective lockdown.
“Because of COVID, they wasn't around as much, so me and my family had to learn some new things about the camera,” Morant said, chuckling. “So it was something new for us, but we all worked together and still got it done.”
Family support is also a steady theme here, with the first episode focusing intently on Morant’s doting parents, Tee and Jamie, and his upbringing in Sumter, S.C., while chronicling his rapid rise from overlooked prospect to rising star.
“Ja’s story is filled with hope, inspiration, a message of perseverance and such a powerful example of a young man, especially a young man of color, that is refreshing and real,” Deboree said. “It’s real, true and honest, and that’s something I’m super inspired by and proud to share, especially right now.”
Family was also on Morant’s mind as he and the Grizzlies traveled to the NBA bubble near Orlando, Fla., where they were cut off from family and friends for six weeks. Morant missed the first birthday of his daughter, Kaari Jaidyn Morant, last August. He “attended” her party virtually via FaceTime.
“I'm a big family guy,” Morant said. “So it definitely affected me, not being around my family. … I made it through, but it's not something I would have done if I wasn't able to play the game that I love.”
The resumed season was played against the backdrop of widespread social unrest, and renewed player activism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer—all of which threads through Promise Land. As a young Black man and a young father, Morant said the year’s events left a lasting impression.
“I just had to be extra cautious, and I would say safe, in whatever I'm doing,” he said. “During that time, it was like, If I leave, will I make it home? So it was definitely something tough. We hate it. We want justice. We need it to just stop. We want to be treated fairly. And as far as me being a father, it was kind of tough, with having a daughter, just knowing what's going on in this world. Just make sure it doesn't happen to my daughter, or even me or my family.”
As difficult as it was, the time in the bubble seemed to benefit both Morant and his team. Though they struggled during the eight-game miniseason, the Grizzlies forced a one-game play-in against the Trail Blazers, losing 126–122. But Morant outscored Damian Lillard that night, 35–31, another testament to his undeniable stardom. Three weeks later, Morant received Rookie of the Year honors in a landslide, winning 99 of 100 first-place votes.
With nine games left in the current (also truncated) season, Morant is again on course to make a potential playoff splash, way ahead of schedule. The Grizzlies (32–31) are currently eighth in the Western Conference, which would put them in the upper tier of the new play-in tournament. As it stands today, their first play-in opponent would be those same Trail Blazers.
“I just feel like we grew as a team from the last play-in game to now,” Morant said. “And still have some growing to do over these next couple games. I feel like we'll be in a better situation.”
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