MikeCheck: Grizzlies gaining traction, garnering praise for aggressive NBA draft approach

MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies have positioned themselves as one of the league’s more aggressive and respected front offices as they prepare for another active night at the NBA Draft on Thursday, according to national analysts and insiders.

“They realize who they are…they know where they are…they know the kind of market they’re in,” former NBA executive and ESPN’s Front Office Insider Bobby Marks said of the Grizzlies entering Thursday’s draft. “I just think that how (this leadership group) has operated, how they’ve kind of maneuvered, they’ve got a foundation.”

The Grizzlies take another key step in solidifying that foundation Thursday. The team is expected to make another set of opportunistic moves within and around the draft to continue building alongside franchise cornerstones in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.

In each of the past two years under executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies have either traded up or into the first round of the draft. According to widespread national reports, that trend appears on the verge of continuing for a third straight year with the Grizzlies linked to a massive trade with the New Orleans Pelicans.

I just think that how (this leadership group) has operated, how they’ve kind of maneuvered, they’ve got a foundation.

Bobby Marks

As proposed, the reported deal would involve the Grizzlies trading up from No. 17 to acquire the No. 10 pick and sending center Jonas Valanciunas to the Pelicans in exchange for center Steven Adams and guard Eric Bledsoe. Memphis would also move up 11 spots in the second round to land the No. 40 overall pick as well from New Orleans this year in addition to acquiring a top-10 protected first-round pick in 2022 that is conveyed from the Lakers to the Pelicans.

According to prominent league executives and analysts, a move from No. 17 to No. 10 in this year’s draft is projected to be the difference between landing a developmental or back-end rotation player and the chance to snag a sure starter and potential star.

Most reputable NBA mock drafts project the likely top-10 prospects to be, in no particular order; Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham, G-League standout forwards Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, Southern Cal center Evan Mobley, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, Florida State swingman Scottie Barnes, Connecticut guard James Bouknight, Arkansas wing Moses Moody, Michigan forward Franz Wagner and Australian guard Josh Giddey.

The Grizzlies advanced to the playoffs for the first time in four years this past season with the NBA’s youngest rotation. And they enter Thursday’s draft potentially aligned with as many as six first-round picks over a three-year span. Kleiman and his staff are stocked with capital to venture forward in an intriguing youth movement or utilize draft assets in potential trades to ultimately round out the roster with established veterans.

Ja Morant dunking in the playoffs
SALT LAKE CITY, UT – MAY 26: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket during the game against the Utah Jazz during Round 1, Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images.

For Memphis, the options appear as endless as the team’s upside.

“We’ve been very disciplined and intentional this whole time,” Kleiman said recently as his focus shifted from the Grizzlies first-round playoff appearance to the draft, free agency and summer league. “We want to keep progressing. It’s not always a linear path. We want to keep pushing forward. We have a massive belief in this core group of guys. I’m excited to be in this seat and have the opportunity to build this out with the long-term goal of winning a championship here. And that’s what’s always going to drive our decision-making.”

As it relates to where the Grizzlies potentially line up with Thursday’s talent pool, ESPN senior draft analyst Mike Schmitz believes Memphis will be operating in prime real estate. Theoretically, the Grizzlies could use size and depth at the big guard or small forward spots to plug between a blossoming point guard in Morant and a healthy and hungry Jackson.

Schmitz suggested the likes of Moody, Wagner or Giddey could be available with the 10th pick, and could each fit the sort of needs a team such as the Grizzlies might have in this draft.

We want to keep progressing. It’s not always a linear path. We want to keep pushing forward. We have a massive belief in this core group of guys. I’m excited to be in this seat and have the opportunity to build this out with the long-term goal of winning a championship here. And that’s what’s always going to drive our decision-making.

Zach Kleiman

“Moving up from 17 to 10 is a big jump in this draft, honestly,” Schmitz told Grind City Media on the eve of the draft. “Maybe you can take a swing on a guy who has more upside, but you go from getting probably a rotation guy to a potential starter at No. 10. That’s how deep this draft is. You have stars at the top, like we’ve continued to talk about. But whether it’s Josh Giddey, Franz Wagner, Corey Kispert or Moses Moody, all those guys have starter potential in the NBA. So it’s a sizeable jump and a good move for Memphis overall.”

The Grizzlies are establishing a track record of success regardless of where they pick in the draft. In recent years, they’ve identified quality fits for coach Taylor Jenkins’ system and maneuvered however necessary to acquire those targeted players.

Brandon Clarke and Ja Morant against the Heat
MEMPHIS, TN – MARCH 17: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies react to a play during the game against the Miami Heat. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Two years ago, that meant trading up to the No. 21 pick to select forward Brandon Clarke to pair with Morant, who was taken No. 2 overall. Morant was named NBA Rookie of the Year, and Clarke was also a first-team NBA All-Rookie pick. Last year, Kleiman’s front-office team executed a draft-night trade to move into the first round to grab sharpshooting guard Desmond Bane with the No. 30 pick. Early in the second round, Memphis selected forward Xavier Tillman.

Bane finished his rookie season as the most prolific three-point shooter in last year’s draft class. Tillman earned regular rotation minutes, including 12 starts, to help fill the void up front as Jackson recovered from knee surgery before returning for the season’s final month.

In all, four of the last six players the Grizzlies drafted ended up on the NBA’s All-Rookie teams. The goal is to continue to build the right way, and draft success is a key component of the plan.

Maybe you can take a swing on a guy who has more upside, but you go from getting probably a rotation guy to a potential starter at No. 10. That’s how deep this draft is. You have stars at the top, like we’ve continued to talk about. But whether it’s Josh Giddey, Franz Wagner, Corey Kispert or Moses Moody, all those guys have starter potential in the NBA. So it’s a sizeable jump and a good move for Memphis overall.

Mike Schmitz

“They know kind of where they are on their timeline,” Marks said. “I’ll steal a baking analogy. The cake isn’t cooked yet – the cake is still in the oven, and we still have maybe another year to go before this team is…like we talk about a Phoenix (jump) like one of these top-four teams. They’re a really good team with another year of development. They know their focus is on their younger players in Jaren and Ja, and then you just kind of fill in the gaps from there.”

At this rate of aggressive moves and draft success, Memphis won’t have many more gaps to fill.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.