The Memphis Grizzlies held on to the Grit ‘N Grind era as long as they could. But after Marc Gasol was dealt to the Toronto Raptors at last season’s trade deadline, it became only a matter of time until Mike Conley would play elsewhere, too.
Memphis did well in trading Conley to the Utah Jazz late last June, garnering a valuable future first-round pick and additional roster flexibility. Still, that move was the final step in the Grizzlies’ long road toward rebuilding. Any notion that they would be even marginally competitive this season was missing the point of a complete organizational overhaul.
But after quietly going 9-6 over the last 15 games, Memphis is suddenly a half game back of eighth place in the Western Conference – a ringing endorsement of both its ongoing rebuild and long-term prospects.
The NBA landscape is littered with tandems of star teammates.
LeBron James and Anthony Davis got the Los Angeles Lakers off to the best start in franchise history. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are still working out kinks with the LA Clippers, and the same goes for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with the rebuilt Philadelphia 76ers. James Harden and Russell Westbrook have settled into a clear hierarchy for the Houston Rockets, while the Brooklyn Nets’ pairing of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving looms in the future.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, obviously, are multiple seasons away from joining the ranks of basketball’s elite partnerships. But there’s a void of top-tier young teammates behind those existing, established duos. The Grizzlies’ franchise cornerstones have recently proven they’re among a select few pairings with the goods to fill it.
The No. 2 overall pick of last year’s draft, Morant is running away with the Rookie of the Year award. While his per-game averages of 17.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 6.6 assists are impressive, the eye test is a more accurate reflection of the potential that could make Morant a superstar.
His combination of natural playmaking ability, shooting potential, and athletic prowess is reserved for all-time greats.
Jackson boasts a similarly rare blend of attributes, too.
But he’s struggled defensively as a sophomore, failing to cut his foul rate and challenge more shots at the rim. His rebounding instincts remain an issue on both sides of the ball, and he’s shooting worse from two-point range than last season.
Even so, there’s plenty of intrigue to be gleaned from Jackson’s performance this season, starting with his newfound commitment to launching threes with abandon. The 20-year-old big man is taking 8.1 triples per-36 minutes, hitting them at a 40.1 percent clip – a combination of frequency and accuracy reached by just five other players in basketball.
Other than Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks, there may not be another player on Memphis’ roster who will be around when Morant and Jackson approach their primes. But stalwart veterans like Jonas Valanciunas, Jae Crowder, and Tyus Jones are helping foster a culture that will likely live on well past their time in Memphis regardless.
Under the stewardship of rookie coach Taylor Jenkins, the NBA’s second-youngest head coach, the Grizzlies are building an environment of effort and accountability based in modern-day tenets of analytics. Memphis is still in the infancy of a full-scale rebuild, but early returns suggest it’s hard to imagine Morant, Jackson, and other youngsters developing in better surroundings.
Will that lead to a stunning playoff berth in 2019-20? Considering how many more experienced teams are fighting for eighth in the West, probably not.
But the key thing to remember is that it doesn’t really matter. The Grizzlies aren’t just already on the right track toward contention but well ahead of schedule.
Last modified: January 22, 2020 11:39 PM UTC