When you think of organizations in the National Basketball Association with bright futures, chances are the Memphis Grizzlies are near the top of your list. And chances are the top two reasons for that are Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant - the two cornerstones of the next generation of the Grizzlies.
But beyond their talents on their court, it is their seemingly perfect personality pairing and willingness to share the burden of carrying Memphis in to this next decade (and beyond the famed Grit and Grind era) that makes this pair of teammates more than just future All-Stars.
It means this dynamic duo checks perhaps the most important box there is in Memphis - they are real, and are truly for the city that they now call home.
For the reigning (and should’ve been undisputed) Rookie of the Year Ja Morant, it shines through pretty clearly. From the side courts of South Carolina to the biggest unprecedented stage of the Bubble, the NBA Play-In Game against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, the recipe for Morant’s meteoric rise has a dollop of destiny and an ounce of audacity making for a delightfully delicious narrative in the Bluff City. Ja has a story for the ages, one that - to paraphrase the late great Don Poier - could only be told in the movies and in Memphis.
The fact that he is a generational basketball talent gets the headlines. It should, of course - the NBA universe at large isn’t as concerned about Morant’s meaningful relationship with Memphis as they are his nifty passing and electric dunks. But for the new leading man for the Grizzlies to become the legend he seems on pace to be for Memphians, success is not final and failure is never fatal. It is, as has been said by many throughout the last 100 years, courage that counts for those that call the Mid-South home.
Whether he is forcibly asking people to tell James Harden about him, or seemingly attempting to dunk on seemingly the entire world, or recruiting college kids to be Tigers and helping locally owned Black businesses in the city on social media, he shows a real grit and investment that further illuminates what makes both him and Memphis so soulfully unique.
Speaking of unique...it doesn’t get more unique than a unicorn.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has been lauded here and everywhere for his shot blocking and three-point shooting acumen. It was what has so many so intrigued around the NBA from Twitter to the media and fans - not many 6’11” bigs can shoot 39.4% on 6.5 three point attempts per game. Not many newly minted 21-year-olds can capture the imagination of positionless basketball by switching almost seamlessly on the perimeter defensively. Very few of these types of players (Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns come to mind as such uniquely gifted bigs) are also able to take players off the dribble the way that Jaren can. He really seemed to be adding layers to his game before a torn meniscus derailed his Bubble, likely ended the chances for the Grizzlies being a true contender for the postseason.
But beyond the tantalizing potential he consistently showed throughout this season and the growth that his game displayed in Orlando, what makes him most meaningful alongside Morant moving forward is the leadership he displayed. In numerous games on the Bubble campus, when things got tough for the Grizzlies Jaren Jackson Jr. got going. In three games before the injury it was Jaren who helped keep Memphis competitive at times. When Ja was being targeted, or was struggling to find his shot, Jaren was there to help steady the ship as the best two-way player for the Grizzlies. He impacted games on both ends of the floor, showing a fire and leadership beyond his years.
He is younger than Ja Morant, yet in his sophomore season showed just how far he has come. And he has Memphians thinking of just how fortunate they are to have such bright days ahead to look forward to.
In the era of COVID-19, with the echoes of social justice reform still sounding throughout our country, we look to what we know to be true. We take solace in the way things were...and long for those times when life seemed to have more light in it than darkness. For fans of the Memphis Grizzlies the last decade or so, that was headlined by an era of basketball defined not by talent, but by tenacity. Grit and Grind was not about flash...it was substance that mattered. Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley helped curate a standard of mental toughness and service to the community of Memphis that will stand the test of time for the city. The on-court successes mattered. The love off the floor meant more.
Now, in the beginnings of young love after the end of the greatest chapter in Grizzlies basketball history, the city can freely move toward hopefully greener pastures. The Grit and Grind Era didn’t make SportsCenter, or go viral for basketball reasons (kicks to the face of Chris Paul, though, were quite popular). Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol couldn’t do the things athletically that Jaren Jackson Jr. can. Mike Conley and Tony Allen have nowhere near the ceiling physically that Ja Morant does. Memphis can take comfort in knowing that they don’t have to settle for scoring without spirit. There doesn’t have to be a sacrifice of character for the considerable accolades and attention that accompany the talents that Jaren and Ja possess.
As the Grizzlies standard of unselfishness is reestablished by executives Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman in addition to Head Coach Taylor Jenkins, both on and off the floor they have two prototypical leaders ready to light the way for the next decade. Ja Morant is as humble as he is high-flying. Jaren Jackson Jr. is as respectful as he is rare. Both embrace the city of Memphis, flaws and all, and hope to make their mark in improving it...just as those that came before them did. That won’t be easy - and it can’t be done alone. It will take a team effort for the Memphis Grizzlies to return to the hallowed ground of the Western Conference Finals. It will take a group effort to establish a legacy as meaningful as Grit and Grind in Memphis.
But with Morant and Jackson Jr. at the helm helping define what it means to be a Memphis Grizzly in 2020 and beyond, never before has the possibility to dream of what might be been so easy to see.
And never has those tasked with making those visions come to life seemed so up to the task at hand.
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