Let me paint a picture here.
A team enters a season with low expectations, as analysts and casuals peg them as the worst team in the conference — or probably in the league. Though they’re full of intriguing young talent, it was a common knowledge that this team wasn’t ready for success right away. On top of that, they are strapped to the Boston Celtics due to some shrewd mistakes from their front office.
You see what I did there?
Last season, the Sacramento Kings were largely projected to be the worst team in the Western Conference. Young point guards take time, and De’Aaron Fox was raw at that moment. They clogged up time for Marvin Bagley by signing 900 big men. We didn’t really know what Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic were either. All of those factors led to the belief that the Boston Celtics could crash the Zion Williamson sweepsakes, as the Kings sent a loosely-protected pick, that went unprotected in 2019, to clear space to sign Rajon Rondo in 2015.
Kangz gonna Kangz, as the common folk among NBA Twitter say.
The Sacramento Kings exceeded expectations and proved the naysayers wrong, behind the monster leap from De’Aaron Fox, the stellar shooting of Buddy Hield, and the wicked fast pace the team played. Even though they missed the playoffs with a 39-43 record, the team’s youth delivered a strong sense of optimism for the future — while also gifting the Celtics with the 14th pick instead of a top 5 one.
Insert this year’s Memphis Grizzlies.
In a matter of months, the conversation shifted from “Do they pick James Wiseman, Anthony Edwards, or LaMelo Ball?” to “Who do you want to play in the playoffs — the Lakers, Clippers, or Nuggets?” A lot of factors contribute to the Grizzlies’ surprising season. Ja Morant is electric, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is a bonafide unicorn. Taylor Jenkins has deployed a nice “pace-and-space” system with a good defensive scheme for a young team. Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks, and De’Anthony Melton have emerged as quality cornerstones around their talented duo.
Pretty similar, right? Yes and no.
Yes, the trajectories are the same, but there’s a different level of optimism here. The Memphis Grizzlies’ future is far more bright. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are excellent starting points, similar to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley. However, around them, they have pieces fit around them at the right cost. Behind the brilliance of Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies have the flexibility to capitalize and strike on the opportunity of building a championship-level team. Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Vlade Divac has overpaid for veterans that don’t necessarily fit the team, hampering their flexibility around Fox, Hield, and Bagley.
Oh, and he passed on Luka Doncic. That stings too.
The real similarity here is with Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox — a matchup worth the price of admission.
Think of the Western Conference point guard battles this century. Steve Nash and Tony Parker. Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook.
The battles between these two could reach that magnitude.
Both Morant and Fox can play at a break-neck speed, taking the ball off the rebound or off a made basket straight to the rim at the blink of an eye. They use their athleticism to dictate the game, as they connect on most of their baskets by attacking downhill. They served as the engine behind their teams’ surprising seasons. Coming out of college, they received the same comparisons — John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
This game is just another peek at what it could be down the road. When you’re watching these two battle on Friday night, don’t feel ridiculous to daydream about them duking it out in a big playoff series in the mid-to-late 2020’s, because it’s surely possible.
Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings are on similar paths, and their leadership — for better or for worse — will dictate how this decade will go for both teams. There’s no denying though, each team has a young point guard with the potential to be a bonafide superstar.
For Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox, the sky is the limit. And this game is just one of the many battles these young stars will have over the next decade.
BUY TICKETS TO MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES VS. SACRAMENTO KINGS AT FEDEXFORUM: FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 28th, 7:00 PM CT
Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links.