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A Grizzlies Superstar: Better late than never

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Twenty years later, the Grizzlies and their fans may finally be living their dream on a level no one expected.

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

While this year’s Grizzlies team may be on track to have a similar record to the squads from the past two years, that is one of the few similarities they share. It has been so refreshing to watch and embrace a team that has both an effective sense of direction and talented young core for the future. A big reason for that is due to the Grizzlies arguably having some of the best draft success in the NBA over the past two years. After more than a decade of horrible draft night decisions, no team was more overdue, or deserving, for a little bit of luck and logic to go their way.

In recent years, the Grizzlies’ hilarious yet horrifying hi-jinks on draft nights typically came in the late first round or later. While no one expected a star, the Grizzlies could not even draft a player that was worth a second contract in Memphis. The Grizzlies’ history of incompetence begins far before that, and unfortunately, on a much grander scale. Since their inaugural 1995-1996 season, the Grizzlies have had 11 top five picks. Most will remember the success of Mike Conley and the dubious decision to trade Kevin Love, yet it may come as a surprise that the Grizzlies have had the second overall pick 5 times in less than 25 years.

To those that did not know that fact, those that did may be jealous of you. Obviously, the last time the Grizzlies’ had the second overall pick before Ja Morant was exactly a decade before in 2009. With what likely was the most memorable, infamous (and for most, forgettable) draft pick during the franchise’s time in Memphis, the Grizzlies selected Hasheem Thabeet. However, despite that decision being a definite disaster, the Thabeet selection was neither the worst pick or even the worst second overall pick in franchise history. That selection occurred a decade earlier before the Grizzlies even arrived in Memphis.

The Vancouver Grizzlies actually landed the second overall pick three straight years, from 1998-2000. Two of the three picks, Mike Bibby and Stromile Swift, would experience successful stints with the Grizzlies. However, the selection that made the most impact on the franchise was when the Grizzlies drafted the eventual Rookie of the Year in Steve Francis. Unfortunately, Francis’s impact was exclusively negative as he never played a game in a Grizzlies uniform.

It was not an injury or a trade that prevented Francis from ever suiting up with the Grizzlies. It simply was personal preference. The Grizzlies had been through this experience to an extent with Mike Bibby the year before, but he eventually embraced his opportunity with Vancouver and actually made the All-NBA Rookie first team during the 1998-1999 case. In the case of Francis, the writing was on the wall from the beginning that the Grizzlies would not be able to achieve reconciliation a second time.

The concept in Vancouver was simple. In Bibby and Shareef-Abdur Rahim, the Grizzlies had two previous All-NBA Rookie talents, and were convinced that Francis would be the final piece to the puzzle for “a Big Three” that would make Vancouver relevant. This hope was not just centered on the court, but off the court as well; for a franchise that desperately needed to improve its finances, a backcourt of former NCAA superstars in Bibby and Francis was a dream come true.

However, Francis simply did not share the same vision of success with the Grizzlies. From his outward expression of disappointment on draft night to his lackluster efforts to try and make amends, the failed marriage of the Grizzlies and Francis was a tumultuous two months that severely crippled the franchise. Eventually, Francis was traded to the Houston Rockets in a three team deal just two months after being drafted.

Vancouver Grizzlies v Houston Rockets

The immediate future for both Francis and the Grizzlies took significantly diverse paths after the trade. Francis would earn co-Rookie of the Year honors and would become an All-Star three consecutive years within his first five in the league for Houston. His immediate success and evolution into an NBA star confirmed that he was the franchise cornerstone Vancouver had envisioned him to be.

In the case of Vancouver, less than two years after the trade of Francis to the Rockets, the Grizzlies were preparing for their first season in Memphis. While several factors contributed to the Grizzlies departure from Vancouver, the Francis saga is viewed as perhaps the biggest turning point and indicator that an NBA franchise could not survive there. Though the dream was for the Francis selection to be the final piece that would lead the franchise to NBA success, it may have actually created a reality that was the pivotal moment that resulted in the Grizzlies move to Memphis.

As time went on, Francis’s successful career would be short lived after a very successful start. Eventually, off the court issues and a decline in his on-court production cut what could have been a special career short. Francis played his final game at the age of 30, and certainly is remembered far more for what he could have been than what he was. Furthermore, Francis has not strayed away from the same demeanor and mindset that led to his trade from Vancouver and many of the issues he faced in his career. In 2018, Francis gave a detailed perspective of how the saga with the Grizzlies unfolded from his point of view, but did not express any regret for what happened. In the end, the Grizzlies selection of Francis was truly one of the worst draft picks in NBA history.

The relevance of the Grizzlies failure with Francis was minimal once they moved to Memphis. While there were some initial times of struggle, the eventual selection of Pau Gasol and others and the formation of the Grit and Grind era made any fallout from the Francis saga short-lived. However, one could easily make the case the Francis was the one true missing piece that the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis desperately wanted despite their success. From his national prominence due to his college days and the skill he displayed early in his career, Francis arguably was the closest the Grizzlies had ever come to actually having a true NBA star.

Memphis Grizzlies v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Exactly twenty years after what many could label as the worst moment in the history of the franchise, Lady Luck smiled down on Memphis and gifted the second overall pick to the Grizzlies again. Ironically, the logical pick for the Grizzlies was a player some felt compared quite favorably to Francis in Ja Morant. So far, Morant has done well in validating that comparison as accurate. Like Francis, Morant was viewed as a basketball star during his NCAA days. Though Morant has only played 19 games so far, his production is quite similar to Francis’s in many statistical categories. His Rookie of the Month selection in November is a favorable indication he could be on his way to becoming Rookie of the Year, the award Francis won two decades ago.

Despite their similarities on the court, the most significant contrast between Francis and Morant is how drastically different they have conducted themselves off of it. In recent years, reports had become more frequent that significant draft talents did not prefer to work out for Memphis, similar to Francis’s approach with Vancouver. Combined with the end of the Grit and Grind era and the inevitable need to rebuild, the Grizzlies had one of the most uncertain futures in the NBA just 18 months ago.

The selection of Jaren Jackson Jr. in 2018 was the first step in the right direction. However, the pick of Morant could be the major leap toward a future of NBA success and relevance for the Grizzlies that many had dreamed of but never truly expected to happen. Nightly performances by Morant that continue to put him in rare NBA territory that only Hall of Famers have achieved has been amazing to witness. It is his persona and mindset off the court that has made this season truly special so far, especially in how he has embraced his teammates and the city of Memphis.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Brandon Dill/Getty Images

While the highlights and fourth quarter performances are wonderful, the best thing for the Grizzlies and Memphis is how Morant is embracing his role as not only the future of the franchise, but potentially one of the headlining stars of the NBA. Despite nightly comparisons to current and past superstars, he simply is achieving his success by being himself. Furthermore, that approach compares quite favorably to the city he represents.

As history has shown, both the Grizzlies and the city of Memphis take great pride in achieving success their own way. Though it may be unorthodox or against the grain, there is an originality and admirable quality to their efforts. Neither the franchise, the city, nor its inhabitants are afraid to show confidence in that approach as well. The Memphis Grizzlies and their fans have never needed the approval of others on how they go about their business. They will enthusiastically embrace and enjoy any recognition that their triumphs will likely create.

That approach perfectly describes Morant’s style of play and persona; it is why he is a perfect fit for this franchise and city. Unlike Francis’ force out that was fatal to the franchise in Vancouver, Morant, the Grizzlies, and the city of Memphis are living a dream that has long been desired and deserved. As the old saying goes, the best predictor of the future may truly be the past. However, that does not mean that the past will ultimately repeat itself. Instead, implementing more effective practices by learning from past failures could create a better chance at future success.

With a bit of logic and luck, Morant and the Grizzlies seem to be at the beginning of a wonderful journey together. The Grizzlies may finally have the superstar the franchise and its fans have desperately wanted since the team arrived in Memphis. While it may have occurred later than many had hoped, the end result could be a future that no one ever dreamed could be a reality.

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