When the Houston Rockets welcome the Memphis Grizzlies to the Toyota Center on Wednesday, the 58th game of the season will mark the first time Russell Westbrook will take the court against his rookie counterpart, Ja Morant.
Morant, the league’s front-runner for Rookie of the Year honors, has often drawn comparison to the future Hall of Famer since his college days at Murray State given their playstyle and intense on-court competitiveness.
The No. 2 overall pick stated on multiple occasions that he modeled his game after Westbrook, and it is hard to deny the similarities between the veteran and the young prodigy. Through the first 51 games of his career, Morant is currently averaging 17.6 points (51st), 6.8 assists (14th), with a PER of 18.86 (64th).
“Ja [Morant] is going to be a great player, and he is an unbelievable talent who is having a great year. With his athleticism, the way he plays and moves on the court, along with his intensity, there are some similarities there between him and myself.” — Westbrook
Although this will be the third meeting of the year between the two franchises, Westbrook missed the previous two games due to back-to-back restrictions from knee surgery this offseason.
Without anyone to match the high energy of the young guard, the Rockets have had their fair share of struggles against Morant. With the regular-season series tied at one game apiece, Morant has put on a show with his idol watching from afar, averaging 24.5 points and 7.0 assists, while shooting 74.1% from the field, 66.7% from behind the arc.
In their first game against the Grizzlies in November, Westbrook took a moment to share words of encouragement following Houston’s win and a mediocre performance from the rookie.
His best game of the season series came in a 121-110 victory over the Rockets in January, where Morant registered 26 points (10-11 FG, 3-4 3PT), 8 assists, 5 rebounds, and 1 block in 37 minutes, inside the FedExForum in Memphis.
Despite the respect shown early in the season, Westbrook does not see matching up with Morant any different than any other opponent he has faced throughout his career.
“It doesn’t matter who I go against, I never worry about my opponents or what they are doing. I know when I am at my best, I do what I need to do in order to help my team win. I play the same every night — no matter who.” — Westbrook
Although the highlight of the night will be the fierce battle between Westbrook and Morant, the result from Wednesday’s game can have some serious playoff implications for both teams.
With their eyes set on securing the second seed, every game down the stretch will be important for the Rockets (37-20) in their attempt to move past the Clippers and the Nuggets with 25 games remaining in the regular season.
For Memphis, the Grizzlies (28-29) are in danger of falling out of the playoff picture as they come into the Toyota Center riding a three-game losing streak. Tip-off is slated for 7 P.M. CT.