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Grizzlies, league officials view Ja Morant's latest incident as an opportunity for him to mature, move forward

The video was irrefutable. A purple hue blanketing Ja Morant’s face and shirtless chest, his teeth then baring into a wide grin as he dangled what surely looked like a pistol for the world to witness.

In the live footage Morant streamed from his Instagram account last Friday evening, there’s no gray area, despite the feed’s dim lighting from inside Shotgun Willie’s, a strip club in Glendale, Colorado, following a loss to the Denver Nuggets. It was the latest in a stream of unsettling incidents surrounding the Memphis Grizzlies’ fourth-year All-Star.

Memphis officials have both privately and publicly declined to elaborate further on specific steps the Grizzlies’ All-Star point guard is taking from here. Head coach Taylor Jenkins told reporters in Los Angeles, “We’re keeping those dialogues inside, how we’re framing all that stuff. That’s our internal business.” What is clear: The Grizzlies are viewing this moment as an opportunity for Morant to move forward from a chain of troubling events all connected to alleged gun possession and accusations of threatening violence. The organization is seemingly putting the onus on the 23-year-old franchise point guard while still expressing support for his general well-being and growth.

Since the Instagram debacle, Morant and his immediate family have shown a newfound vulnerability and fresh willingness to take responsibility for his precarious behavior, league sources told Yahoo Sports. They have reached out to local Memphis confidants and other advisers on how to optimally proceed and turn a necessary corner. That can be all received as convenient timing, but if accurate and lasting, it’s a true change of conduct from how Morant and his associates have responded to allegations and criticism throughout this turbulent season.

After Morant’s father, Tee Morant, and close friend, Davonte Pack, waded onto the floor during a skirmish with Pacers players during a Jan. 29 game, the league’s investigation led to Pack being banned from FedEx Forum until further notice, sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports. Morant responded by tweeting that it was “unbelievable” that the league “banned my brother from home games for a year” because of the incident. Morant has since deactivated his Twitter account — and his Instagram account — after the footage in Colorado.

FILE - Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant reacts after sinking a three point shot against the Houston Rockets during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 1, 2023, in Houston. That aggressive style of play helped skyrocket the 23-year-old guard to a meteoric rise to NBA stardom. But his aggressive approach to basketball seemingly has spilled over into his off-court lifestyle putting him on the sidelines. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is taking some time away from the team. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

An NBA investigation couldn’t corroborate the jarring allegations that a red laser from a rolling SUV — which held Morant and various acquaintances — was trained at members of the Pacers’ traveling party inside FedEx Forum after the game. A police investigation also found no evidence that Morant brandished any firearm during a July incident at a pickup game at his house. Morant's attorneys claimed that any violence from him was out of self-defense, as detailed in a lengthy Washington Post report.

Perhaps this moment is truly the proverbial wakeup call for Morant and his circle’s accountability. It was only a week before that Pacers game that Tee Morant approached Fox Sports personality Shannon Sharpe on the sidelines of Crypto.com Arena, and what began with Sharpe and Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks spouting trash talk escalated into a kerfuffle between Tee and Sharpe. League personnel — from player agents to rival team officials — have been keenly aware of Tee and others close to Ja demonstrating a consistent pattern of detrimental court-side conduct during Grizzlies contests.

Now the league has launched another investigation following Ja Morant’s social media post, shortly followed by Memphis’ announcement Saturday that Morant would be away from the Grizzlies for at least the team’s two games in Los Angeles. A Colorado police investigation found no evidence to charge Morant with any criminal activity during the night in question. What is left to be determined by the NBA is how exactly Morant came into control of a weapon while on a road trip. The CBA explicitly states that NBA players “shall not possess a firearm of any kind or any other deadly weapon” whenever a player is present at a team function, including “whenever a player is traveling on any NBA-related business.”

While that initial two-game timeline for Morant’s absence came to a close after Tuesday's loss to the Lakers, there is no timetable for Morant’s return to basketball while the NBA searches for more information, league sources confirmed to Yahoo Sports, and as Morant seeks “to get help and work on learning better methods of dealing with stress,” as his statement suggested Saturday. The Grizzlies announced Wednesday that Morant will miss at least the next four games.

This might also be a moment for the NBA to set some current form of precedent. There are plenty of league figures who believe the commissioner’s office won’t usher any harsh penalty for Morant, a burgeoning face of the league who broke into the NBA’s top 10 of jersey sales for the first time in January. He has not been found guilty of any crimes, and he started in the All-Star Game just a few weeks ago. Nike, which was set to release his signature Ja 1 sneaker in April, responded with a statement that “we appreciate Ja’s accountability and that he is taking the time to get the help he needs. We support his prioritization of his well-being.” The NBA’s business, for certain, also has much to lose by sidelining Morant for an extended period, particularly one that would stretch into the postseason.

But there are also plenty of player representatives and team executives in support of a lengthy suspension — competitive reasoning aside — for Morant, who signed a five-year, roughly $200 million extension set to begin next season. With booming salary figures expected to rise under the NBA’s next anticipated television contract after the 2024-25 campaign, there’s surely common concern among team decision-makers — as there always has been while collecting predraft player intelligence — how such exorbitant salaries can impact the mentality of 20-somethings. “It is so easy to lose your sense of reality,” one assistant general manager told Yahoo Sports.

There will be more young stars drafted in the top five and anointed as organizational saviors, their friends and families given keys to a franchise’s kingdom and liberty to open any doors they please inside the palace. If Morant lost some grasp of how to function as the responsible lifeblood of the Grizzlies, and there are no true repercussions for his worrying pattern of behavior, that could quite possibly permit another phenom to act as freely and dangerously. Several league figures contacted by Yahoo Sports referenced the important backdrop of a perplexing chain of gun violence riddling this country at large, all while a top 2023 NBA draft prospect from Alabama, freshman forward Brandon Miller, has continued playing for the Crimson Tide after Tuscaloosa police testified that Miller delivered a gun to a former teammate and another man who allegedly used it to kill a woman.

It is always challenging to predict the length of NBA investigations, and there is no telling at this juncture how the league will ultimately respond to Morant’s social media post, which one player agent labeled as “a middle finger to Adam Silver and the commissioner’s office.” It is telling that Memphis did not deem Morant’s ongoing absence a suspension, and the CBA prohibits teams and the league from issuing disciplinary penalties for the same act. The league will seek to meet with Morant and his representatives before concluding its findings.

For now, it appears the Grizzlies are proceeding with a wait-and-see approach, laced with optimism that this can all serve as a productive springboard for Morant and the franchise’s future. He is considered a beloved teammate who, sources told Yahoo Sports, springs customized Louis Vuitton luggage onto rookies on their first day at the Grizzlies’ facility. Memphis is known to feature a close-knit locker room, without the ego-driven fractures and jealousy that can whirl throughout a roster in such a competitive environment. And this is a franchise that absolutely holds championship aspirations for this very season, with the Grizzlies offering multiple first-round picks to Brooklyn prior to February’s trade deadline, sources told Yahoo Sports, first for Kevin Durant and then for Mikal Bridges.

Any contending conversation, though, and any future window for Memphis to repeatedly vie for a title have reached an ultimate inflection point. The league and the Grizzlies surely hope this will be the last such event involving Morant and this type of activity. Whatever measures are taken to ensure that, by the NBA and the franchise, will speak volumes.