Ja Morant

Ja Morant’s ready to lead the next generation of Nike Basketball 

The Grizzlies All-Star is the latest player to receive a signature shoe

Ja Morant has missed plenty of ambitious dunks since entering the NBA. But Nike execs surely smiled when Morant was asked after the recent Indiana Pacers game about the difference in making his latest poster.

“The Ja 1s,” the Memphis Grizzlies point guard said in pure pitchman form for the company’s latest signature basketball shoe. “It’s the shoes.”

Once he got to his phone, he tweeted the same line in all caps. According to Twitter’s new public view counter, the post tallied nearly 4 million views.

Going viral has seemingly been the easiest part of Morant’s nightly efforts this season.

“His style of play is the holy grail to jump higher,” said Scott Munson, Nike vice president of global basketball. “Kids and players everywhere want to emulate that.”

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant (left) pulls off a poster dunk over forward Jalen Smith (right) of the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Jan. 14 in Indianapolis.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With Morant’s star power on the rise, Nike is showing its belief in the explosive 6-foot-2 point guard. The company made Morant its latest signature athlete and the future face of its basketball business by launching the Nike Ja 1 sneaker this spring. Morant is the 23rd NBA player in the swoosh’s 50-year history to receive a namesake model.

Morant’s underdog story is well documented. He rose from prep-level obscurity in South Carolina to the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

Initially debuted on Christmas during the Grizzlies’ first appearance on the league’s annual holiday showcase schedule, the Ja 1 has been in the works for more than 18 months. With accessibility in mind, the debut Morant sneaker will retail at $110 for adults and $90 for kids, with the first retail release slated for April.

“Y’all did it again,” Morant recalled telling his Nike team when it first showed him a Ja 1 sample in his size. It was a black wear-test edition. Morant put the sneakers on immediately, wearing them for six hours straight during an all-day meeting with the brand.

“It’s something I dreamed of and wanted all along,” he said. “Finally, I got it.”

This season, 23 players are playing in their signature shoe, while nearly 65% of the NBA’s remaining 437 players also wear a signature-branded shoe. That means fewer than two dozen athletes are responsible for most footwear designs in the league.

Even though he debuted his first sneaker some four months early, the wait that preceded the moment was trying for Morant.

“The process is a pretty long process,” he said. “You just be ready for the shoe to come out, ready for the shoe to be done, and ready for the world to know. It was definitely tough for me to keep quiet.”

While New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson was pegged as the transcendent marketing phenom of his draft class and ultimately landed one of the highest-valued rookie shoe deals in league history in 2019, Morant’s rookie shoe deal process was relatively under the radar. He agreed to terms with Nike weeks before the draft took place.

Morant said that was by design.

“The [other] offers came through, but I told my fam and my agency that Nike was always my choice,” he said. “I didn’t really care about any other brands. I obviously couldn’t tell nobody that [from a negotiating perspective], but y’all know that now.”

Morant was on his way to earning a signature shoe well before the expiration of his four-year rookie shoe deal, after winning Rookie of the Year, then the league’s Most Improved Player award, and later leading the young Grizzlies team to the second round of the playoffs last season against the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

Morant, his representation at Tandem Sports + Entertainment, and Nike tore up the remaining year on the deal and locked in a new long-term extension expected to keep him with the brand throughout the 2020s, including creating the Ja signature series.

“It wasn’t as tough a decision as it sounds,” said Munson with a laugh. “Obviously, he represents the next generation of players. He’s a special spark for the game, Nike Basketball, and the city of Memphis.”

The brand weighs several factors in determining who could become a signature athlete.

“There are a few filters,” Munson said. “You look at the on-court performance and his style of play. Can this athlete become a global icon? Will they transcend beyond their marketplace? Does this athlete take us somewhere new?”

Morant “certainly does,” he said.

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant arrives in a sweatsuit bearing his signature logo on Dec. 25, 2022, at Chase Center in San Francisco.

Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the first steps of the process is creating a signature logo for the player.

“We wanted to stylize his name, Ja, in the logo,” said designer Ben Nethongkome. “It’s sitting over a chevron shape, which speaks to his verticality, how sharp and quick he is on the court. Also, how he overcomes obstacles when you think about how that logo sits over the chevron.”

The triangular shape of the badge can be seen along the tongue label of the upper and imprinted into the heel of the shoe on the outsole. Depending on the colorway, Morant’s handwriting can be found along the collar, where he’s inscribed various phrases. His signature is highlighted on the outside heel counter. 

“They gave me a lot of options, but I felt like this one is more me,” said Morant. “It means a lot to me and definitely was the one that we agreed on and chose. I hope everyone likes it, ’cause I love it.”

After Morant debuted his signature logo on a black sweatsuit while heading to the Bay Area ahead of the Christmas Day game, he teamed up with his daughter Kaari for a teaser video and first glimpse of the shoe as people began opening presents on Christmas morning. Her name is embedded on the arch of each shoe, a nod to her “support.” 

The Morant line will complement the ongoing signature series of NBA players LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo as Nike Basketball begins a new chapter for its signature outlook and approach. There’s a familiar look to the flowing lines of sneakers such as the Ja 1 and LeBron 20, which the company hopes will also translate to more wear off the court.

“It’s gotta be a high-performance basketball shoe for sure,” Nethongkome said of the design direction. “We talked about the silhouette being something that could be really comfortable to wear on court, but also something that could live beyond as well. If you look at the LeBron 20, that’s a big shift from the 19 and before it. This one, to out the gate have this vibe, this could really be a signature look for him.”

“There’s been an overall shift to a lower silhouette, for sure, that’s been coming, too,” added Munson.

Over the past few seasons, Morant showed an affinity for low tops such as the Kobe 4, Kobe 5, and Kobe 6. When he turned an ankle, he’d wear the high-cut Kobe 9s for a couple of weeks before returning to his Kobe rotation or the colorful KD 4s.

“We exchanged stories and talked about our favorite basketball shoes to play in. Me, not so much, and it was more about collecting,” Nethongkome said with a laugh. “From there, we analyzed film and looked at how Ja cuts and takes off on the court. Then, we put together a design mood board to wrap everything up together.”

When the team presented Morant with early design possibilities for his shoe, he immediately picked out the look that would become the Ja 1.

“For a younger guy in the sneaker game to, out the gate, know what he wants, was uniquely cool to me,” said Nethongkome.

The shoe, priced at $110, doesn’t offer all of the bells and whistles that a $200 LeBron sneaker might, but there’s a “best practices” approach to the sneaker’s performance.

“We focused on three key benefits for Ja 1,” said Nethongkome. “Dynamic lockdown, a responsive forefoot, and support for landing.”

The two side panels in the forefoot add support, while a padded collar locks the heel into place, and a forefoot Zoom bag complements a full-length Cushlon midsole for added responsiveness up front.

“That allows him to elevate – and make ‘jaw-dropping’ plays,” said Nethongkome, as both he and Morant shared a laugh at the pun. “And continue to invite anyone to go viral on any given night.” 

Besides the viral plays on the court, Morant has looked to make time for fans after games, leading to emotional hand-offs of his game-worn sneakers to young Grizzlies loyalists in his No. 12 jersey.

In the Grizzlies’ first game of the new year, Morant spotted a young boy holding a sign during his pregame warmup that read, “Ready to JAM out in my JA 1s.” Zander Carr and his mother Krissi had driven 240 miles from Gallatin, Tennessee, to the game to celebrate his 9th birthday. He burst into tears as No. 12 handed him the size 12s right off his feet. (Zander immediately went to a collectibles store to get the shoes shrink-wrapped for his home display.)

“Obviously, I’m very grateful and thankful for their support,” said Morant. “I know that’s something they’ll remember for a lifetime and something not everybody gets. I know it’s special to them, and it’s definitely special to me. Seeing them cry or have on my jersey and how they react to getting a pair of my shoes is big-time. As much as they appreciate and love it, I do as well.”

Ja Morant (right) of the Memphis Grizzlies takes a picture with 9-year-old fan Zander Carr (left) after giving him a signed pair of his sneakers following the game against the Sacramento Kings on Jan. 1 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Moments like that have cemented Morant in Memphis and throughout Tennessee. 

Nike reps said they haven’t asked Morant to do any of the postgame interactions. Typically, Morant or a Grizzlies team staff member on the bench spots a sign in the crowd, or Morant will have scrolled across a story on Twitter about a fan, and the team brings the fan down to the floor after the final buzzer.

“We’re not manufactured here,” said Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, when discussing the connection between the local community and Morant over lunch. “We’re authentic.”

It isn’t lost on anyone at Nike that Morant is doing all of this from Memphis. 

That impact has been seen online. Morant’s many highlights, fan interactions, and Twitter posts have extended well beyond a one-off post and become splashed across every sports-related account.

During the Grizzlies’ playoff run last spring, Morant-related posts on NBA social media accounts had nearly twice the impressions of any other player in the league.

Before landing in the country’s No. 1 TV market in New York, Durant dominated sneaker sales early on in Oklahoma City, and James ascended in Cleveland before moving to the No. 2 market in Los Angeles. Over the years, Nike became entrenched in each city with events, activations, and launches. The two players went on to win MVP awards and reach the NBA Finals during their runs in each market.

While the company’s main headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, are closely associated with Nike, Memphis has long served as a key hub for the brand. The brand has about 6,000 employees at its Nike Distribution Center in the city, according to Willie Gregory, Nike’s senior director of community and business relations for the Memphis region. The nearly 2.8 million square feet of facility space makes the Memphis center the brand’s largest of 50 distribution centers in North America.

In three years, Nike has invested more than $2.5 million to support nonprofit organizations in the Memphis area, including programming and funding for schools, youth sports organizations, and resources for the National Civil Rights Museum. Half of that amount is being allotted through Nike’s “Black Community Commitment” fund in Memphis, with 22 organizations that work on economic education and social justice efforts receiving funding.

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant (left) and designer Ben Nethongkome (right) at a press preview event in Memphis, Tennessee.

Nick DePaula

With the early on-court debut, an in-person media preview event that’s become a rarity since 2020, and a road map of expressive colorways and storytelling themes atop the open canvas design on the way in the coming months, Morant’s entry into the signature sneaker space has caught the attention of the sneaker community and basketball fans.

“We typically have that run-of-the-mill [rollout], where a guy does a launch campaign, and then the shoe comes out that week. It doesn’t really get time to sit with the consumer,” said Nethongkome. “When you think of Jordans, he was wearing those shoes [early] and having moments in the games. I think we can go back to that, and have the shoes worn for a while, so people can digest it before we move on so fast.”

After singling out the swoosh as the only brand he wanted to sign with to receiving his own signature sneaker in just his fourth season, Morant is now looking forward to building out his signature legacy.

“The process is a pretty long process,” he said. “You just be ready for the shoe to come out, ready for the shoe to be done, and ready for the world to know. It was definitely tough for me to keep quiet.”

Nick DePaula is a footwear industry and lifestyle writer at Andscape. The Sacramento, California, native has been based in Portland, Oregon, for the last decade, a main hub of sneaker company headquarters. He’ll often argue that How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days is actually an underrated movie, largely because it’s the only time his Sacramento Kings have made the NBA Finals.