On May 14th, 2019, the fortunes of two franchises in the National Basketball Association changed forever.
Fans of southern small market teams rejoiced that night, as both the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies defied the odds (that were admittedly improved after the league’s changes to the lottery process to try to curb tanking) and moved up several slots in the NBA Draft to #1 and #2, respectively. Both the Pelicans and Grizzlies were in the midst of substantial shifts in their organizations - New Orleans moving on from Anthony Davis, and Memphis fully ending the Grit and Grind Era with the trade of Marc Gasol that past February and the inevitable trade of Mike Conley. Both squads saw this stroke of luck as a chance to change their stars - the home run acquisition of a superstar that can eventually lead to title contention.
Three years later, that dream may very well come true for one of these two teams, both of which took young, explosive talents out of South Carolina with their respective picks in the 2019 NBA Draft.
It’s just not the one that most folks expected.
Revisionist history is a tricky thing. Almost three years of context and sample size from an NBA perspective can cloud the memory. Make no mistake, Zion Williamson of Duke was a nearly unanimous choice at #1 in the 2019 NBA Draft. His remarkable combination of size and explosiveness made him one of the most unique basketball talents the basketball world had seen since Shaquille O’Neal...and perhaps ever. He could run the point at roughly 6’7” approximately 280 pounds. He was unguardable and posted some of the most impressive statistics - both standard and advanced - in the history of college basketball. The engine that is the national sports media was behind him, and your eyes backed up the numbers. The Pelicans would have been almost universally crushed if they had passed on Zion. He was, in a word, phenomenal.
While the same word - phenomenal - could be used for the young man that eventually was drafted #2 by the Memphis Grizzlies, Ja Morant did not carry the same kind of hype. As has been stated here, there, and everywhere over the last three years, Morant was underrecruited and underappreciated throughout his rise up the basketball ranks. From side gyms at AAU tournaments to the friendly confines of Murray State’s CFSB Center, Ja was a gifted player whose talents would at times grace Twitter timelines and SportsCenter Top-10 lists but not quite reach the level of “sure-fire NBA superstar”.
After Morant’s impressive conference tournament run and victory in the first round of the NCAA Tournament over Marquette (with Ja posting a triple-double on the national stage) the momentum toward Ja being a fairly clear #2 in the draft grew. It depended on fit - R.J. Barrett loomed, but was widely seen as a New York Knicks target once the lottery happened and Memphis decided to move on from Conley. The Grizzlies were fortunate to have an opportunity to move on from one great point guard to another that, while young, had the physical skill to be even better one day. Morant to Memphis was the correct call, even without the benefit of hindsight.
But make no mistake. If the Memphis Grizzlies had gotten the #1 overall pick, regardless of media statements in the wake of that draft, it almost certainly would have been Zion Williamson. And if Memphis hadn’t made that selection, they almost certainly would have been ridiculed for not making that pick. How different the last three years would have looked.
Thank goodness the Grizzlies didn’t get the #1 overall pick.
Ja Morant just finished up his first All-Star Weekend, the first of hopefully many, dazzling with his athletic leaps and mingling with the 75th Anniversary NBA Team (some of whom predicted that when the NBA 100 team comes in 25 years, Ja will be a member). He is a dark horse MVP candidate and the leader in the clubhouse at the All-Star Break for the Most Improved Player award. He will surely be named All-NBA this season and on pace, barring an injury, to earn a Supermax contract extension with the Memphis Grizzlies. One that he will be happy to sign...and not just because of the money.
Meanwhile, Zion Williamson - who in fairness was an All-Star in his own right a year before Morant - was likely sitting (or rehabilitating) in Portland, Oregon, not having played in a game at all this season for the New Orleans Pelicans. Zion is dealing with a foot injury, one that has had setbacks push his potential return to the NOLA lineup back several times already this season. His weight and style of play being so intertwined are seen as a point of concern, and Williamson’s future in New Orleans is so in question in the eyes of some that when the team puts out season ticket renewal information and does not include a mention of Zion, it is seen as a potential sign of things to come.
What a difference one or two bounces of a ping pong ball can make.
Williamson’s desire to stay in New Orleans long-term has been almost constantly questioned - at times unfairly, but at other times enough smoke has appeared through various reports that some fire must exist, especially recently. Meanwhile, Ja Morant recently said the following-
The actions of Morant, both in person and on social media, back up these words. They do not ring hollow, as perhaps the words of Zion may in New Orleans. He has earned credit and trust through these last three seasons that he supports and believes in not just the direction of the franchise, but the collective life and energy of the city. Beyond on-court production, Ja has endeared himself to his NBA home - and Memphis Grizzlies fans love him for it. These young players led by Morant are not just NBA Finals contenders (when you’re the third-best team in the NBA record wise, that is not a crazy statement). They are on pace to become even more beloved in the city/fan base than the Grit and Grind Era - the most successful run in franchise history with their own iconic chemistry - they just recently replaced.
That is a staggering statement, both in terms of context (Memphis is the second youngest roster in the entire NBA) and its factual nature.
It isn’t just because of Morant. The Grizzlies have featured one of the best front offices in the entire NBA over Ja’s tenure in Memphis to this point, making good-to-great draft selections (Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman, Ziaire Williams) while also being smart in the trade (De’Anthony Melton and Steven Adams), free agency (Tyus Jones), two-way contract (John Konchar and Killian Tillie) and re-signing (Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr.) markets. They chose to make their identity with players like Morant - not appreciated, with chips on their shoulders and a desire to overachieve that has permeated throughout the organization and city.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, are not only underachieving when compared to the Grizzlies because of Zion’s issues. The team has signed questionable fits and has not fully built their roster as well as Memphis has built theirs in terms of utilizing every aspect of team construction. They are wayward sailors on the NBA sea, on their third coach in Zion’s three professional seasons, with talented pieces that do not make a whole just yet.
Even still, it does come back to that 2019 NBA Draft. And the increasingly fateful decision first made by the Pelicans, and then by the Grizzlies. For New Orleans, their supposed-to-alter-franchise-history selection of Williamson - while featuring several high points in the 2020-2021 season in which Zion looked every bit the player he was at Duke - has fallen flat. Zion has only played 85 games in two and a half seasons and may be the first player of his “status” in NBA history to sign his eventual qualifying offer, meaning he can enter unrestricted free agency sooner than normal. But that’s a massive risk - Greg Monroe did this in 2014 and it cost him dearly - and perhaps the “better” route for Williamson is demanding a trade.
A trade that would almost certainly not net the Pelicans equal, or perhaps even fair value, for Williamson. But the supposed dysfunction of New Orleans regarding Stan Van Gundy’s tenure (another mistake by the front office, regardless of your SVG opinion) and other aspects may make NOLA have to make a tough choice. Zion may just be leveraging that “dysfunction” as a convenient way out of a place some say he and his family never wanted to be.
How fortunate, then, are the Memphis Grizzlies to have a player that represents Memphis so willingly...and so well.
Two players forever linked by both their home state/shared basketball journeys and their status as the top-two selections in the 2019 NBA Draft. One has had moments of brilliance enveloped by months, and perhaps at this point years, of frustration and skepticism about his future for multiple reasons. The other has merged his dream for his professional career with that of the NBA franchise he now leads, looking ahead to a sprint to the playoffs and a potential push for the Western Conference Finals.
Two teams, both in areas not seen as free agency destinations, were in need of elite talent they can grow and develop a culture with. To make their fan bases fantasize about what may be possible instead of dread what is to come. One of them got what they wanted and more, and between that selection and the work that followed have arguably the brightest future in the NBA because of it. The other is in a sort of limbo, trapped in an unlit uncertainty surrounding a falling star where once there was so much hype and hope.
The New Orleans Pelicans won the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery. But the Memphis Grizzlies won the days that have followed.
That is why today the Grizzlies welcome you to the dark, whereas the Pelicans long for a light that increasingly appears to have faded away.