The Memphis Grizzlies are riding a wave of excitement and energy in to the All-Star Weekend, which begins with tonight’s Rising Stars Challenge. Memphis is well represented in the festivities, with three young players - Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke - taking the stage in Chicago. Jaren and Ja will play for the U.S. squad, while Brandon will suit up for the World squad (his Vancouver birthplace makes him eligible for that squad). While there are several teams with multiple players at the game - the Charlotte Hornets, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, for example - no NBA franchise has the combination of a successful present and promising future that the Grizzlies currently sport.
What a difference a year makes.
At 28-26 entering the break, the Memphis Grizzlies are solidly in the #8 seed in the Western Conference playoff picture. They got younger at the trade deadline, opting to acquire a key cog of their new young core in Justise Winslow (as well as backup bigs in Gorgui Dieng, the new oldest man on the roster, and Jordan Bell). They chose to buy out the controversial Dion Waiters instead of bring him in to the fold of a locker room that appears to have established a fun-loving and light-hearted culture already despite their youth. They have no players on a max contract. No long-term money (beyond the 2020-2021 season) above $15 million.
They have acquired multiple draft picks that they can use to reinforce the roster as the times comes to re-sign the Morants, Jacksons, and Clarkes of the world, or to sweeten a trade in the future for another star player. Buddy Hield, Zach LaVine, even a Devin Booker or Bradley Beal...while still speculative in nature, Memphis as a player in the trade market is not far fetched thanks to the assets they have accumulated.
Whether it is internal or external, this year or in some season in the not-too-distant future, it feels like the rise of the Memphis Grizzlies isn’t a matter of “if”...but “when.”
So why, then, was Ja Morant not more seriously considered for the All-Star roster spot vacated by Damian Lillard due to injury? How come the Grizzlies have not been flexed in to as many national games to this point?
Why does Zion Williamson, who is admittedly special but has only played in a handful of games compared to Morant, even mentioned in the same Rookie of the Year breath as Ja? Morant is doing things this season that most rookie point guards could only dream of. Williamson is putting up absurd numbers - including infringing on Ja’s 4th quarter scoring (7.6 for Morant, 7.5 for Williamson) - but Ja’s 46 games played to Zion’s 10 probablu should be disqualifying for this particular award. That doesn’t stop the hype train from rumbling on with Zion more so than Ja, however.
Why does Jaren Jackson Jr. so often gets overlooked when that now-famous 2018 NBA Draft is discussed compared to Luka Doncic and Trae Young? Sure, Luka and Trae have the built-in trade connection and the gaudy numbers...but Jaren has been a remarkable combination of three-point shooting and rim defense for much of this season, and is definitely a superior two-way player to Young...and maybe even Doncic. Jaren already has made 131 threes and blocked 87 shots this season. According to basketball-reference.com, in the history of the NBA, only seven players have made over 130 threes and blocked over 85 shots within the first five seasons of their NBA careers. The youngest to do it was Dirk Nowitzki at the age of 22. Jaren has accomplished this with 28 games to go...at the age of 20.
What is the reason that Brandon Clarke is not more of a rookie star across the NBA landscape? Clarke is currently in the midst of one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history. Only he and Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks have posted the type of season in terms of advanced stats - a PER of at least 21.8, a win shares per 48 minutes of at least .190, a true shooting percentage of at least 67.4%. Never mind Clarke has a much higher usage rate than Robinson - another overlooked player - did in his rookie season (19.3% to Robinson’s 12.2%), or the fact that Clarke is much more of a threat from three and a much more versatile defender on the perimeter.
Brandon is dominating in his role with Memphis, and these three young Memphis kings are the main reasons why the Grizzlies are so far ahead of where everyone expected them to be. Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, and others have contributed, to be sure. But it’s the work of Morant, Jackson Jr., and Clarke that fuels the current hopes of the Memphis Grizzlies.
And yet again, no All-Star selections or participation in All-Star Saturday Night (in fairness, Ja Morant turned down a dunk contest invite...but Jaren Jackson Jr. in the three point contest? Clarke in the skills competition?)
No runs of nationally televised games.
No buzz beyond NBA Twitter, aside from being told by pundits to respect their Andre Iguodala elders in most cases.
The Grizzlies, despite being the best story in the NBA this season, continue to fly under the radar.
Perhaps that will change with Friday’s Rising Stars challenge. A Ja to Zion alley-oop will probably break the internet. Clarke could benefit from a similar look from a Luka Doncic. Jaren Jackson Jr. could get hot from beyond the arc, or throw a block party down low on an R.J. Barrett. Maybe Morant makes it a point to secure MVP honors, competing at a high level and making it clear that this time next year, he will be doing this game in addition to the main event Sunday evening.
Regardless of how the weekend plays out, the NBA world will know soon enough just how golden these new Grizzlies can be. The basketball gods will take notice either willingly or by force. But for now? Memphis will have to make due with being almost famous, on the precipice of inevitable super-stardom...but not quite there just yet.
So before they belong to the world? They’re ours. Enjoy it while you can.