MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Two-time All-Star guard Ja Morant was welcomed back Wednesday night with a standing ovation and cheers throughout the arena in his first action after missing nine games — eight because of an NBA suspension.
Morant, who was not in the starting lineup against the Houston Rockets, entered the game after a timeout with 3:05 left in the first quarter, replacing starter Tyus Jones. The cheers began to build as Morant rose from the bench and made his way to the scorer’s table, adjusting the specially fit mask from a previous nasal fracture.
The standing ovation and the cheers reached their peak even before Morant was announced as entering the game.
Morant ended up playing 24 minutes and finished with 17 points on 6-for-13 shooting overall and 5 for 6 from the line as the Grizzlies beat the Rockets 130-125. Morant added five assists and four rebounds.
The first cheers came when Morant emerged from the locker room for pregame warmups.
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins said the decision for Morant to come off the bench was a collaborative one after discussions with Morant and the team’s medical personnel. The Grizzlies are making sure Morant is building up to game shape. Memphis also went 6-3 during Morant’s absence contributing to the decision.
“This was something he brought to the table as well as it’s been on my mind,” Jenkins said before the game. “So, we collectively thought this was the best strategy at least for the first one or two games. Then we will kind of reevaluate after that.”
This is Morant’s first action since the Grizzlies lost March 3 at Denver. Hours after the game, Morant live-streamed himself at a Denver-area strip club showing himself briefly brandishing a gun.
That earned Morant a sit-down with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and $669,000 in pay for the suspension in which the league ruled his conduct was “detrimental to the league.”
Morant’s suspension ended with Saturday’s game against Golden State. He did not play in Monday’s game against Dallas, as the team allowed him to work on conditioning before returning to action.
That came Wednesday night. Jenkins said the star guard probably would play between 20 and 25 minutes.
“We want to be really smart, not just over the first couple of game, but the first week to two.” Jenkins said. “We want to be smart with that layoff that we’re not doing anything to jeopardize his health as well.”
In his first comments since his suspension, Morant said Tuesday that he went to counseling at a Florida facility during his suspension to deal with the stress of becoming one of the NBA’s most popular players.
His enthusiastic play, with high-scoring and jaw-dropping dunks, have led to endorsements and rising uniform sales. Asked about whether the short period in counseling was enough to resolve his issues, Morant said it’s an ongoing process.
Jenkins emphasized that Morant being used in a reserve role is simply a focus on transition.
“Eventually, Ja will be our starter,” Jenkins said, drawing a laugh from reporters.
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