Be careful what you wish for, Memphis Grizzlies fans. You just might get it.
For the first two years of the Zach Kleiman Era in Memphis, the organization has prioritized “sure things” in the NBA Draft. Ja Morant was the easy pick 2nd overall in 2019. But from there, the selections of Brandon Clarke later that draft, and Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman in 2020, were more safe than anything. The Grizzlies franchise needed to be rebuilt, and the thought process was making sure there were players ready to fit in and play right away alongside the likes of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and others like Dillon Brooks. That worked pretty nicely - all three have been productive, and two (Clarke and Bane) were named to All-Rookie teams.
But as time has gone on, and the mix of more veteran players such as the newly traded Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson and these young core guys have gelled and overachieved, the next step in Memphis’ “process” seemed to be more about finding that “third man” next to Morant and Jackson Jr. Could it come via trade? Dreams of Bradley Beal danced through many heads. But in reality, for a team like the Grizzlies whose “contending” window is still off somewhere in the distance, the NBA Draft makes more sense as such a place to try to acquire such a talent.
When Memphis traded up to #10 in the 2021 NBA Draft, it became reality. Whether it was at #10 itself, as it wound up being, or moving up once again, the Grizzlies seemed primed to get their man. And as the draft played out, darlings like James Bouknight and Moses Moody fell in to the lap of Memphis. Surely the NBA Twitter GM Kleiman was going to take one of those two - scoring off the bounce, here come the Grizzlies!
But the name was read as Ziaire Williams, forward, Stanford by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. And a lot of surprised reactions unfurled.
If you read GBB you knew this was somewhat of a possibility. But after the shocking reminder of just how strong the smokescreens leaked reports can be this time of year (especially with Memphis - they were consistently connected to several players, and Williams was mentioned but not nearly as consistently as Moody or Franz Wagner or Josh Giddey, for example) subsided, reactions were mixed. Williams, as our Justin Lewis pointed out in his prospect profile on the young wing from Stanford, has noticeable deficiencies in his game. He did not dominate the PAC-12 in the manner that you’d expect a highly-touted recruit would, and there have been whispers of poor work ethic and a potential lack of love for the game. When you add in the kick in the pants it was for many that Memphis moved on from Jonas Valanciunas, a productive fan favorite, in order to get in to this position?
Confusion reigned. This is the upside swing? Ziaire Williams, who a lot of pre-draft mocks had being very available at #17 overall, is the guy you want to test the trust of the fan base with your front office’s direction with? It was not as clear in their eyes as perhaps Clarke, or Bane, or even Tillman were.
Then, for the second time in two seasons, the Grizzlies acquired the 30th overall pick - this time from this past season’s playoff opponent the Utah Jazz. #40 and two future 2nds went to Utah for this opportunity, and players like Sharife Cooper, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, BJ Boston, and Miles McBride were on the board. Memphis could’ve used any of those more established names. So when Santi Aldama of Loyola (MD) was the selection - again, after another trade up and spending more draft capital - more eyebrows were raised. Especially after reading this gem...
A player was drafted by the Grizzlies that didn’t even want to play in the NBA? One that played at Loyola (MD) in a terrible conference instead of a traditional powerhouse? What was Memphis thinking?
Questioning Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office? What a strange place to be in. After hit after hit, to realize that we are approaching a pretty substantive fork in the road for the franchise’s young roster, coaching staff, and management team can be jarring. The next stage has begun of the Grizzlies rebuild…but it’s not for stars if today. It’s for hopeful ones of tomorrow.
If you embrace Memphis, Memphis will embrace you. That, along with style of play, made parting with the lovable Jonas Valanciunas hard to swallow. To do that for a player that it was widely believed could have been had where the Grizzlies were already picking makes it harder to take and easier to question. But the way the draft played out - James Bouknight falling out of the top-10, Josh Primo going #12 to San Antonio - suggests that prognosticators did not have as good of a handle on team “sources” and big boards this season. With San Antonio clearly going straight upside with Primo, perhaps Memphis understood that they would not be able to get Williams before the Spurs seeing as Williams is a better built prospect. Primo’s surprise to be selected #12 adds credence to that theory.
And Ziaire is, indeed, a better built prospect. He has the pedigree of a top high school recruit. He can create offense for himself off the dribble with a combo forward’s frame. He is an athlete with athleticism that can impact opposing offenses in passing lanes and at the rim. He fights well over screens and has length which forces tougher angles in passes out of those pick and roll sets. He has all the tools you want in a starting modern NBA wing.
Stanford played no home games this past season due to COVID and Williams missed time due to quarantining himself, so he faced adversity throughout his time at Stanford that surely impacted his production some - especially in terms of shooting rhythm. How much is fair to ask, but clearly his lack of physical production did not scare off Memphis. His potential at his size to be a two-way force alongside Jaren and Ja was worth it.
They saw Williams’ possibilities and they took their shot. The same is true of Aldama, who likely does want to play in the NBA (especially now there he is a 1st round pick) but was promised by Memphis (or somebody else, forcing the hand of the Grizzlies) early in the process in exchange for keeping opposing teams at bay. As questions arose about interest from franchises like Oklahoma City, Memphis made the call to bring the 6’11” Aldama to the Grizzlies higher than likely originally planned. Aldama can score from three and has positional versatility, but he probably is not anywhere close to being a contributor now. In fact, Aldama may stay in Spain this season given the Grizzlies roster crunch. But even if he does come play this season? He probably will spend more time with the Memphis Hustle than the Grizzlies. Meanwhile, the same may we’ll be true of Williams, who has the talent to be an NBA high-level player but he also needs some fine tuning of his game in years to come to get to that level.
That’s just fine with Zach Kleiman. The Memphis Grizzlies will rush their timeline for no one. But will the fan base, excited after two overachieving seasons, accept that for much longer?
Patience can be hard to maintain when you see success where success isn’t supposed to be yet. Rushing the process can be rewarding in terms of improved playoff positioning, perhaps leading to magical postseason runs. The Grizzlies have been there and done that. But the stated goal isn’t playoff wins. It, time and again from Kleiman, is building a championship caliber team. To do that, risk is inherently part of the process. Especially in a small market, calculated gambles via trades and draft picks walk hand in hand with rising above the disadvantages you have in free agency. James Bouknight and Moses Moody may be more NBA ready now. But with the size and talent of Williams, his ceiling is higher. Aldama has a unique set of skills for his body type, putting him in a similar category.
If he fails? It cost Memphis somewhat valuable draft capital. If he hits? Another bigger combo forward with playmaking prowess is on the roster alongside Williams, who you believe can also make shots for him self and others better than Aldama.
If Williams fails? You moved on from one of your best players, hurting the franchise in the short-term, while limiting free agency flexibility the next two offseasons. If he succeeds? He’s the best wing on the team since Rudy Gay - and perhaps surpasses him. That type of player raises the overall ceiling of the Memphis Grizzlies with their young core as presently constructed.
Both have length and physical tools that can be impactful defensively and negate some of Ja Morant’s deficiencies on that end of the floor. Both are malleable enough that they can fit on a Memphis roster if needed that remains largely in place with Steven Adams replacing Jonas Valanciunas. But they both can also, because of the current depth in place, be able to play in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle and get development game reps there.
This draft, for the first time in this iteration of the Grizzlies front office, was not about this season ahead. This was about prioritizing finding pieces that, if developed properly, could put Memphis in a better position to contend later on this decade. Physically? That’s undeniable.
But mentally? Emotionally in terms of maturity? Production wise in college, be it in terms of raw numbers (Williams) or level of competition (Aldama)? This is where concerns could manifest and become discontent. And here, more than anywhere, will the test of the Grizzlies standard arise. You say you’re building a winning culture? See if Williams buys in to it and not only gets along with expectations from players and coaches but helps establish them moving forward. You believe frames like those of Aldama and Williams hold value? See if your development program can get their bodies ready to be contributors to a top-tier NBA team.
Do your young players, who have set up what it means to be a Memphis Grizzlies roster member well so far this decade, have what it takes to serve as the example, and not have to follow but better yet model what must be done?
Those answers will come in the years ahead. For now, Zach Kleiman has reminded all of us that the Memphis Grizzlies are still rebuilding. They’re committed to doing so through the NBA Draft. And for the first time, Kleiman sees the roster in front of him as complete enough that he can make calls for the era to come, not the games immediately ahead. Whether or not this shift toward potential over production (at least in this draft) is timed well is up to the likes of Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks. This is their locker room. Their team. New players must be taught up, or shipped out. Is the standard strong enough in terms of scheme and general philisophy to endure the challenges that await?
Zach Kleiman seems to believe it is, and has committed to time being able to tell us. When you view this draft through that lens, shock gives way to cautious optimism. Questionable picks come with risk. But the Grizzlies front office has earned some credit through their work in the past.
That credit for good franchise building doesn’t disappear. It just gets applied and paid out...and that next step in the Memphis Grizzlies process starts now.