A self-made superstar has propelled the Memphis Grizzlies’ upward trajectory.
Ja Morant constructed his game on a backyard court where his dad trained him, starred for a public high school in South Carolina instead of a powerhouse prep academy, and then found a home at the mid-major level at Murray State. From there, he used his two years in Murray, Ky., as a springboard to the second pick in the Draft.
Ja Morant is the anti-blue chip prospect. So it’s only fitting that a homegrown roster has powered his team’s ascent. The Grizzlies’ top-four minutes per game leaders are all on their original teams. Brandon Clarke, one of the most versatile reserves in the league, is Memphis’s fifth-leading scorer while ranking tenth in average minutes played.
The only rosters that can say the same are Oklahoma City, which drafted seven out of its eight team leaders in minutes played, and the Warriors — Golden State’s other All-Star beside Steph Curry was Andrew Wiggins, who came as part of the D’Angelo Russell swap. The Denver Nuggets can also boast that they drafted four out of their top five players, not including Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., but they’re currently sixth in the West. Murray and Porter may return in time for the postseason, but that scenario feels like a wish and a prayer.
The Suns drafted a majority of their starting rotation, but when your most valuable player is a 36-year-old future Hall of Fame point guard, it skews the “inexperienced” argument. Phoenix is a May-December roster. The Grizzlies are the only team much of the rotation has ever known. The business aspect of the NBA hasn’t kicked most Grizzlies in the face yet, and their underclassman atmosphere permeates throughout their DNA.
The Grizzlies even stood pat at the trade deadline to keep this group together rather than upgrade and line their roster with proven veterans for the postseason. Buddy Hield would have provided them with another perimeter sniper for Morant to kick to, and CJ McCollum would have alleviated some of the offensive burden Morant carries.
Morant’s campaign has often been compared to Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP season, but this one has a more relaxed tone. Morant is more affable than Rose. Adams is more likable than Joakim Noah, and Desmond Bane is a pleasant surprise after doubling his scoring average in year two. Taylor Jenkins is the NBA’s second-youngest coach, while Thibodeau carried the demeanor of an exasperated police chief with lousy sciatica.
There’s a youthful, carefree nature about this crew. After Morant’s 52-point outburst Monday night against the San Antonio Spurs, Grizzlies players posed for a team photo, a tradition they’ve occasionally taken part in over the last two years.
Memphis is the only home many of the Grizzlies contributors have ever known. The NBA’s second-youngest roster isn’t supposed to be giving the Western Conference a swirlie. Even the Durant-Westbrook-Harden trio had to take their lumps early on in their tenure.
Their payroll is the second-lowest in the NBA, ahead of the Thunder. Fans should enjoy it. The Grizzlies have been good for 15 years. They’ve drafted well and found solid pieces over the years, but Ja’s superstardom has put them on the precipice of another echelon.
More importantly, these Grizzlies are still so innocent that they feel like a March Madness mid-major riding into the tournament on a hot streak.
Before halftime, Morant left gravity behind outside the paint and detonated at the rim over Jakob Poeltl. Adams launched a full-court pass to Morant in between the left block and the baseline. Morant caught the pass in mid-air, squared himself, and fired it through the hoop before landing. When San Antonio cut into the Grizzlies lead Monday night, Morant subbed back in and scored their next 13 points.
The 2015 Warriors are the last team to win a title, while 80 percent of its starting lineup are originally drafted, players. The summer before their first title, Bob Myers was on the verge of sending Klay Thompson to Minnesota for Kevin Love. Eventually, even Golden State folded by shipping Harison Barnes out to fit Kevin Durant under the cap.
Two years ago, the Grizzlies brought Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala in as a veteran mentor on their cherubic roster. Iguodala demanded a trade to a roster he didn’t have to babysit. The baby Grizzlies took note and never forgot.
Now they sit one game behind the Warriors for second place in the West, beaten them twice this season, and Phoenix will be without Paul for at least the next month, potentially putting the overall No. 1 seed up for grabs. Can they win the whole thing? Probably not until Jaren Jackson makes another leap, or they can convince a top-15 talent to tag team with Ja. But even entertaining that possibility is a testament to these precocious Grizzlies as they continue defying conventional wisdom and upsetting the order of the league.