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When the stars come out in Memphis

What do you do when you already have your superstars...but they’re not ready yet?

2019-20 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

It has been said that the most fun time to cheer for a team is right before they are good. The Memphis Grizzlies are proving that argument to be a fair one. Memphis in terms of record is solidly the eight seed in the Western Conference Playoffs, meaning they are at best a mediocre basketball team at 32-33 at this stage of the suspended season. That isn’t “good”, in a traditional sense. Regardless of the wins and losses, however, there is little doubt that this Memphis Grizzlies team is indeed fun.

Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year, and appears to be a worth foil to Zion Williamson going forward in terms of competition for “best player from the 2019 NBA Draft”. Ja is explosive and fearless, abrasive in the best way possible, not afraid of conflict but seeking it out. He’s an ideal alpha-type leader, and by his side is a player that doesn’t need that role to be successful in Jaren Jackson Jr. Jaren is well on his way to being a giant Klay Thompson at this stage, an excellent defender that can be elite spacing the floor. He’s a rim protector and beyond the arc threat on par with Karl-Anthony Towns at this stage...and he’s about four years younger than Towns.

Morant and Jackson are Grizzlies draft picks, meaning they will likely be in Memphis together at least another six or seven years thanks to restricted free agency. They’re both under the age of 21. Their games mesh well together in theory and will only continue to grow with time together on the court. At such a young age, they are two of the best 75 or so players in the entire NBA. Add that fact with the presence of Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas (four of the top 100 players in the NBA are Grizzlies) and other core players like Dillon Brooks, Justise Winslow (the idea of him at least, for now), De’Anthony Melton (assuming he sticks around in free agency himself this summer) and Tyus Jones?

It’s fun to try to get Devin Booker and Bradley Beal on the Grizzlies. Buddy Hield makes sense in Memphis, to be sure. But the truth is this - for the Grizzlies and their front office led by Zachary Kleiman, the building of the Memphis core has already largely been done - including their stars, the hardest thing usually to find.

The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Clippers have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. For the Nets, it is Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.

For the Grizzlies? It is Ja and Jaren...they’re just not ready yet to take that leap to contender. They’re understandably not prepared for the NBA’s greatest glow at this time. They’re not ready to legally drink a beer, so beating the best basketball players in the world may be a bit of a stretch.

2020 NBA All-Star: Rising Stars Team Photo & Game BTS + Celebrity Coverage Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Does that mean you stop trying to improve the roster, especially via trade and the draft? Of course not - the team has assets and contracts that could be used either as trade fodder or to move up in future drafts. This is nowhere near the final version of what the Grizzlies will look like once the “rebuild” is complete. Gorgui Dieng may not be in Memphis beyond the summer of 2021, and if Winslow is a failure he has a full team option the Grizzlies can not pick up to create even more cap space. Kyle Anderson wasn’t a signee of this front office and his skill set, while versatile and valuable, doesn’t exactly mesh fully with coach Taylor Jenkins’ schemes. Grayson Allen has been out of sight and out of mind due to injury, and could be added on to a future trade for cap purposes and to sweeten the deal in terms of a prospect.

There is room for growth. Memphis could potentially acquire a Hield or someone like him whose contract would not prohibit the Grizzlies from signing their own future max players when the time comes. Yet again, even with potential max contract space in the summer of 2021 and a clean draft pick ledger come next year after the debt to Boston is paid (one would assume) this year, a lot of the players around Jaren and Ja already make sense in terms of fit. Dillon Brooks can score and space. Tyus Jones is the prototypical backup point for Ja as an efficient creator of offense for others. Justise Winslow doesn’t need to score to be impactful, nor does Brandon Clarke. Down low Jonas Valanciunas is a wonderful paint presence that can score the dirty buckets for the team when necessary. The sample size is small, but evidence exists that suggests many of the pieces are in place.

All the core needs is the stars to shine. They already are starting to...and they will only get brighter.

Whenever basketball resumes, the Memphis Grizzlies will continue to be more and more the franchise of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Kleiman and company are in the enviable position of already having their stars in place, much like the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans. The “issue” is, they’re just so young, they’re not quite prepared to pick up and improve/carry the crew around them like the LeBrons and Kawhis of the world can. They will get there, though. In the meantime, the Grizzlies of now must continue to prove they can be the Grizzlies of tomorrow, when the bright lights of Western Conference and NBA Finals shimmer just as brightly as the stars.

If they can’t? They can be replaced in a variety of ways. For while the current roster is sound, full of a mix of veterans and youth with a variety of versatile skills, it is not about today. It is about years from now, when Ja is an MVP candidate instead of a Rookie of the Year. It’s about when Jaren Jackson Jr. breaks three point shooting records for bigs while contending for Defensive Player of the Year awards.

It’s about who will stand alongside two young men that will hopefully become the most illustrious stars in Memphis Grizzlies history. Those that, in the biggest moments for this franchise that are still yet to come, will be as bright as the downtown lights on a late spring night on Beale Street where the moments that are currently dreams were made reality.

Or the shine of a championship trophy being paraded around the city, glistening for all to see...just like the stars that will, eventually, come out.

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