Memphis Grizzlies: The Start of Something Big

The Memphis Grizzlies officially have a young foundation to build around. It’s not a feeling they’re very used to.

Last Friday, the Utah Jazz visited the Memphis Grizzlies, marking Mike Conley‘s first game at FedEx Forum in a non-Grizzlies jersey.

Conley is possibly the greatest example of in-house development in Grizzlies history. Taken fourth overall in 2007, he spent twelve years in Memphis, quarterbacking the franchise’s most successful teams ever. He left the Grizzlies as their all-time leader in games, steals, assists, threes and points.

Conley is an aberration as a high-equity young Grizzly who didn’t duck the team (Steve Francis), get traded early (Shareef Abdur-Rahim), suffer a career-ending injury (Bryant Reeves, Michael Dickerson), win elsewhere (Pau Gasol, Shane Battier), prove dysfunctional (Rudy Gay, OJ Mayo), or simply never make it (Hasheem Thabeet). Conversely franchise legends Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were already established veterans when acquired.

Simply put, Memphis has little in the way of homegrown talent correlating with prolonged success. Conley and fellow recent-tradee Marc Gasol are the franchise’s two greatest players, and are the only such examples.

The optimism that comes with a young core primed for greatness – akin to the early 2010s OKC Thunder, or current Dallas Mavericks – has been absolutely foreign to Grizz fans. Until now.

The young triumvirate of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, and Brandon Clarke present the Memphis Grizzlies with an enviable young core for the first time, well, ever really.

Morant would be the landslide Rookie of the Year winner if the season ended today. Clarke will be a likely choice for an All-Rookie team amid what appears to be a deep class. Jackson, despite a slow start in a new offense, still projects as a franchise-altering two-way big.

The presence of all three only amplifies each other’s appeal, in multiple ways.
Each player is of a unique mold; their skills sets are highly complementary and overlap almost nowhere. Compatibility issues – like those currently looming over Philadelphia or Orlando – appear minimal.

The three could form a very cohesive long-term unit; able to conform to a variety of surrounding skill sets, while being able to slide Jackson between “big” positions to play vs any-sized lineup.

Having all three together from such an early juncture also should play a role in keeping them in Memphis. They will likely develop bonds as they essentially grow up in the NBA together, while potential mutual success will be harder to walk away from in free agency. Loyalty means something to plenty of players; not everyone is wired like Kevin Durant.

Even further, these guys are fun to watch. Morant is a walking And-1 Mixtape who attacks the rim with a Westbrook-ian level of vengeance. Jackson is a true two-way unicorn with a supremely diverse template for his size. Clarke is a powder keg of hustle and athleticism; equally adept in smarts and skill for the puritans.

This team’s youth and sparkplug style (6th in NBA in pace, after ranking in the basement for the last decade-plus) is a bold stylistic tangent from Grit-N-Grind. It’s also a fitting symbolism of a new era, one full of once-scarce long-term hope.

Friday night’s game was both a poignant reunion and eventual success; Memphis pulled out a gutsy 107-106 triumph, harassing Conley into 5-19 shooting. Morant meanwhile dropped 25 points and 8 assists, along with the game-winning bucket on a presumed West contender.

Next: Ja Morant has a pretty easy case for Rookie of the Year

In a slightly different world, the night could’ve easily been one of dwelling and lament. A night about the glory days of #GNG; “remembering the good times” in blind denial of a long rebuild ahead. Instead, it was about the now, and about the future. For once, it looks very bright in Memphis.