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An AI's read on the biggest stars of the NBA Playoffs: Memphis Grizzlies



The NBA is rife with success stories. From dramatic comebacks to triumphant underdogs, NBA fans are never at a loss for a great storyline. After all, the world’s largest and most successful basketball league is filled with some of the most talented, ambitious, and charismatic people in the world. Even as the NBA crowns a new champion, you don’t have to look hard to find other players that have found their way to personal success this postseason:


There are countless other examples of NBA players making the most of their postseason this year. But can we find out which players saw the most success during this season’s playoffs? Whose personal brand benefited from their playoff exposure? Who triumphed not just on the court, but on social media?


This year, these questions matter more than ever. With the league notching its strongest playoff viewership since 2018, the players have a platform that hasn’t been equaled for four years. Utilizing Google Search data, we’ve singled out 9 NBA players that have stood out from the pack this postseason and used our Culture AI to identify how fans talk about these players online, which spaces they thrive in, and what areas they still have room to grow into.


This week, we begin with two stars from the youthful Memphis Grizzlies that made a big splash in this year’s NBA playoffs—on the court, and online.


Ja Morant (Volume: 2.7m, Growth: +79,186 Queries)



Morant soars to playoff stardom

Ja Morant was already a star before the 2022 NBA Playoffs began, having a 2022 average of 2.6 million searches per month. However, after winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, Morant capitalized on his burgeoning fame with two hotly contested playoff series.


In the first, Morant’s second-seeded Grizzlies triumphed in six games over the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, in large part thanks to Morant’s strong play and aerial acrobatics. Then, the Grizzlies went on to face the Golden State Warriors in a highly publicized series that saw Morant exit after three games with a knee injury. Memphis would go on to lose in six-games to the eventual Western Conference champions, but the series still attracted many new fans to Morant—between his stellar performance and a controversial twitter accusation he laid against Jordan Poole, the Grizzlies 22 year-old star left his mark on the playoffs despite losing in the second round. Plus, he had some killer dance moves along the way:



Even though his postseason ended prematurely, Ja Morant demanded the attention of the NBA world this year. Between his jaw-dropping athleticism and the competitive playoff series he took part in, Morant generated immense interest in himself and in his brand. That’s not to mention his propensity for cryptic, controversial, and comedic tweets, which only cause more users to look for information on the enigmatic young star:





Using our Culture AI, we decided to break down the nature of conversations surrounding Morant and his stardom.


Ja Morant: Twitter Darling

Reception to Ja Morant was overwhelmingly positive on Twitter, with the most prominent emotions detected being Joy, Anger, and Optimism.


Many NBA fans expressed excitement for the 22-year old’s future in the league, and celebrated his continued improvement:


When our Culture AI did identify tweets as expressing anger or negativity, they were overwhelmingly expressions of frustration at people underestimating or making false comparisons for Morant:



Ja’s Twitter fans take exception to those who don’t believe in his greatness and aren’t afraid to say so.


A highlight machine shrouded in darkness

When people Tweeted images of Morant, our AI tools identified the top associated emotions as the following:



Many of the images tagged as embodying creativity were often edits or game photos of high-flying acrobatics:



The same is true of those images tagged with fear—these photos were either in-game highlights demonstrating his intimidating athletic prowess or edits featuring shadows and darkness:




Do you keep a Morant trading card?


Those images our AI tools identified as reflecting “affection” were very frequently photos of NBA trading cards. Buzz around Morant’s big playoff run seems to have sparked a big interest among basketball card collectors. Many of them highlight the beauty of the card itself, or emphasize its future value by praising Ja’s NBA ceiling.



Brands, meet Ja Morant

Despite the NBA trading card market that has cropped up around Morant’s stardom, there is plenty of room for brands to associate with his image:


Our Culture AI detected 44 logos in images of Ja Morant on Twitter, but more than half of those logos belonged to just four brands: The Memphis Grizzlies, the Golden State Warriors, the NBA and Donruss. Among those four brands are the team he plays for, the team he played against in the Western Conference semifinals, and the NBA itself (Donruss is a popular company for NBA trading cards.)


These logo results show that Morant’s image is still most strongly associated with photos of high-flying dunks or videos of gameplay. In other words, Twitter users still think of Morant in his uniform, playing on an NBA court.


Clearly, there is space for other brands to capitalize on Morant’s meteoric rise to fame. His stardom on the hardwood is undeniable, but few brands have made use of his celebrity off the court.


Desmond Bane (Volume: 673000, Growth: +40,178 Queries)



Bane finally gets the spotlight

Unlike his teammate, Desmond Bane was not playing in the All-Star game back in February. Morant was the second overall pick, while Bane was drafted 30th overall. Bane didn’t win Rookie of the Year like Ja Morant did in 2020, and he hasn’t populated the NBA highlight reels like Morant has either. Even though he has been an integral part of the Grizzly’s offensive attack all season, Bane hasn’t benefited from the kind of stardom that Morant has enjoyed—this season or at any time in his career.


However, Desmond Bane isn’t lacking in confidence:

This year’s NBA playoffs were the perfect arena for Bane to show off his attitude and his game. A big audience finally got a shot at seeing his fearless play on the court. As a result, he had the highest search interest of any player we examined.


Desmond Bane was Ja Morant’s right hand man throughout the playoffs this year. Against the Timberwolves, Bane broke a franchise record and led his team in scoring during their series clinching victory, helping the Grizzlies overcome a quiet night from Ja Morant. In the following series against the Warriors, Bane played excellently once again, but Ja Morant likely brought him even more attention by leaving his MIP Trophy at his house.


Morant gave his Most Improved Player Award to Desmond Bane because he knew that he was just as deserving. Now, the whole world knows. There are two stars in Memphis, and they are both on the rise.


That said, there are key differences in how people talk about Desmond Bane and Ja Morant online.


A divided reaction


Like Morant, Bane was spoken of in a generally positive manner. However, there was also a strong contingent of negative tweets. While our Culture AI detected Joy as the number one emotion among Tweets, anger and sadness were close behind.


Some users lamented Bane’s inclusion on All-NBA voting ballots:

Other negative tweets took issue with Bane’s behavior on the court. Many Warriors fans seemed to think that Bane may have been retaliating to Morant’s injury by playing dirty with Warriors players:


Still, the vast majority of tweets praised Desmond Bane’s play on the court. There were some unique characteristics to this praise, though.



While the most common emojis featured in tweets about Desmond Bane do not seem all that striking at first glance, they actually reflect how fans discuss his play online.


For example, the 🐻 emoji is very closely associated with the Memphis Grizzlies fanbase. Twitter users very often lump discourse surrounding Desmond Bane in with discourse about the Grizzlies as a whole. This is in contrast to Ja Morant, who is frequently discussed independently of his team.



The 🔥 emoji also regularly accompanies reactions to Desmond Bane on Twitter. However, the commonly used celebratory emoji doesn’t usually accompany highlights. Instead, Desmond Bane fans will use the emoji to celebrate a different kind of accomplishment:



NBA fans frequently point to Desmond Bane’s statistical accomplishments when they celebrate his game. This is also why the 📊 emoji is among the most frequently used emojis in tweets about Desmond Bane—it almost always accompanies a stat line from a game:



Twitter discourse surrounding Desmond Bane doesn’t occur often between casual NBA fans. It’s die-hard Memphis Grizzlies fans or NBA “statheads” who find interest in the Grizzlies stalwart guard. While his fame has grown since the NBA playoffs have started, much of that growth appears to have stemmed from more devoted basketball fans.


Fans take a gamble on Desmond Bane


The top hashtags in tweets about Desmond Bane show that a different kind of fan takes a strong interest in his performances:



Some generic NBA-related hashtags lead the pack for obvious reasons, but following close behind are three hashtags that reflect a more invested fan perspective. #GrindCity is a popular hashtag in the Memphis Grizzlies fanbase, indicating that previous interest in the Grizzlies is a common precursor to tweets surrounding Desmond Bane.


#GamblingTwitter and #PlayerProps are both indicators of tweets about sports betting. Again, this suggests that users tweeting about Desmond Bane care more about his statistical performance than uninvested NBA fans that care only about the most popular NBA stars.


This is clear even outside of these hashtags, as Desmond Bane’s statistical performances were scrutinized relentlessly to try and find an advantage in the sports betting market:



Not for the casual fan

Despite Bane’s meteoric rise to fame during this year's NBA playoffs, he is still primarily discussed in dedicated basketball Twitter communities. He even plays into these communities by appearing on niche basketball podcasts such as The Old Man and the Three to debate hoops on a technical level. Brands looking to capitalize on his recent rise to fame should consider what community they are really advertising to, and adjust accordingly.


Then again, Bane may yet move beyond niche basketball star status. Between his confidence on and off the court, his statistical prowess, his established and dedicated fanbase, and his team’s bright future, Desmond Bane may yet become a superstar like his teammate Ja Morant.


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