The Memphis Grizzlies point guard is defying gravity, media, and market size. What will it take for Nike to grant the first signature Ja Morant shoes, and when could we expect them?
You don’t have to sell anyone on Ja Morant.
In an era of hella haters where everyone is believed to have opps, fanfare for No. 12 is so high that the only angle Twitter critics can carve at Ja is whether an MVP candidate should be eligible to take home Most Improved Player honors. Note: he did.
That’s why after beating the Timberwolves with a last-second finger roll, the most beloved leaper in the league didn’t pick up his phone to type at detractors. Rather, he dialed long distance.
It’s highly possible Ja was calling God, thanking the power who anointed him with divine athletic gifts or even kindly requesting help for those tasked to defend him. Maybe he was calling his earthly father, Tee, the man who worked him out on the blacktop and back yard, now seated at the righthand of his doppelgänger who never needed a call.
Or perhaps, he was phoning John Donahoe, the newly-named CEO at Nike.
A late-night phone call from Grind City all the way to Portland? As Usher sang, situations, will arise.
Famously, Donahoe, the eBay exec turned Beaverton breadwinner, sees Swoosh operations from the top-down, appealing to shareholders while holding court over a company worth an estimated $197 billion dollars. Answering a call for Morant after office hours is less about appeasing a superstar endorser and more about feeding fans. All season long, fans around the world have been clamoring for the Swoosh to bring some signature Ja Morant shoes to the masses.
So, what has to happen for the very first pair of Nike signature Ja Morant shoes to go from dream to reality?
Starting from Scratch
Getting your own shoe takes faith. Bringing it to market takes time.
If Nike were to build an entirely new model for Ja Morant to wear on-court, the timetable from concept to market would take about 18 months. Factor in factory delays due to complications from COVID and slow shipping that still stifles retail releases, and we could be looking at longer than that. To make an all-new shoe for Ja means marketing his gifts with a proprietary technology the brand seeks to expose at greater heights.
When leveraging Ja’s athletic ability with trademark tech, the options are endless.
First and foremost, Nike could connect No. 12 to their roots. Ideas of an “Air Ja” model merges the brand’s first foray in flight with the most modern pilot. In 2009, the brand brought back visible cushioning to flagship basketball by way of King James’s Nike Air Max LeBron VII. The return to full-length Air led by the living legend trickled down to lifestyle, running, and training categories, having a halo effect that’s still felt today.
Showcasing speed, a “Zoom Ja” signature could call out the tensile tech Nike’s likened to Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Penny Hardaway and other swift Swoosh guards of the past. While fans can’t see Zoom Air cushioning in the same fashion they can Air Max, its modern strobel use in popular Paul George and Kevin Durant designs is heralded by hoopers — whom Ja appeals to properly.
Or maybe Nike would bet on “Ja React,” focusing on the responsive foam cushioning made to battle Boost from adidas. Though the least sexy in name and appeal, its bouncy durability plays perfectly to the resilient nature of the Memphis messiah. No matter how many times he gets knocked down attacking the hoop, he still rises.
Truth be told, only an anointed superstar of the LeBron or MJ ilk can carry a category or cushioning from the arrival of their first shoe. When considering a Nike Ja signature, the biggest conversation is not tech but rather price point.
Nike Basketball’s roster of signature stars ranging from Giannis Antetokounmpo to LeBron James stretches an MSRP from $120 to $200 with namesake shoes from Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving filling in the blanks. Just the same, diffusion series such as the Giannis Immortality, Kyrie Flytrap, KD Trey 5, and LeBron Witness all occupy retail real estate that runs $80 to $100.
When adding Ja Morant to that mix, the brand would have to either bet on an entry level line that costs closer to $110 or an aspiration play that pushes $200. One would imagine the former when considering the cache Morant has with kids and the blue-collar city he calls home. Historically, a superstar’s first signature shoe begins at an affordable price before ballooning to a higher tag.
Climbing the totem pole of price and pristine is typically how a player proves his selling power as a signature athlete. However, there’s a path to entering the chat that doesn’t take 18 months, millions of marketing meetings, or ground-up research and development.
Simply, it’s taking someone else’s shoe.
Run Your Spot
Because of the long lead time, shoes for the entire Nike roster are ideated months before their predecessor even becomes available at retail.
Theoretically, new Nike models made in the image of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and others are already drafted regardless of play, pay, or other market forces. Essentially, it’s easier to plan ahead and pivot rather than rush a shoe to market.
Sportswear companies thus have the ability to rebrand a signature shoe the same way songwriters can shop their hits to top artists. In the past, it’s been proposed that models made for All-Stars stifled by injury have instead been handed to hoopers already on brand and also on the rise. If Nike has a new basketball model set to release in 2023 — whether intended for a particular player or siloed for team use — it’s entirely plausible that said shoe could become the Nike Ja 1, even if that was never intended.
Due to the energy around Ja’s name and game, one has to wonder if the next shoe slated for another signature star or even a model made in the likeness of the aspirational G.T. series or economy Impact line would surge in sales if renamed after Morant. When considering Nike’s current online assortment of performance basketball shoes, four franchises exist untied to an athlete — each coming in under $100 — while the also anonymous G.T. Run and G.T. Jump start at $175 and $180, respectively.
Donahoe has made it known that the brand’s new model is meant to be leaner, making more of fewer silos. This offseason, Ja could easily steal the shoe of someone else, or become the torchbearer for an already existing franchise that needs energy.
Building on the Backs of Giants
While everyone says they want a Ja Morant signature shoe, reality suggests they prefer both variety and the familiar.
In a world where retro rules and PJ Tucker’s rotation attracts more conversation than that of King James, we may say we want Morant to have his own new shoe, but buying habits suggest we’re all actually more infatuated with reliving the past. Humbly, it could be true that Ja feels this same way, too.
Over the course of the 2021-22 NBA season, Morant kept his name on timelines through moments that could only be described in emojis. The point guard performed poster dunks that resemble Jordan — both Michael in agility and DeAndre in entombment — while rotating rarities tied to KD, Kyrie, and Kobe. Because of Ja’s bag as a player and a sneakerhead, he continued to add new energy to old shoes.
This season, Morant rotated Protro PEs from the esteemed Kobe collection as well as strapped signatures from Kevin Durant’s days in Oklahoma City.
With the Kobe estate back at Nike and players such as KD and Kyrie storied enough for their own run of retros, there’s perhaps no superstar more organically capable of carrying on said series. Just as Jordan Brand brought on rising phenoms to liven up Air Jordan models made a decade prior, Nike Basketball has the same opportunity to lean on Ja.
While one can wonder just how many people will shell out $110 for a new Nike Zoom Ja, there’s no doubting the ability to sell through a pair of Protro Kobes. Even if his name itself is not on the shoe, Morant may have just as much power to propel the future of the past as he could his own line.
Listen to the Kids
Despite an array of analytics, predicting demand and consumer behavior has its modern challenges. While the speed of feedback and consumption has skyrocketed, the pace of production has not accelerated at the same rate. Throw in the complications of a global pandemic and an already stretched thin workforce, and even the most brilliant companies can leave money on the table.
A quick case study for fanfare around Ja Morant is in his jersey sales.
For the third quarter of 2021, Ja ranked eighth amongst the top-selling jerseys league-wide. Of the names listed above him, all currently have a signature sneaker either on the market or in the works. While the data provided by NBA Store paints a picture of how popular Ja is, it provides a limited canvas.
Over the course of his first three seasons, perennial All-Stars such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry have outsold Ja in regard to their team kits. Conversely, Ja has sold out his inventory. Much like college scouts didn’t see him leading the nation in assists coming out of high school, corporations have failed to forecast just how popular he’d be as a pro. The supply of City Edition and Hardwood Classic tops tied to Ja have seen demand eclipse supply since his arrival.
In fact, the under-ordering of Vancouver Grizzlies throwbacks worn by Ja during his rookie season have made it nearly impossible to find the teal tank in authentic fashion. Fakes and variants run rampant to fill the market gap.
Historically, jersey sales prove popularity that can often be carried over to a case for sneaker stardom. Ironically, it might matter even more today.
In 1994, when Champion produced replica NBA jerseys for fans, the retail for a rising star such as Penny Hardaway was $39.95. In 1995 when Nike introduced the Air Penny 1 — Hardaway’s first official signature shoe — the cost for consumers was $134.99.
Converting the popularity of jersey sales to shoe demand comes closer than ever in 2022. Not only does Nike now make NBA jerseys sold in stores, online, and at stadiums, a modern swingman style retails for $110: theoretically the same price a Nike Zoom Ja would start at.
As Sports Illustrated‘s Jarell Harris recently wrote, Morant is a “sneaker marketer’s dream.” From his airborne antics to meme-worthy celebrations, Ja is a certified superstar. Nike knows this, as do industry insiders. Our own Nick DePaula published a piece on this exact subject back in January, noting that Morant’s four-year rookie Nike deal is up for extension with negotiations likely taking place this next season.
“The agreement is set to expire in the Fall of 2023,” DePaula wrote. “While he’s likely to command a sizable raise on his existing annual base pay, conversations are also expected to include pressing go on a potential ‘Ja 1’ signature series.”
Tuesday night, Ja pressed every possible button when dialing up demand for his own shoe.
The question remains: how long will fans be left on call-waiting.