Tantalizing Pistons rookie Jaden Ivey ready for NBA. He has his mom and Ja Morant to thank

Detroit Free Press

Jaden Ivey has long been surrounded by elite basketball players. He grew up in professional arenas, following his mom, Niele, around WNBA practices in Indianapolis and the Palace of Auburn Hills. He attended countless Notre Dame women’s basketball practices and watched several future stars, such as Skylar Diggins-Smith, up close.

But his time following the Memphis Grizzlies was different. He got to interact with NBA players who weren’t much older than he was. And Ja Morant, in particular, was eerily close to the NBA player he envisioned becoming. This week, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 draft will start his NBA career as the Detroit Pistons open the season Wednesday at Little Caesars Arena.

And he has Morant — and his mom — to thank.

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Niele Ivey’s decorated basketball resume and knack for player development made her a natural fit to join the Grizzlies as an assistant in 2019. Memphis had a young roster headlined by two then-20 year-old rising stars: Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Ivey became the ninth female assistant coach in NBA history, hired to Taylor Jenkins’ staff as an assistant, but she wasn’t hired to make history.

Ivey had been with Notre Dame’s women’s basketball program for 17 years — five as a player, and 12 as an assistant under legendary head coach Muffet McGraw — before leaving for the NBA. She was integral to the Fighting Irish’s success, leading the program to its first national championship in 2001 as a fifth-year senior and being present for their eight Final Four appearances since as a coach. In between, she played in the WNBA for five seasons, including a stint with the Detroit Shock in 2005.

She was McGraw’s trusted point guard as a player, and her right-hand woman as an assistant. On the sideline, she was a strategist who often drew up the Irish’s out-of-bounds plays. Off the floor, she led Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts and was responsible for bringing in several big names, including Diggins who would go on to make six WNBA All-Star squads. On the court, she led skill development work for Notre Dame’s guards. When McGraw retired in 2020 following a historic 33-year career, Ivey was the no-brainer selection to replace her.

Joining the Grizzlies was pivotal for Ivey’s personal journey as a coach. She didn’t realize at the time that it would also jumpstart her son Jaden’s journey back to Detroit.

A rising senior, Jaden was a four-star recruit and Purdue commit. His talent was obvious, and he was naturally primed for success thanks to his basketball bloodlines. But Niele’s time in Memphis allowed Jaden to become close with a player he deeply admired, and has since been compared to — Morant.

Together again

Thursday’s preseason game between the Pistons and Grizzlies was a reunion, and showed why the Pistons selected Jaden in June’s draft. Draft analysts widely consider Morant to be a best-case scenario for Jaden, who exploded onto the draft radar following a strong sophomore season at Purdue. Niele flew to Detroit — a city she and Jaden have deep familial ties to — to watch her son take on her former team. 2019-20 was a transformational season for the trio, and it came full circle Thursday night.

Morant was in peak form, scoring 31 points and showcasing his blazing speed, both as an athlete and game processor. Ivey, a rookie, had flashes of brilliance but also — understandably — has a ways to go before he reaches his ceiling.

The Pistons will be thrilled, to say the least, if Jaden ends up becoming as transformational a talent as Morant has been for the Grizzlies. The relationship between the two players, forged through Niele, is a big reason why Jaden was considered by some to be the highest-upside player in his draft class. He and Cade Cunningham hold the keys to bringing the Pistons back from dormancy.

“He was like a little brother to all of us who were here when Niele was here, and now he’s in the big leagues,” Morant said after Thursday’s game. “It’s a good thing. Me and him talked about it for years, and now we’re actually living it out.”

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‘A transformative year’

Niele has long juggled the demanding roles of being a full-time player and coach, and a full-time mom. She gave birth to Jaden in 2002, less than a year after the Indiana Fever drafted her in 2001’s second round. She was pregnant during her entire rookie season. For most of her career, she was able to stay in Indiana and raise Jaden. She played for the Fever from 2001-04, then signed with the Shock in 2005.

By now, many Pistons fans are aware of Jaden’s deep Detroit ties. His grandfather, James Hunter, was a defensive back for the Lions from 1976-82. His dad, Javin Hunter, was born and raised in Detroit and attended Birmingham Detroit Country Day before becoming a standout receiver at Notre Dame and a Baltimore Ravens sixth-round pick.

Jaden cried when the Pistons drafted him. More tears were shed during his introductory news conference in July, as the team presented him with jerseys of his grandfather, father and mother.

Playing for the Shock was a family decision, Niele said. She prioritized keeping Jaden around his family.

“I chose Detroit because of the love of the city,” Niele told the Free Press this summer. “My parents actually met in Detroit, which is so crazy. I had family in Detroit. Jaden was very young and I knew his dad, grandfather and grandmother lived there. I just felt like it was a perfect fit for me. So much excellence, I would say, with their team. Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, they had that organization really rolling. I had an amazing time. It felt like home and I felt like it was a great change from where I was before. It was an incredible experience for me.”

When Niele joined the Grizzlies, it was a decision she made for herself. It separated her from Jaden for the first time, right as Jaden was on the cusp of starting his senior season. That summer, Jaden transferred from Marian High School, located in Mishawaka, Indiana, near South Bend, to La Lumiere, a boarding school and basketball powerhouse in LaPorte County, Indiana.

It was a challenging year for Niele and Jaden, but her decision proved to be fruitful. Niele was able to use the Grizzlies as a stepping stone toward coaching her alma mater, and Jaden gained a mentor in Morant.

“Moving to the NBA, coaching men, coaching on a different level, coaching in the professional world, I knew it was going to be a challenge, and doing it without my son,” Niele said. “We’ve only been with each other and I knew that that was going to be hard. We both agreed, we were both comfortable with the move, and it brought us closer, to be honest. It was something where you never realize how close you can get because we’re so close, but being apart, supporting both of our dreams, it actually brought us closer. It was an amazing year, a transformative year for me, and that hard work and that sacrifice paid off for both of us.”

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An extended family

Morant seemingly came out of nowhere when he emerged as the second-best prospect of the 2019 NBA draft, after Duke star Zion Williamson. His sophomore season at Murray State established him as one of the most electric players in the country. He averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists, 5.7 rebounds and was a social media fixture thanks to electric dunks.

He had a big fan in Jaden, who saw similarities between his game and Morant’s. When the Grizzlies selected Morant, Jaden was elated. He had already begun modeling his game after Morant. Now, he had an opportunity to be mentored by him.

“He was just on the radar, all of a sudden,” Jaden said. “I watched them closely when he was in college at Murray State. He was something serious, and when I heard my mom got the opportunity to coach at Memphis and I knew he was going, I knew it was an opportunity for me.”

Niele, too, was struck by the similarities between Morant and her son. They were roughly the same size, had similar builds and approached the game the same way. Ivey, like Morant, is an explosive athlete who is at his best when attacking the rim. The Grizzlies tasked Niele with scouting opposing teams, but she also worked closely with Morant on skill development and is still close with him. Every time Jaden had a holiday break, he made the trip to Memphis.

“(Jaden) came up to visit and was telling me, ‘Ja is this and Ja is that,’ and I’m like, ‘Wow he really studied him,'” Niele said. “And then they met and they bonded right away. Ja always really reminded me of Jaden, just in general. They have the same hair, same temperament. Ja is a really caring young man, family man. We just really bonded just initially, Ja and myself. Ja kinda filled that void for me. I was away from Jaden for an entire year. That was hard for me as a parent. Those guys, like Ja, really filled that void for me.”

“We pretty much became family,” Morant said. “She’s family to us, family to me. I wish her luck a lot, and she does the same. Even this morning (Thursday), we messaged and it stays between us, just how big this moment is for us.”

Before and after games, Jaden and Morant would sit and talk for hours. They exchanged contact info and stayed in touch when Jaden went back to school. They connected with each other on social media. It boosted Jaden’s confidence entering his senior season.

“It helped a lot,” Jaden said. “Just learning the game, seeing it from a different perspective on an NBA level, a lot different, higher level. I got to experience that at a young age and it really motivated me. Just keep working hard and stay consistent with my work, and eventually it led up to this point.”

“It was really cool because Jaden had a chance to really connect with somebody and absorb and watch them work,” Niele added. “Normally you don’t get a chance to do that with somebody that you look up to, and Jaden had that opportunity firsthand to really absorb, and really watch and study what Ja did. Even when he was working out, every moment he had the opportunity to be in Memphis and at games, he wanted to come early so he could watch every game. He didn’t want to miss a moment and I think he realized, and I understand how powerful that was for him.

“A lot of guys that have had the opportunity to play at an elite level, they didn’t have that connection where one of their parents was an actual coach in the NBA. It was an incredible perk for him to have that behind-the-scenes look at what it really looks like.”

One of Morant’s main pieces of advice to Jaden? Have fun. It sounds simple, but few players play with the zest Morant has for the game. Little Caesars Arena was dotted with Morant jerseys Thursday. He put on a show, scoring 17 in the third quarter. His biggest highlight was a one-man fast break that saw him steal the ball from Bojan Bogdanovic, lose Cory Joseph with a behind-the-back dribble and dunk the ball in one fluid motion. It encapsulated everything that has propelled Morant to the forefront of NBA stardom.

Jaden shares Morant’s speed and athleticism, but he’s learning how to harness his gifts. It won’t happen overnight, and he could become a different type of lead guard compared to Morant. But already, Ivey has created issues for opposing defenses. He draws the eyes of all five defenders when he drives to the rim. He has a short highlight reel just from his four preseason games.

Jaden has a lot of support as he figures out what kind of NBA player he can become. And, thanks to his mother and from Morant, he knows what it takes to reach his best.

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