The 2020-2021 season has proven to be a youth movement. Throughout this year, we’ve seen a myriad of young players blossom and become household names. Coinciding with the talent boom, there’s also been a grand expansion in the world of basketball sneakers as brands like PUMA and New Balance seek to once again become staples on the court. Nike of course remains king thanks in part to their signature athletes and how they tailor their respective signature shoes to accentuate the unique attributes of the player’s style of play. But there will soon come a time when new signature athletes will need to be crowned, and due to the growing competition, the battle will be tougher than ever.
A signature athlete is tough to come by— they must have a playing style that demands custom technology and a unique personality that resonates with the fans. LeBron’s signature models have recently added more Air units to reduce impact on the aging stars feet when playing long stretches and going for thunderous dunks; Kevin Durant’s models incorporate a full length Zoom Air Strobel for responsiveness throughout the entire shoe to enhance Kevin’s deadly skill set in isolation; Giannis’ model focuses on a gripping traction pattern and responsive cushioning in the heel to compliment Giannis’ trademark eurostep dunk. Nike appears to be wasting no time in selecting Ja Morant as one of these successors, all but guaranteeing that his first signature shoe is just over the horizon.
Ja immediately grabbed the world’s attention in his rookie season out of Murray State, dazzling with his blazing speed, pinpoint passing, and high flying antics. Ja Morant was chosen to be the face of Nike’s futuristic Nike Adapt BB campaign alongside fellow South Carolinian and WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, effectively serving as an unofficial signature shoe much like the Nike Air Flight 1 was for Penny Hardaway. The futuristic silhouette was perfect for Ja, representing both his position as the league’s future and his electric game. Ja never shied away from experimenting with his choice of footwear in the rookie season of his career, having sported a variety of Nike signature footwear including Nike PG 4s and Giannis’ Nike Zoom Freak 1.
The following year Ja was chosen to debut the shoe’s follow up, the Adapt BB 2.0, a more streamlined model than its predecessor. Ja wasn’t limited only to using the latest evolution in Nike’s E.A.R.L. (electro adaptive lacing system) technology; though he was already a big stepper, 12 stepped it up big in his sophomore season, bringing out an array of KDs and the oft-forgotten era of high top Kobes after his ankle injury, more often choosing to dabble in retro basketball models than in the modern signatures he frequented his rookie season.
Nike has foreseen the inevitable starbound trajectory of Big 12 and his showings on the big stage in the Play-in games, and after the Grizzlies’ playoff berth against the Utah Jazz, Ja’s stock has only skyrocketed. Ja Morant has undoubtedly proven he deserves to be among the pantheon of players to one day see their name grace a signature silhouette. At this point it isn’t a question of ‘if,’ the question is what will Ja’s signature shoe look like and what technology is most ideal for the multifaceted point guard.
During the ‘20-’21 campaign, Ja has had more than a handful of statement games and somehow elevated his jaw-dropping game to another level en route to and during the playoffs. By examining some of his standout games from this season and his sneaker choices in them, we can bravely speculate on the look and feel of a potential Ja Morant signature shoe.
Beginning with the season opener against the Spurs, Ja dug deep in his bag and pulled out the Kobe 8 “What the Kobe’’ highlighting his well-known preference for low and mid-cut sneakers. Ja dazzled on the night, becoming one of six players to score 40 or more in the first game of their second season and tossing an astounding alley-oop off the backboard to himself. Debuting in 2012, the Kobe 8 was the first shoe in Nike basketball to incorporate Nike-engineered mesh in efforts to make each Kobe lighter than the last. The engineered mesh also allows the foot to move within its natural range of motion, offering more freedom on the court. Nike Engineered Mesh would eventually go on to spawn Battleknit, the strong, tactile fabric initially found on the LeBron 15. The shoe also returned to the Lunarlon midsole that Kobe favored throughout the later part of his career. The Lunarlon midsole was crafted to be extremely lightweight while still providing elite levels of traction on the court.
During his post-injury run, Ja returned to the court alternating between Elite versions of the Kobe IX and X, wearing the IX 14 times during the season and the X 5 times. Both models offer additional ankle support as well as a thin rubber outsole and circular traction pattern that mimics the sole of a foot. The only major differences between the models is that the collar of the Kobe IX isn’t fused to the body of the shoe in the same manner as the X, which has been said to be more restrictive.
Ja went with a remixed classic against the Washington Wizards on March 2nd, opting for the ‘Mamba Day’ Kobe 1 Protro. ‘Protro,’ a term the Black Mamba himself coined, means ‘performance + retro,’ implementing modern cushioning to an older model shoe akin to the Air Jordan 1 Zoom and CMFT models. While the leather silhouette doesn’t conform to the foot like modern basketball shoes, the Protro does still contain modern technology for optimal basketball performance. The Kobe 1 Protro contains a full-length Zoom sole for maximum explosiveness and the herringbone pattern on the sole sticks to the floor allowing Ja to attack with razor-sharp precision just as he did to the Wizards’ defense that night, carving them up with a plethora of ball fakes, ending the night with 10 assists. The Protro was one of Ja’s favorites this season, appearing in 8 games this season according to Kixstats.com.
Ja didn’t only show reverence to Kobe during the season, he also sprinkled in a bit of love for Kevin Durant donning the KD 4 ‘Thunderstruck’ in an overtime victory against the Boston Celtics on March 22nd, powering the Grizzlies to victory to the tune of a 29 point and 9 assist night. He then wore a Christmas edition of the KD 6 against the Utah Jazz on March 26th where he racked up 32 points and 11 assists. The KD4 is widely heralded as one of Durant’s best models and is most famous as the silhouette in which he led the Thunder to their 2012 Finals run. The KD 4 was built with Hyperfuse to make it lightweight and breathable while maintaining durability. It also includes a Zoom Air unit for impact response, a padded low collar for ankle support and the famous wrapping midfoot strap dubbed the Nike Adaptive Fit system.
The KD 6 added Flywire to the Hyperfuse construction for an even more tactile and mobile fit. The responsive Zoom cushioning reappears in the shoes’ forefoot but the added Air unit in the heel added an extra layer of protection. The KD 6 also had a uniquely angled and flexible tongue that gave the user the ability to tie them tighter than normal basketball shoes of the time.
Ja returned to his old friend the Nike Adapt BB 1 customized by Sierato for his spectacular showing against the Warriors in the 20-21 play-in game, where he led the Memphis Grizzlies past the Warriors in OT to take the Western conference’s 8th seed. The Adapt BB 1 employs a full-length Cushlon sole to absorb impact especially in the heel. Despite being composed of a multitude of technologies, the Adapt BB is made up of very light and breathable material. The self-lacing system also gives the player the options to customize the shoe’s tightness and fit. He also opted to wear them once more in his historic 47 point effort in Game 2 against the Utah Jazz. The Adapt’s reactive Cushlon sole was the likely catalyst for Ja’s concerted efforts to dunk on Rudy Gobert throughout the series.
Studying Ja’s love for the signature Kobe line, it becomes easier to see the sort of technology and fit the shifty point guard values. Ja loves a low or mid cut sneaker with a snug fit and low profile midsole with a lot of responsiveness in the forefront to withstand Ja’s supersonic propulsions to the basket. The shoe will also need to implement a traction profile with the grip to help halt Ja’s blazing momentum when stopping on a dime for a ball fake or a floater. With this in mind, it would be beneficial for a potential Morant signature shoe to incorporate the Air Zoom Turbo technology found in Kyrie’s line.
Air Zoom Turbo is a flexible forefoot Air unit that mimics the shoes’ outsole to provide responsiveness in all directions. While Kyrie is the undisputed leader of Jelly Fam, he lacks the sheer violent explosiveness of Ja, who would certainly benefit from some added heel support. Giannis’ signature model features a double stacked Zoom unit in the heel to account for the Greek Freak’s long strides and tremendous leaping ability and maybe Ja’s could interpolate similar technology to that or the Air Max unit found in the heel of LeBron’s models.
It’s no secret Ja prefers a low cut model which is often cause for worry with shifty players but Nike could also add in the padded ankle collar found in Paul George’s models to increase stability around the ankle. Even when Ja returned from injury and wore high top Kobes, it could be seen that Ja values a form fitting shoe above all as each Kobe shoe was designed to be lighter, thinner, and more of an extension of the foot than the last. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ja’s shoe be a snug yet breathable model.
With Ja being such a fan of the Adapt series, it wouldn’t be hard to fathom Ja going laceless with a shoe like the Space Hippie 03 or the Kobe AD NXT FastFit. If he chooses to go a more conventional route, Ja could choose to use an internal tightening system like Giannis’ first model, or he could tap into his love for the retro and bring back the once beloved midfoot strap a la the KD 7 and 14 or the Kyrie 2.
A signature shoe for Ja would continue the legacy Kobe set forth in the realm of sneakers but it would also be completely tailored to the unique, game-changing play style of the 2019 second overall pick. It would likely be a low knit sneaker with a focus on molding to the wearer’s foot, being as flexible as possible, and possibly include a way to manually adjust the shoe’s tightness around the midfoot. Though the shoe would be low in construction, a padded collar on the ankle and an Air unit in the heel would help to mitigate any potential injury concerns from a low cut sneaker as well. Ja’s shoes should be built to capitalize on his speed, ability to change direction, stop and go, and explode to the rim at a moment’s notice.
Design-wise the silhouette should make an effort to blend Ja’s cerebral but flashy play with his colorful and cozy off the court sensibilities for a bold model. 12 is a highlight waiting to happen every night and it is only fitting that his shoes exude that same energy. The signature should be a bright, flashy model that draws eyes with every wear, each body caught could be memorialized with colorways that draw on Morant’s history, accomplishments, and personal life and like His Airness’ shoes after his exploits, eventually take on life of their own.
Ja Morant has donned a plethora of Nike’s best basketball shoes throughout his blossoming career and has shown a clear attachment to certain features in his footwear. His elite play turned a turbulent regular season into a heart and record breaking postseason and firmly placed him among fellow young stars Trae Young and Donovan Mitchell, both of whom have their own signature models with adidas. Defeating Steph Curry and the Warriors in the play-in game, leading the Grizzlies to a surprising victory in Game 1 against the Jazz, and his Herculean efforts in Game 2 are the moments legacies are built from and it was just year two.
Ja Morant is electricity in human form, a savvy leader, and a perfect candidate to lead Nike into the future. This previous season has shown the world what Nike and the people of Memphis have known since Draft Day: Big 12 is a big deal.