For two years, the Memphis Grizzlies have wandered the NBA landscape without any understanding of who they are.
In the absence of resident alpha males and strong personalities Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, those that were left behind were unable to cultivate what exactly it means to be a Grizzly. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley do not have those types of personalities - they aren’t tone setters when it comes to identity. They on good-to-great teams are the 2nd, 3rd, or perhaps even 4th best players (especially in Gasol’s case in Toronto) at this stage of their respective careers, and they have never - even at the peak of their powers - been ones to be aggressive, in-your-face types that embrace attacking leadership.
That’s not to say they aren’t leaders. Mike Conley is absolutely a lead by example type, and Marc Gasol was been a mentor to numerous Grizzlies over the years. Yet there is a difference between leading alongside, and leading out in front.
Memphis did not have that the last two seasons...and that includes the arrival of newly minted First-Team All-Rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. That isn’t meant to be an insult to Jaren. He was the 2nd youngest player in the NBA last season, and his youthful energy was a welcome change. But while “litness” is a fun idea and a way to embrace the grind of the 82-game NBA season, an identity it is not.
Identity is when the time comes to show your character, be it as a player, a team as a whole, or as an entire franchise, you know exactly who you are, and what you need to do.
Memphis once had that. Then, they lost it.
Now? It’s about to be found.
Ja Morant, assuming he is indeed the player the Grizzlies will select #2 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft, is from the small town of Dalzell, South Carolina. He went to Crestwood High School - by no means a hoops power house - and was so under-recruited he went to Murray State instead of Maryland-Eastern Shore and South Carolina State, none of which are hot beds for NBA prospects and NCAA tournament Cinderella runs. In two years he took himself from relative unknown to the national stage, a consensus top-3 pick in this draft, and a prospect that scouts and basketball minds are swooning over.
He is about as self-made as you can be in a world where there are multiple recruiting services and such a focus on AAU ball and prospect camps, and has worked to earn everything he has earned to this point.
When you listen to him interact with the media, as he did on ESPN’s Get Up yesterday, you see beyond the remarkable highlights and explosive action. You see a young man with a purpose...with a drive.
He knows exactly who he is. And what he wants to be.
A lot stands out - his poise, his charisma, his apparent Yin to Jaren Jackson Jr’s Yang potential. At the end of the clip, however, you hear exactly what is going to make Ja Morant the person that will get the Grizzlies back to a mentality worthy of Memphis.
Jay Williams, a fellow former #2 overall pick, asked Ja why he decided, instead of passing to an open shooter in the corner or simply using his frame (since he is smaller at 6’3”) to protect the ball for a lay-up attempt trying to draw contact, to do this.
My mindset is to go finish plays...me and my dad, actually, he got mad at me and was saying I was finishing soft last season. So now I just go try to dunk everything.
Is that going to work all the time in the NBA? Of course not.
Will having someone with that kind of attack mentality help Memphis build the future?
He is a humble young man who prioritizes getting his teammates involved (he set the Murray State single game assists record of 18 in that same game with the poster dunk), who refuses to take shine away from anyone. But do not mistake that humility for timidness - his game is anything but that. He is a functionally violent finisher at the rim whose “why not” mentality echoes Russell Westbrook, another leader of men who has established a culture in Oklahoma City.
One that kept Paul George with the Thunder when everyone KNEW he was leaving to go to a bigger market.
Ja Morant needs to grow as a shooter. He turns the ball over too much. He is flawed, as any prospect entering the NBA is flawed. But his only major drawback is something in terms of turnovers that Trae Young has shown can be overcome, and relatively quickly. His shooting mechanics can be tweaked by whoever the next head coach of the Grizzlies is and their staff. Morant can, and will, get better.
What cannot be taught, however, is that mentality. That relentlessness. The willingness to play ball and not worry about bright lights and big cities that comes with his humble beginnings as a person and as a player. That capacity to pick others up around you, and make them better. That desire to be the face, the one out front, to take none of the credit when things go well and all the blame when they go poorly. To be the one people look to to set the tone for the next decade of your franchise.
It doesn’t start on the basketball court. It starts in meeting rooms, and hotels on the road. It will begin in Las Vegas in Summer League gatherings, and preseason workout sessions. Identity and culture is built day by day, the product of hard work and patience...two things Ja Morant seems to know a hell of a lot about.
From nothing to something. A silent grinder. A servant leader. That’s about as Memphis a story, and person, as they come. He’s not here yet...but once he is?
The basketball world will know once again exactly what it means to be a Grizzly.