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Stronger together in Memphis

Figuratively and literally.

Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

To me, there’s always been more beauty in the journey rather than the actual destination.

For example, LeBron James is far more compelling when considering his background and how he eventually reached the NBA. Sure, he’s the best player on the planet and maybe even the best player of all-time, but those facts are uninteresting to me compared to how his talent and determination allowed him to rise above his difficult circumstances and avoid merely becoming another statistic in Akron, Ohio.

How LeBron became the NBA’s king—and the challenges that he had to overcome in order for him to do so—is far more interesting to me than the mere fact that he is still the NBA’s king.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

And my preference for the journey rather than the destination isn’t just limited to LeBron James. Whenever I have watched the young Grizzlies, especially Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., over the last year, I have found myself wondering less and less about what they will eventually come.

Maybe Ja Morant will become a perennial MVP candidate that elevates the Memphis Grizzlies to a level in the cultural zeitgeist that they have never inhabited before. Perhaps Jaren Jackson Jr. one day reaches his full potential and becomes the Anthony Davis-Klay Thompson hybrid that terrorizes teams on both ends of the court. Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies become a cultural phenomenon much like the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.

To be sure, these are magnificently ambitious dreams that this current iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies rightfully inspires with their talent, swagger and boldness. But for now, I’d prefer to enjoy the treacherous and non-linear path that these Grizzlies are on before they reach their unknowable destination. I want to experience every bump in the road, every growing pain, and every struggle that this group will have to endure en route to their eventual climax. And in doing so, their inevitable triumphs along the way will be all the more moving and unforgettable.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Grizzlies are now in Orlando preparing to return to NBA action, they have already grown so much, both literally and figuratively. In the more figurative sense, they have grown into playoff contenders several years before any serious pundit expected them to do so, and they are now in the driver’s seat to make the make the playoffs once league-play resumes in Orlando. In a more literal sense, the faces of the franchise in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have physically grown over the course of the last four months.

Morant in particular told the media that he has put on over 12 pounds of muscle since league-play was suspended. “I’m stronger, can absorb contact and those things,” Morant said to ESPN’s Tim McMahon. “Able to use my body more, get through different screens. That’s what I was looking to build going to Orlando, to be able to do the things that I’ve been doing before but better.”

It has, of course, been a running joke since the beginning of the season that Morant needed to add some muscle so that his arm sleeve would stop slipping off (watching him pull his arm sleeve up while simultaneously chirping at an opposing player was always a hilarious sight). But in all seriousness, his significant increase in muscle will only aid him in becoming a more complete player. Specifically, marked improvements in his finishing ability and his on-ball defense should be expected.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Another running joke that has followed Morant as a rookie is that for all of his otherworldly athleticism, he has struggled to finish many of his jaw-dropping dunk attempts (a fact that Kevin Love is undoubtedly grateful for). Yet although his eyes may be a tad bigger than his stomach for soul-crushing destruction currently is, he was still one of the better finishers at the rim among other point guards this year. He shot 60% at the rim, which is higher than the career percentages of Kyrie Irving, Mike Conley, and Russell Westbrook. So just imagine what he could be as a finisher with another 12 pounds of muscle to accept and initiate contact at the rim; he might just end Kevin Love’s career next time.

An extra 12 pounds of muscle will also obviously benefit Morant in his on-ball defense, an area in which he often struggled against more physically imposing guards. One of the most glaring examples of his struggles in that area came against Justise Winslow at the beginning of the season when he was still a member of the Miami Heat. Now Winslow at 6’7”, 220 pounds would be a bad matchup for most point guards, but he is able to move Morant in this clip like he’s an animate traffic cone.

De’Aaron Fox also constantly represented a matchup issue for Morant. In this clip, Fox is able to turn the corner and make the easy layup after easily clearing Morant out with a slight shoulder dip to his chest.

While Ja Morant isn’t going to fix all of his minor issues overnight, his time in the weight room should go some way in creating tangible improvement to his game.

Although Morant likely had the most dramatic transformation of sorts, it has also been made clear through Grizzlies media sessions that Jaren Jackson Jr. has also gotten bigger. Even if it’s unclear exactly how much weight he added, it’s still encouraging that Jaren has spent an obviously significant amount of time in the weight room because it will help him address two areas of weakness—rebounding and establishing deep post position.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

This clip of Jaren attempting to back down Myers Leonard in the post is a great example of why his lack of lower body strength sometimes causes him to struggle to get looks at the front of the rim. And I do say “attempting”, because he is virtually unable to gain an inch of space while trying to back down Leonard, who isn’t exactly renowned for his physicality.

He ends up scoring here because he’s awesome and skilled, but increased core and lower body strength will help him establish deeper post position, thus making a matchup with an inferior player like Leonard much easier.

And added muscle will also obviously help him in rebounding battles. Jaren has a long way to go as a rebounder for multiple reasons beyond a lack of physicality, but an increased physical presence will only help him as far as his rebounding is concerned. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slight uptick in his rebounding numbers in Orlando.

Then again, there really isn’t much that could happen with the Memphis Grizzlies in Orlando that will truly surprise me. They’ve already grown so much both literally and figuratively in such a short period of time and yet still have so far to still go.

NBA Restart 2020 - All-Access Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

But whether it’s in Orlando or finally back in the old world that we remember at FedExForum, I can’t wait to experience every step of their strength journey.