MikeCheck: Morant’s rise amid Grizzlies breakout season garners starting role as NBA All-Star

MEMPHIS – Moments after the Grizzlies conquered the Cavaliers earlier this month during a franchise-best 11-game winning streak, Ja Morant stood beneath the basket in Cleveland’s arena and scanned the court one more time as he departed.

“Gotta get comfortable,” Morant half-jokingly responded during his postgame interview with the Grizzlies television broadcast.

The prospect of Morant returning to Cleveland a month later as an NBA All-Star was palpable. Now, it’s promised. Sparked by gravity-defying highlights in a breakout season, Morant was officially voted a Western Conference All-Star starter Thursday, securing his spot alongside the NBA’s elite stars for the Feb. 20 showcase game at Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

This announcement was hardly a surprise. Morant, 22, emerged second in fan votes among Western Conference guards behind Golden State’s Steph Curry. In addition to the fan voting, Morant’s spot was essentially certified by a vote of NBA players and a panel of media members.

In other words, fans across the globe – Morant is seventh in NBA jersey sales – as well as fellow NBA players and media members saw the same thing in Memphis’ catalyst that Grizzlies fans witness night in and night out. And that’s the rapid evolution of a budding NBA superstar this season.

Morant will become the first guard in Grizzlies history to play in an All-Star game, and he follows Marc Gasol as the second player in franchise history voted as a starter. Statistically, Morant was a lock to garner this recognition. But the best characteristic of his game is his leadership, including an awareness to preach that his candidacy as an All-Star is predicated on the fact that his team has blossomed as one of the biggest NBA stories of the season.

“When I was out, they kept it going,” Morant said recently of the 10-2 stretch the Grizzlies posted during his absence to recover from a knee injury. “That next-man-up mentality makes us different. That allowed me to come back, fit back in and continue to play at a very high level.”

The Grizzlies (33-17) sit atop the Southwest Division and are third in the Western Conference standings. They’re off to second-best start in franchise history through 50 games.

And Morant leads the way on a team filled with performers who have received league-wide recognition. Morant is the lone player this season named Western Conference player of the week over consecutive weeks. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins was named Western Conference coach of the month for December, and forward Jaren Jackson Jr. received the league’s community assist award for his efforts over the holiday season.

That next-man-up mentality makes us different. That allowed me to come back, fit back in and continue to play at a very high level.

Ja Morant

On the court, the Grizzlies rank among the NBA’s leaders in steals, points in the paint, second-chance points, turnovers forced and points off turnovers. Their efforts over the past two months forged a massive turnaround after Memphis ranked at the bottom of the league in defensive rating earlier in the season. The Grizzlies now enter the weekend one of only four teams in the league ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating.

And with Morant’s dunks, clutch plays and scoring binges going viral each night, the Grizzlies have delivered some of their most impressive work with a 24-8 record since Thanksgiving. They’ve beaten the Lakers and Warriors twice and have also notched impressive road wins recently over the Suns and Nets.

Jenkins referred to the opportunity to coach Morant as a blessing these past three seasons since he was selected No. 2 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Ja Morant and Taylor Jenkins
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 23: Head coach Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies talks with his player Ja Morant #12 against the Golden State Warriors. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

Watching Morant elevate to All-Star starter status has lifted an entire franchise.

“He’s an unbelievable talent, unbelievable person,” Jenkins said of Morant. “Just to have another coach on the floor, to have similar wavelengths going through our brains, when we’re out there competing between the lines, it’s very special. He’s growing up year after year. He’s putting in the work, and it’s just so fun to watch because there are still untapped parts of his game that he’s just still exploring.”

What the Grizzlies are doing this season is no fluke. Consider it encouraging evidence that the foundation is set. And the franchise catalyst is firmly in place, just really getting started.

“He’s a special individual who means just so much to me and our team, but especially to this city,” Jenkins said of Morant. “Hopefully this will be a great run for many, many years.”

Just to have another coach on the floor, to have similar wavelengths going through our brains, when we’re out there competing between the lines, it’s very special. He’s growing up year after year. He’s putting in the work, and it’s just so fun to watch because there are still untapped parts of his game that he’s just still exploring.

Taylor Jenkins

Morant’s most prolific run of production came in the weeks leading to Thursday’s All-Star announcement. The Grizzlies just returned from a four-game trip in which Morant averaged 36.8 points, 8.5 assists and 8.0 rebounds while spearheading a team that recently has been without as many as four of its top eight scorers and its head coach.

As has been the case most of the season, Morant has seamlessly taken on more of a scoring and leadership role. As a result, he ranks eighth in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating (25.37) and 10th in scoring average (25.8).

Morant has also coped with his own adversity along the way. After scoring 41 points in Wednesday’s win in San Antonio, Morant dedicated the performance to his ailing grandmother and and then returned to his parents’ hometown to watch the All-Star announcement at her side.

“I just had to lock in,” Morant said of pushing through tears at one stage of an emotional game. “My mom told me (my grandmother) wanted me to be here (playing). If anybody knows my grandma, she wants me to play and wants to be able to watch me.”

Her grandson’s Grizzlies have been must-watch TV all season. Now, he’s officially an NBA All-Star starter.

At this rate, stay tuned for Morant’s next starring role on the All-NBA Team.

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.

Lang’s World: The Georgia Bulldogs are good enough, after all

I did not believe.

Let’s start right there. On Monday night, the Georgia Bulldogs beat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the college football National Championship Game, to win UGA’s first title in 41 years.

But yeah, in retrospect, I’ll admit it: I did not believe.

In whom did I not believe? Well, there’s a long list.

First and foremost, Stetson Bennett: I did not think the former walk-on was a good enough quarterback to lead the Georgia Bulldogs to a National Championship. He certainly has an inspirational story, but a great background tale is traditionally not enough to beat the devil himself, Nick Saban.

I also did not believe that Kirby Smart was a good enough football coach to defeat Nick Saban. After all, Kirby Smart had lost four straight times to Saban, and didn’t really seem to be any closer to solving that puzzle than he had been four years ago, when Saban last beat UGA in a title game. Smart is undeniably a gifted recruiter, but he has not been able to get his football team past Saban’s.

Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning had recently been hired as the head coach at Oregon, but I didn’t believe that he was any closer to understanding how to stop Alabama than he had been 37 days ago when Bama put up 41 points against this vaunted Dawgs defense.

Zamir White? George Pickens? William Poole? Dan Jackson? AD Mitchell? All terrific players, who contributed to UGA being 13-1 heading into the National Championship game. But were they the kind of players who would help UGA win their first title in 41 seasons?

Well, I didn’t believe that they were. In fact, I didn’t think UGA was going to beat Alabama in the National Championship game. Perhaps this was a conditioned response to years of Alabama beating UGA, but in the days leading up to the game, I found myself at peace with the thought of Alabama beating UGA. There is an order to life, after all, and Georgia losing to Nick Saban’s Alabama teams just seemed like part of that natural order.

I also had trouble believing because I’d been hurt before. I still clearly remember 2017, and I remember 2012. I remember Eric Zeier and Jacob Eason and all the QBs who were supposed to lead us to titles. As someone who has rooted for the University of Georgia Bulldogs for my entire life, I was led to believe that we just weren’t good enough.

And the Dawgs certainly began the game like they were outmatched. On the opening drive, Stetson Bennett fumbled (and recovered) the ball, then drew a delay of game penalty before UGA was forced to punt. Better warm up JT Daniels, our five-star back-up QB, I thought. When UGA had 6 points at halftime, I once again thought about Daniels and wondered if he would get a chance.

The good news, at least for UGA, was that they blitzed the Tide early and often, and continued to bring it throughout the night. It was a simple adjustment, one even a pedestrian like myself noted might be prudent, and it turned out to be correct—when Bryce Young was on the run, he struggled to complete passes. Once Jameson Williams went down with a torn ACL, the Tide seemed even shorter on options to stretch the field.

(I understand that Alabama was already without wide receiver John Metchie III, and then they lost Williams. Yet I find it hard to believe that a team with a top three recruiting class year after year after year only has two wide receivers who are any good on their depth chart. But I digress…)

UGA opened the second half with another punt, and I was really getting antsy. UGA’s defense was playing well, holding Alabama to field goals whenever they reached the red zone. UGA got an interception and took over inside the 50, but had to punt again. This much I knew for sure: Stetson Bennett was not good enough. Kirby Smart wasn’t going to take Bennett out. And UGA was not going to beat Alabama.

Then UGA ran the ball four plays in a row and went 80 yards for a TD. Alabama ripped off 9 points to go ahead 18-13.

Which was when Stetson Bennett turned into Aaron Rodgers, leading UGA on consecutive TD drives (one 75 yards, one 62 yards) to go up 26-18. I didn’t think he had it in him. I didn’t believe. But Bennett believed.

Stetson Bennett celebrating

In the waning moments, when Kelee Ringo picked off Bryce Young and weaved his way to the end zone, running 79 yards for a TD, putting UGA up for good, 33-18, I stood in my mancave and silently danced in a little circle. In that moment, I thought about the symmetry of Ringo wearing number 5, like Garrison Hearst wore back when I attended UGA, and like DB Damian Swann wore a decade ago. I thought about all the other players who have come and gone without winning a title. I thought about all the time I spent on that campus, all the days I spent wandering around downtown Athens, wondering what I was going to make out of my life. And I realized that it was happening. UGA was actually going to win a National Championship. I sat back down on the couch and smiled and felt a little woozy.

Your favorite teams aren’t supposed to win titles every year. Championships are the rarest of achievements, built through years or even decades of work. Alabama could go one hundred years without winning another title, and I would feel no sympathy. You aren’t supposed to get six titles in 13 years, or whatever it is that Saban has done at Alabama, or what Jordan did in Chicago, or what Wooden did at UCLA. Maybe you have an incredible circumstance and get back-to-back rings or something like that, but for the most part, a championship is an incredibly rare and precious thing.

Which is why we cherish the sensation the way we do. That’s why we cry when our teams win, it’s why we hug strangers and high five random people because of the t-shirt they’re wearing. It’s why I got a million text messages and DMs on Monday night, and it’s why I’ve been making intermittent barking noises in public over the last few days.

It was a journey to get here, but finally, my college football team won it all. And now I’m sitting in my office, listening to R.E.M. (shoutout Athens) the morning after the Georgia Bulldogs finally beat Nick Saban to win a National Championship. What a time to be alive.

Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof.

Lang’s World: Alabama, Georgia, and rat poison

It started with a squirrel.

A few months back, one day we heard what sounded like a scratching noise coming from inside the eaves over our garage entrance. Well, I thought, I guess we have a critter in there. My wife, an aspirant naturalist, immediately told me that under no circumstances would we call an animal control specialist to remove the little beast. It must need shelter, she reasoned. Why else would it colonize our home? And since the eaves isn’t actually attached to our home, how much damage could it do?

A few days later, my neighbor texted me a video of the squirrel poking his head out of his forced entrance hole on the edge of the eaves. The squirrel was calmly looking up and down the street, surveying the neighborhood like Tony Soprano wearing a bathrobe at the end of his driveway. This is ridiculous, I thought.

A few weeks later, I woke in the middle of the night and heard the squirrel scratching against the interior wall that separates the eaves from the actual house. A day later, an animal control expert we had to pay dearly rousted the squirrel, sealed the hole and set a trap in case Lil Tony Soprano managed to return. If we’d just dealt with it at the beginning, maybe we would have avoided the cash expense? Letting it linger only caused problems.

The squirrel seemed to move on, perhaps to a roomier home in the suburbs, but literally one day later, I was outside the back door of our house when I saw a small brown mouse dart past me toward a weep hole in the foundation. Nah, I thought, there’s no way he’s going into the house. We’ve lived here for almost five years, and we’ve never had a problem with rodents. Now they’re all coming after me at once, like I’m Doctor Doolittle?

A day later, I opened the pantry and found several packages of food chewed through, and the bottom shelf sprinkled festively with tiny turds. After cleaning up the party detritus, I found a slim gap in the back of the pantry, which we taped over until we could manage to seal it more effectively. A day later, the tape was chewed through, and a different shelf had been turded.

Immediately, I drove to Home Depot and picked up a half dozen glue traps, as well as some of that expandable hardening foam stuff I could use to fill his entryway. But first, before filling the hole, I baited the traps with peanut butter and chocolate and left them in the pantry. A few hours later, while I was at work, my wife reached out.

“The mouse is stuck on the trap,” she texted.

“Great,” I responded. “I’ll be home in a bit.”

“I’m putting it in a box in the laundry room. Our son is in love with him, by the way. He’s super cute.”

“I’m going to kill it,” I said.

It had taken me a while to reach this moment, but I was at a breaking point. I had done my best to be understanding, to forgive and accept, to respect life and nature. But in doing all of those things, I was losing. I was ready to win. It was time for me to win.

Next week, my Georgia Bulldogs will take on the Alabama Crimson Tide in the college football National Championship game. The Dawgs are currently 3-point favorites in the game.

Alabama has beaten UGA seven straight times, which includes Tua coming off the bench four years ago to throw a game-winning score in UGA’s last trip to the National Championship game. Of course, those seven games stretch past the beginning of the Kirby Smart era, as Smart himself is on the hook for just four of those losses against Saban. It feels like it stretches back forever: My son was born nine years ago, and we were discharged from the hospital just as Aaron Murray led UGA on a final, fruitless drive down the field against Alabama in the SEC Championship.

For years now, Alabama coach Nick Saban has called media attention “rat poison,” but after Alabama beat Georgia in the SEC Championship game a few weeks ago, he spun “rat poison” in a different direction. “The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal,” Saban said, “but the rat poison that you put this week was yummy.”

Kirby Smart and Nick Saban handshake

It was a strange analogy, and his delivery made it a bit creepy, but I think what Saban meant was all the experts and pundits predicting an Alabama loss were feeding into the underdog narrative Saban was selling to his squad. (How in the world Nick Saban convinced his team of defending national champs and five-star recruits and a Heisman winner that they were the underdogs in any matchup is another column altogether.) What’s really wild is Saban had Alabama believing they were the underdogs, and that tactic worked and they won, and now this week they’re playing the same team that they beat before, and somehow now they actually are underdogs!

I love the Dawgs, but I don’t know if I believe UGA can actually beat Bama. A large part of the blame for Georgia’s recent failures has fallen at the feet of QB Stetson Bennett, who is 0-2 when he starts against Alabama. At the same time, EVERY QUARTERBACK who has started against Alabama over the last three seasons has gone a total of 3-37. Beating Alabama is really, really, really hard, and there’s no shame in Bennett failing at the two chances he’s had to defeat the Tide. Would backup QB JT Daniels be a better option for the Dawgs? Perhaps – you could argue he wouldn’t do any worse than Bennett has done — but Bennett was terrific last week against Michigan (20-30, 313 yds, 3 TDs/0 INTs), and it’s hard to believe there’s anyone in the UGA quarterback room who is any hotter than Bennett at the moment.

Perhaps UGA is favored because Alabama will be without WR John Metchie, who helped Bama torch UGA’s secondary in the last matchup. But Alabama has plenty of fine receivers, and that “next man up” mentality is particularly applicable at a school loaded with five-star recruits.

The only way I think UGA stands a chance is if they try and speed up Alabama QB Bryce Young. During the SEC Championship loss, UGA seemed content to sit back and let Young pick them apart. And so he did. As Seth Emerson wrote in The Athletic

“Yes, Georgia did use plenty of four-man rushes: By my count on re-watch, 22 of Young’s 48 dropbacks saw Georgia only rush four, while there was also one three-man rush. Almost all of Alabama’s big plays came out of those. Meanwhile, there were 12 five- or six-man rushes, and they went much better. There were also 14 other passes where the ball got out so quickly it either wasn’t evident how many rushed or it didn’t matter.

The results: Young was 13-for-19 for 297 yards and three touchdowns when Georgia rushed four or fewer defenders. When Georgia rushed five or more, Young was 1-for-11 for 24 yards. So…yeah, pretty stark.”

Alabama is great because they drill down on whatever your weakness is and they relentlessly attack that weakness. Against UGA they passed down the field. Last week, against a smaller Cincinnati team with a good secondary, Alabama ran for over 300 yards on their way to a blowout win.

Bryce Young vs. Cincinnati

Alabama hits you where it hurts. Now it’s up to UGA to be prepared for that possibility. It’s been a long haul for UGA to get to where they are this week, and they’ve got the mouse (the elephant?) cornered. Instead of poison, however, perhaps this time they’ll try a glue trap? A wooden trap? Anything other than rat poison. We’ve seen how Nick Saban loves rat poison.

By the way, I got home from work and found myself summarily overruled regarding the mouse. My wife and son had rescued him from the glue trap and placed him in a shoebox. My son and I then drove to a field a few miles away and released the mouse, where he cautiously stumbled out of the box and trotted off into the tall grass. As my son and I drove away, I started doing the math in my head, trying to figure out how long it might take that mouse to make it back to my house for another all-he-can-squeak buffet.

To be honest, I am totally expecting that mouse to show back up at my house in a day or so. We removed our pest from the equation, but we didn’t take him out when we had the chance. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Nick Saban, it’s that you have to take advantage of that opportunity when it’s presented.

Because otherwise, the rat can start to enjoy the poison.

Lang’s World: The College Football Season That Was

Normally we spend this week, unceremoniously wedged between Christmas and New Year’s Day, tuning into random bowl games that take place during weekday afternoons. This year, however, that seems to be a descending opportunity, as bowl games are getting canceled left and right due to health and safety protocols.

So, as we cross our fingers and wait for the bigger games to come around on December 31, I took the last week to reflect on the college football season that was. Things still aren’t the way they were before COVID, but this season seemed closer to what we’ve experienced in the past.

And as always in college football, there was plenty of weird stuff to go around.

MVP: The Transfer Portal

I don’t think anything has had as significant an effect on college football this season as the transfer portal. Players no longer have to wait a season to change schools, and as such, we are seeing tons of big names leave big schools and change the competitive balance. It has made college football way more interesting, as we’ve seen literally dozens of players the last two weeks switch teams like they’re playing NCAA 14. Does it make life harder for coaches and school administrators? Probably. Does it make college football more interesting for fans? Yeah, I think it does.

Least Interesting Development: NIL Money

For so long, opponents of the free-market system warned everyone that if we started allowing college football players to make money, college football as we knew it would be a disaster. So, this year we started allowing college football players to capitalize on their fame by signed licensing deals, and guess what? Nothing really changed. I mean, I guess some players made more money than they would have cleared under the cafeteria table, but it didn’t fundamentally change the playing field in college football. I know, some haters are still hanging in there, pointing to Florida State losing the number one recruit in the country, Travis Hunter, who flipped to Deion Sanders and Jackson State, perhaps because of some potential NIL money. But if Florida State is losing players because they can make more NIL cash at other places, doesn’t that mean Florida State isn’t playing things the right way?

Player of the Year: Bryce Young

Bryce Young was supposed to be the next Michael Vick, a wildly athletic QB who would continue Alabama’s dominance. But after a start that was closer to Marcus Vick, Young got going as the season went along, and I guess we can give this nod to Young. He led the Crimson Tide through a topsy-turvy season that ended, as it always seems to do for Nick Saban, with a trip to the playoffs. While his season was similarly topsy turvy, Bryce Young was the best player in arguably the biggest college football game this season, when Alabama bested UGA in the SEC Championship Game. There were other players who were probably more integral to their team’s success, and did it with less help surrounding them—Matt Corral in Oxford comes to mind immediately, as does Kenny Pickett at Pitt—but Young was good enough.

Video of the Year

I thought a lot about all the videos that went viral this season, but man, I don’t know if there was anything as emotional or heart-wrenching as this video from the Texas A&M upset over Alabama. With two seconds left on the clock, Aggies kicker Seth Small came on to attempt a field goal to knock off the number one team in the country. Smartly, videographer Cam Worthy smartly spun around and shot this video of Small’s parents and wife experiencing all of the feels as he entered the game and then drilled the game winner. When Small’s wife hopped the railing to run on the field, I felt like running out there also.

Upset of the year: Wait, Kansas beat Texas?

Kansas has been hapless at football for as long as I can remember. Despite a few attempts at halfhearted flashy reboots—Les Miles! Charlie Weis!—Kansas has never been able to get things on the right track long enough to make any sort of tangible impact. The most recent person in the coaching lineage is Lance Leipold, who won his opener against South Dakota, and then lost 8 straight games. For his tenth game? Leipold and Kansas knocked off friggin’ Texas in overtime, 57-56. Now, Kansas has defeated Texas before, back in 2016, but the two teams scored a combined 45 points in that game. To see the Jayhawks beat the Longhorns while lighting up the scoreboard was unbelievable.

Quote Of The Year

There were a lot of weird moments in press conferences and on the fields following games, but the one moment I’ll likely remember the longest came just before Halloween, when Mississippi State coach Mike Leach was asked about Halloween candy. Leach delivered a reasoned, deeply considered treatise on various varieties, flavors and types of Halloween candies. I particularly liked how he handled the question so seriously, as though he’d been asked about a late-game play call or something actually related to the game they literally just finished playing.

Quote of the Year Runner-Up

Let’s stay in the SEC and check in with Alabama’s Nick Saban, who went on his coach’s show and bashed fans who were upset that Alabama wasn’t blowing teams out.

To me, the best part of this video was the way the fans—the very fans Saban is talking about, for what it’s worth—cheer Saban on after each sentence, like the crowd at a WWE show.

Win of the Year: Michigan beating OSU

All things considered, Michigan and Ohio State occupy relatively similar positions when it comes to their places in the college football firmament. They’re both powerhouses in the middle of the country, who have each won plenty of national titles over the years. They have anchored the Big 10 forever, and together they provide sort of a counterbalance to the SEC’s college football weight. But all of that said, Ohio State has owned Michigan for a while now. Before this season, Michigan had beaten Ohio State just once over the last 17 seasons. Current Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was 0-6 against the Buckeyes, which produced plenty of grumbles across the Great Lakes. And then finally, it happened. This year Michigan finally knocked off OSU, and they did it decisively, 42-27. The only rivalry I could think of that would have produced a more seismic win would have been if UGA finally beat Alabama. But that hasn’t happened. Yet.

Oddest News Story: The Mike Gundy email leak?

This was such a weird story, and it went away about as quickly as it flashed across social media. Oklahoma State had a really good season, finishing 11-2 and being in the college football playoff hunt right up until the end, losing by literal inches in the Big 12 championship game. OSU coach Mike Gundy, meanwhile, kept the Cowboys in the hunt, and kept himself in the picture also, as usual, by being glib and forthcoming in interviews. But a few weeks ago, as the Florida Gators stumbled through their season and fired coach Dan Mullen, someone reached out to the Gators to pitch Mike Gundy as a possible successor. This kind of stuff happens routinely, certainly, but it’s rare that we actually get to see the pitch emails.

The strangest part to me was in the aftermath, when Gundy claimed he had no idea that any of this was happening, adding that he doesn’t even have an agent. (I guess this was just some random person who pitched Gundy to Florida?)

Florida passed on the unsolicited advice and hired Billy Napier, but either way, it worked out pretty well for Gundy: A few weeks ago he got a raise and a contract extension from Oklahoma State.

How Will We Remember This Season?

Will this be the season that we remember Alabama showing a sliver of vulnerability? Tennessee fans throwing golf balls and crap at Lane Kiffin? Harbaugh finally beating the Buckeyes? Brian Kelly becoming a Southerner overnight

To me, this will be the year of college football coaches becoming fallable. I wrote about it in November,

and it only got worse after may column. By my count, 28 colleges have hired new coaches since the season started, and bowl season isn’t even over yet! I don’t feel much sympathy for these coaches who have been ousted — they are all extremely well-compensated, and they all get into the business with the knowledge that one day they’ll most likely lose their job. It says a lot that college football’s biggest moment west of the Mississippi this season was probably USC hiring Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma. For so long, college football players were the ones who always seemed to have to take the fall. Thanks to the transfers and NILs, maybe coaches will be the ones to have to take some responsibility from now on.

MikeCheck: Grizzlies channel ‘Z-Bo’ type grit while grinding through resurgent defensive stretch

MEMPHIS – Still gasping for air moments after arguably the Grizzlies’ biggest win of the season, Jaren Jackson Jr. had two priorities as he placed a huge home victory over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers into proper perspective.

First, Jackson saluted the festive fans at FedExForum for the spark they provided to push the Grizzlies to that 108-95 triumph after they overcame an early deficit to ultimately pull away.

And then, with the full sense of Thursday’s accomplishment yet to set in, Jackson turned the page to the next big opportunity his franchise and its fans face back in the building on Saturday.

Jaren Jackson Jr. against the Lakers
MEMPHIS, TN – DECEMBER 9: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates a three point basket during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s Z-Bo Day…let’s turn up!” an ecstatic Jackson shouted into the camera as he was interviewed on the court during the Grizzlies postgame broadcast. “Shoutout to Z-Bo. That’s my brother. It says a lot (to beat the Lakers). But we’re going to need the fans for the next one, for sure. This means nothing without the fans.”

Jackson’s call to action comes with the Grizzlies (15-11) amid their best stretch of the season, playing with a brand of rugged and relentless effort synonymous with one of the greatest legends to ever wear the team’s uniform.

The Grizzlies have won six of their last seven games and sit fourth in the Western Conference standings as they enter Saturday’s game against the surprisingly surging Houston Rockets. But that night’s spotlight will shine on beloved former Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph, who will become the franchise’s first player to have his jersey retired and lifted to the rafters.

Jackson considers Randolph his “big brother” in so many ways.

Shoutout to Z-Bo. That’s my brother. It says a lot (to beat the Lakers). But we’re going to need the fans for the next one, for sure. This means nothing without the fans.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Both played at Michigan State under long-time coach Tom Izzo nearly two decades apart.

Both ended up anchoring the power forward position in Memphis for the Grizzlies. Randolph’s bruising, low-post dominance rooted the ‘Grit & Grind’ Grizzlies through the franchise’s most successful stretch in history with seven straight playoff berths, including a trip to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. A two-time NBA All-Star during his 17 seasons, Randolph averaged 16.6 points and 9.1 rebounds in 1,116 games for five teams. His greatest impact – on and off the court – was in Memphis with the Grizzlies for eight seasons from 2009 through 2017.

Randolph embraced everything about his role in Memphis. He thrived at snagging key rebounds and making clutch shots in playoff games. He strived at paying utility bills for disadvantaged Memphis residence and donating pandemic relief resources to Shelby County Schools.

I might cry, man, because I was a statistic, man. I was coming from a bad place. I came from nothing, you know. So, for me to be where I’m at and to accomplish what I did, to get the love every time I come back to Memphis…that kind of genuine love, it don’t always happen like that. You know how it is, man. It’s Grit & Grind for life.

Zach Randolph

When first informed his No. 50 jersey would be retired – as eventually will those of his Core Four teammates Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol – Randolph was overcome with emotion. He could only imagine what he’d feel on that ceremonial night on the court.

That night arrives Saturday in a postgame tribute unlike any ever planned at FedExForum.

“Oh my goodness – a poor kid from Marion, Indiana, came from a poor, single-parent home, the oldest of four siblings, mother on welfare…oh, man. Wow!” Randolph told Grind City Media recently “I might cry, man, because I was a statistic, man. I was coming from a bad place. I came from nothing, you know. So, for me to be where I’m at and to accomplish what I did, to get the love every time I come back to Memphis…that kind of genuine love, it don’t always happen like that. You know how it is, man. It’s Grit & Grind for life.”

Meanwhile, Jackson is currently steering the ‘NxtGen’ Grizzlies through a bit of a renaissance defensively. After ranking last or near the bottom among the NBA’s 30 teams in defensive rating through the season’s first 20 games, the Grizzlies have flipped the script to win six of their last seven games. And of those six wins, they’ve held five opponents below 100 points.

Are we going to play to our standard…and how are we going to continue to find our way over 48 minutes? Obviously (Thursday’s victory) was a standard-type win, something I would definitely point to. But they know me. I’m just going to turn the page to the next one and say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve just got to keep getting better.’

Taylor Jenkins

Memphis entered the weekend ranked No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating since Nov. 28. That surge was capped by Thursday’s performance when the Grizzlies recorded a season-high 18 steals and scored 27 points off 22 Los Angeles turnovers. The Grizzlies are back ranked among the league’s leaders in steals, rebounds and deflections – all categories they excelled in last season.

Remarkably, they’ve done it with several key players sidelined over the past two weeks. Franchise catalyst and leading scorer Ja Morant remains out with a knee injury and veteran swingman and defensive stopper Dillon Brooks is currently in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Productive reserves Brandon Clarke and Ziaire Williams are also out with injuries.

Yet the resilient Grizzlies continue to find a way to push forward with collective effort.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, where you’re playing, what happened the games before and all of that stuff,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of his team’s recent turnaround. “Are we going to play to our standard…and how are we going to continue to find our way over 48 minutes? Obviously (Thursday’s victory) was a standard-type win, something I would definitely point to. But they know me. I’m just going to turn the page to the next one and say, ‘Hey guys, we’ve just got to keep getting better.’”

That sounds exactly like something Randolph would say after a big performance.

Fittingly for the Grizzlies, that next one comes Saturday – Z-Bo Day.

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.

Lang’s World: All Hail Saban

The moment I knew the University of Georgia was in serious trouble against the Alabama Crimson Tide came with 12:25 remaining in the second quarter of the SEC Championship Game. UGA was leading 10-7. Alabama had the ball, but a holding call had backed them up near their own end zone. On first and 20, quarterback Bryce Young dropped back and lofted a spiral high into the air down the left sideline.

Thanks to a fortunate turn of events, I had been gifted two tickets to the SEC Championship game. We were sitting twenty-two rows up behind the Georgia bench, nearly perpendicular to the goal line. When Young threw that pass, it looked as though he was throwing the ball directly to me. The ball stayed up in the air forever, spinning and spinning tightly, and while the ball hovered I had time to look down at the field to see Alabama WR John Metchie III busting it down the sideline. I then shifted my eyes to the left a bit in time to see UGA safety Dan Jackson, who was apparently supposed to be defending Metchie on the play, stumbling along a few yards behind Metchie. Well, I thought, that isn’t promising.

Sure enough, the ball fell out of the sky and landed perfectly in Metchie’s hands for a 40-yard gain. And that was when I knew. As vaunted as UGA’s defense had been all season, Jackson was a walk-on back-up player, who saw a lot of playing time this season filling in for injured safety Christopher Smith. Of course, that didn’t really matter much, because UGA led late in every game this season, and opposing quarterbacks never had the time or wherewithal to stand calmly in the pocket and find their receivers. But the UGA secondary was not going to be able to keep up with Metchie and Jameson Williams.

UGA didn’t seem to want to blitz Bryce Young, despite that working when Texas A&M and Auburn played Bama, and when UGA did bring pressure they quickly lost contain and let Bryce Young do Bryce Young things outside the pocket. Once Bama got the lead in the second quarter, and scored on five consecutive possessions, UGA’s offense was exposed as being the afterthought we knew that it was all season long.

Bryce Young throwing a pass

Alabama may not be the team they were in seasons past, but they were good enough. The Tide shored up the offensive line just long enough to give Bryce Young time to get the ball out. They ran a variety of quick passes to the sides, and even outschemed UGA by splitting their backs out wide as a decoy, essentially taking UGA’s top linebacker Nakobe Dean out of plays altogether.

You dared doubt the Tide? You doubted Nick Saban?

Perhaps you’ve heard that the Disney+ streaming service recently debuted Get Back, a documentary about the greatest rock band of all-time, The Beatles. I was never a Beatles obsessive as a kid, but as I grew older and started to learn to read music and play instruments and played in bands, I appreciated them more and more, particularly as I began to understand just how impactful The Beatles were.

Still, I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy Get Back, once it showed up on Disney+. I’ve enjoyed many rock documentaries—The History of the Eagles was my previous favorite, and I don’t even like the Eagles—mostly because I enjoy drama and creativity. But no band matches The Beatles in terms of scope and breadth and just the sheer number of hits. And this footage is astonishing. Visually, it’s clear and vibrant, with cheerful splashes of color on the walls. I love the vase of yellow flowers on the riser in front of Ringo’s kick drum, and the shaggy fur coats the guys routinely show up wearing for rehearsals. There’s probably more smoking in just the first part of Get Back than in every other Disney+ video combined.

Yet it’s the content of Get Back that has enthralled me. To see one of the most prolific bands of all-time on deadline, trying to write new music, resonated loud and clear with me. I’m sitting here right now, with a deadline ahead of me, trying to write this column. And just like The Beatles, apparently, I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to actually produce new material, as we see them go to lengths to avoid actually finishing new music.

While there is an interesting narrative thread—George Harrison decides he’s had enough of being a third wheel to Lennon/McCartney, and he quits the band at a crucial time, just as they’re prepping for a big concert—it’s watching these creators create and work on their craft that I loved. Getting to watch Lennon and McCartney actually brainstorm song lyrics? Watching George Harrison help Lennon figure out the bass line to “Let It Be?” Stunning stuff.

One of my big takeaways so far is that if Paul McCartney wasn’t a Beatle, I’m not sure the Let It Be album would have happened. So many people in and around the band seem to be focused on the wrong things, such as when George Harrison walks out, and the documentary director tries to pivot the discussion to the search for an upcoming concert venue. “It’s just…,” he says, “I just think we ought to have a good location.” (To which longtime Beatles producer George Martin blithely responds, “Location isn’t really our main problem at the moment.”)

Whenever things seem to be getting off track, McCartney is the one who seems to figure out how to get them headed in the right direction. Whenever one of their managers or producers or helpers needs an answer, they all head to Paul first. When a song’s arrangement is out of kilter, Paul seems to have a helpful suggestion.

When I was watching Get Back, I kept thinking about how being in a band is similar to being a member of a sports team. If you want success, it requires work, discipline, and above all, sacrifice. It also requires someone to be in charge, the mastermind who lays down the blueprint everyone else believes in and follows.

Nick Saban on the sideline

Nick Saban, I believe, is Paul McCartney. Yes the Tide were shaky for most of the season, but he did whatever he needed to do, and all of a sudden Alabama looks great. The line provided enough time for Bryce Young to throw the ball. Alabama had a banged up running back group, but they deployed their backs strategically, and it was enough, just enough, to make UGA have to account for them.

Why does Nick Saban get the credit? Because of another reality show: A few years ago, ESPN aired a program called “Rollin’ With the Tide,” which I wrote about at the time. Saban was the opposite of a magnetic personality — he seemed alternately meek and glum — but he put the right people in the positions to have the right results. And I don’t know how else you can explain Alabama’s success, not only in the past but this weekend, other than as a result of Saban’s processes.

On Saturday, as all of us UGA fans silently filed out of Mercedes Benz Stadium into the cool Atlanta night, there was a bit of relief. UGA may have lost the SEC Championship, but they would get another crack at the National Championship. Would Kirby Smart ever pick the right quarterback, or would the 7-0 JT Daniels continue to ride the bench? That worry would last until another day. On this night, Alabama showed the world why they’ve been considered The Beatles of college football.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from Nick Saban, it’s that success requires adherence to process. You have to keep the main thing the main thing. And in real time, this is rarely exciting. But it works. Does it ever.

It took him an entire season, but Nick Saban finally helped Alabama get back to where they once belonged.

Lang’s World: Five college football faces in new places

It was just over a week ago when I wrote a column about how being a college football coach didn’t seem like it was all it seemed to be. Coaches were getting fired left and right, and even those who weren’t being shown the door were having the heat turned up, some after just one or two seasons on the job.

And then things got weirder. More coaches either left or got fired, which means more jobs are open, which means even more coaches will leave their current gigs. It’s a wild, vicious cycle, and for those of us who are fans of college football, it’s become an integral part of the sport.

Later this week, several teams will square off for their conference championships, and we’ll finally get a final four so we can stop arguing about that. Before we get there, though, let’s take a look at my top five faces who’ve popped up in new places.

Billy Napier, Florida

Wait, Florida hired the Oxi-Clean guy?

Hey, anytime you can hire a guy who dominated the Sun Belt Conference, you have to make that move.

You know, it really does feel fitting for the University of Florida to have a head coach named “Billy.”

OK, OK, I’m trolling. And look, as a UGA fan, this is one of the few times over the last few decades that I’ve been able to pick at the Gators, who have been really good for a really long time. I thought Dan Mullen was going to be the guy to take Florida to the next level, but he didn’t seem to be able to get out of his own way. (Tying himself to Todd Grantham also turned out to be more of an anchor than a life preserver.)

I think Billy Napier is going to do really well at Florida. He’ll recruit better than Mullen, and he really couldn’t do worse at managing players and relationships and expectations than Dan Mullen.

(Of course, I also thought Mullen would do a great job at Florida, so…)

Billy Napier on the sideline

Sonny Dykes, TCU

Other than Sonny Dykes sounding exactly like the name of a coach who should be coaching college football in Texas, what does he bring to the table? Well, we saw Dykes field some offense-first teams while he was at SMU, and presumably that will transfer to TCU, where they’ve been a team that trusted their defense for so long now, even as college football trended the other direction.

Can he help TCU become a Big 12 power? With Texas and Oklahoma jumping ship to the SEC, perhaps that window is open more than it seemed like previously.

Lincoln Riley, USC

It’s hard to fault USC for going after Lincoln Riley. After all, there is an entire generation of potential college football players who have no memory of USC being a college football power. They won a title in 2004, and since then it’s been a slow decline into mediocrity. The problem is, USC fans and boosters haven’t forgotten. Clay Helton just went 46-24 over the last six seasons, and it wasn’t good enough. If you look at the names of the coaches that have been at USC since 2004, there are some heavyweights in there: Carroll; Orgeron; Kiffin; Sarkisian.

The problem is, the college football axis of power has shifted since 2004. All the best teams and players are in the Southeast, and USC has increasingly found itself on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, Southern California is producing a lot of great football players, and many of them are leaving and playing elsewhere. Perhaps Lincoln Riley can bring his high-powered offense to the West Coast and make it a nice place to be. But if his defenses are as consistently bad as they were at Oklahoma, it won’t really matter who is the coach at USC.

Was Riley afraid of playing in the SEC? It sure seems that way, like perhaps there was too much competition playing on the field and recruiting in living rooms. Even if his reasons for leaving were purely altruistic, Riley steps into a situation where it should be much easier to win than it was at OU.

Clay Helton, Georgia Southern

I know, nobody really cares about this hire, but I think this is a great move for a school like Georgia Southern, which competes around the fringes in the South. Helton was good at USC, even if he wasn’t great, and nobody is expecting Georgia Southern to return to their dominant days of when Erk Russell was head-butting linemen in helmets. For a school like Georgia Southern, a coach like Helton can move the needle. And with so many other coaches struggling to make any noise at all, perhaps a coach like Helton at a school like Georgia Southern could be a perfect fit.

Brian Kelly, LSU

This one really came out of left field. Ever since Ed Orgeron announced he was packing up and heading for Destin, I’ve heard dozens of names thrown around as possible replacements. But Brian Kelly? A 60-year-old guy who never coached outside the Upper Midwest, whose last bowl win at Notre Dame was the 2019 Camping World Bowl? That’s y’alls man?

Don’t get me wrong: Kelly will like do an above-average job, and for a guy who has a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth, following in the footsteps of Les Miles is a pretty safe place to be. I don’t think he’ll be able to recruit at the level of a Saban or Smart, but he’ll do about as good of a job as Jimbo Fisher is doing at Texas A&M.

Meh. Geaux Tigers.

Lang’s World: Giving Thanks for not being a College Football Coach

Every year on Thanksgiving, my Mom prefaces the big meal by making each family member offer a reason (or reasons) that we are thankful on that day. As a kid, this was nothing more than a speed bump on the road to turkey, dressing and gravy.

These days, now that I am several decades older, I understand and can even relish the exercise. Giving thanks is a worthwhile endeavor, at any time, and perhaps being forced to be circumspect isn’t such a bad thing after all.

This year, I am thankful that I am not a college football coach. Because buddy, it is tougher than ever to keep a job on a college sideline.

Florida fans have been sick of Dan Mullen for weeks now, perhaps understandably, despite Mullen taking the Gators to the SEC Championship game not even a year ago. After losing to South Carolina a few weeks back, Mullen fired his longtime defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, presumably in an attempt to improve the defense. Florida responded by promptly giving up 52 points against Samford. This week they lost in overtime to Missouri, who were 5-5 coming into the game.

  • On Sunday, Dan Mullen was fired. Florida reportedly still owes him $12 million.

  • Texas coach Steve Sarkisian is finding out what the hot seat feels not even a full year into his tenure in Austin, after the mighty Longhorns lost to friggin’ Kansas, 57-56. (Sark, of course, replaced Tom Herman, who got fired after going 22-13 in four seasons at Texas.)

  • Gary Patterson, who actually has a statue of himself on the TCU campus, was fired by TCU.

  • Washington fired head coach Jimmy Lake last week, who didn’t even make it through two seasons but was still above water, with an overall record of 7-6.

  • Ed Orgeron got bounced at LSU after winning a national title two years ago.

  • Texas Tech fired coach Matt Wells, who had a 5-3 record at the time.

Matt Wells on the Texas Tech sideline

  • Nick Rolovich is out at Washington State, mostly because he wouldn’t get vaccinated.

  • USC fired Clay Helton two games into their season.

  • Butch Davis has apparently been out at FIU for weeks, even though we all just recently found out.

  • Troy fired Chip Lindsey before he could complete his third season.

  • Georgia Southern fired their coach and hired a new one all during this season. (Texas Tech and UConn also hired permanent new coaches before the season was finished.)

  • Former Memphis coach Justin Fuente was reportedly sitting on a very hot seat at Virginia Tech, but before I could finish writing this column, he, too, was shown the door.

And it don’t stop. There are plenty of familiar names who may be safe for now, but who are in no way completely out of the woods. Just last week, Oklahoma lost their first game of the season(!), and Twitter was ready to run coach Lincoln Riley out of Norman. Scott Frost is keeping his gig at Nebraska, but the team fired four of his offensive coaches, even though they still have a few games remaining on their schedule. Plenty of people in South Florida seem ready to move on from Manny Diaz, but Miami’s athletic director got fired before anything could happen to Diaz. Penn State’s James Franklin has seemingly been linked to every open job this season, even though the Nittany Lions are just three games over .500 and recently lost a 9-OT game where they somehow scored only 19 points. And rumors are circulating around Herm Edwards at Arizona State, Chip Kelly at UCLA, and even here in Memphis, where if you listen hard enough you can hear people grumbling about Ryan Silverfield.

Heck, after Alabama beat Arkansas on Saturday, even Nick Saban was taking so much heat that he was trending on Twitter. After a win!

We’ve seen coaches get canned before, but looking through this list, it sure seems as though it’s tougher than ever to keep a college football coaching gig.


Well, losing doesn’t help. Even when a coach gets fired just a few years in, such as with Dan Mullen in Gainesville, there are usually a few red flags flying high before we ever get to that final moment. Expectations are higher than ever, regardless of how realistic they may be. Even considering how short many of these tenures have been, I don’t think any of these coaches can claim they were surprised when the axe fell.

And while losing is clearly a big part of it, it’s not the only thing. Mullen won some big games, but falling to teams like South Carolina and Missouri (in the same season!) are unacceptable for a school that fancies itself as fancy as Florida does. But what was probably just as damaging to Mullen was Florida’s seeming failure at recruiting.

Was Florida actually doing a bad job recruiting? Well, that’s all subjective. Some players who have low ratings from the recruiting services turn out to be great players. Still, one metric had the Gators’ current recruiting class ranked ninth in the SEC, and whether or not that was accurate, it was a number that fans could point to as a failure metric. (And at least one player from that class de-committed when Mullen got canned.) Recruiting is taking more and more of a central position in all this mess, as fans use these random recruiting rankings as some sort of measure of how effective their coach has been when they aren’t coaching. Because other than the actual games, these days recruiting is one of the only quantifiable games.

Ed Orgeron coaching for LSU

And that drifts into how coaches need to engage their bases. Ed Orgeron didn’t have a stellar resume when he ascended to the top spot at LSU, but with his funky voice and Cajun pedigree, Orgeron certainly seemed like an LSU guy. Fans loved him, until LSU started losing more than they won, and then, rather quickly, it no longer mattered how humorous Orgeron’s voice sounded.

(You could also probably make a case that the stakes are higher than ever for coaches thanks to the NIL rights players are now being paid. The success of a coach now has a direct monetary connection to the success of his players, and that can and will affect recruiting. I don’t think any of the coaching changes we’ve seen this season are specifically tied to this, but I won’t be surprised when this starts being talked about.)

And let’s be clear, none of these coaches went into this unaware of this scenario. Other than very few situations, when any college coach steps onto campus for the first time, there are high expectations, and a ticking clock. It’s not ideal, but it comes with the territory.

College football is the ultimate venue where recency bias combines with winning and losing to ask, over and over, “What have you done for me lately?”

If it isn’t enough, you might find yourself giving thanks without a job this holiday season.

Hey, we’ll save you a plate.

MikeCheck: Brooks boosting Grizzlies on both ends of floor amid impactful return from injury

There’s not a more mentally strong or confident player on the Grizzlies roster – and perhaps in the entire NBA – than Dillon Brooks.

Just ask Dillon Brooks.

But even the Grizzlies fifth-year swingman emerged from a pregame workout a week ago with plenty of uncertainty. He wondered how long it would take for him to regain his form after missing the season’s first month to recover from a broken hand he sustained over the summer.

Despite making it back in time to participate in training camp, Brooks was sidelined again after further exams revealed more time was needed for the hand to properly heal. So instead of opening the season in late October with his teammates, Brooks didn’t make his debut until nearly a month later, with the Grizzlies on the verge of four losses in a five-game stretch.

Simply put: Brooks is trying to make up for lost time at a delicate point in the season.

Dillon Brooks driving to the basket
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – NOVEMBER 10: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies goes to the basket against Cody Martin #11 of the Charlotte Hornets during the second half at FedExForum. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images.

“The biggest hurdle is just catching up, wondering, ‘How can I make an imprint? How can I make a difference on the floor?’” Brooks said ahead of the Grizzlies two-game trip that starts Saturday against Minnesota. “Every night, being 11 games behind, it’s a hurdle trying to figure my way through the offense and defense, figuring out what I can do to make both sides better.”

With Brooks back and regaining rhythm with each game, his imprint is having a definitive impact on the Grizzlies. Through four games this season, the 6-foot-7 small forward is averaging 19.3 points, three rebounds and 1.3 steals in 26.5 minutes. And it didn’t take long for Brooks to find his shooting touch, considering he’s converting at a 46-percent clip from the field overall and 44.4-percent from three-point range.

But what’s been most impressive about Brooks is the how effective and efficient the team has been when he’s on the floor. In Thursday’s 12-point home win over the Clippers, Brooks played 27 minutes and led the Grizzlies with a plus-22 rating in plus-minus impact while contributing 18 points and serving as the primary defender on All-NBA forward Paul George.

Every night, being 11 games behind, it’s a hurdle trying to figure my way through the offense and defense, figuring out what I can do to make both sides better.

Dillon Brooks

In his previous outing on Monday, Brooks was a plus-31 in plus-minus over 23 minutes on the court during a 136-102 rout of the Rockets. Teammates and coaches are seeing incremental progress overall defensively this week after a sluggish start to the season.

The expectation now is that with two days of practice time, in addition to the boost of consecutive victories, the Grizzlies can gradually improve an overall defensive rating that sits 29th among 30 NBA teams. With Brooks healthy as the team’s unquestioned swagger catalyst and perimeter defensive standout, there soon should be tangible evidence of a turnaround.

“One of Dillon’s great strengths, among multiple strengths, is his defensive intensity, execution and pure abilities,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We don’t have him to his normal substitution pattern just yet. But it’s going to give us a lot of versatility, having him. I’ve gained a lot of confidence with Dillon out to start the season, to see what Kyle Anderson can do with certain personnel, (and) what bigger wings like Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton have shown us. But now, when you have multiple guys and Brooks getting a bulk of that share, we have more depth throughout the game to give us a lot more defense intensity.”

Dillon Brooks guarding Paul George
MEMPHIS, TN – NOVEMBER 18: Paul George #13 of the Los Angeles Clippers is defended by Dillon Brooks #24 of the Memphis Grizzlies. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Few players in the league embrace their defensive role with the level of intensity Brooks brings to the court each night. Five seasons into his NBA career, Brooks is still motivated by having slipped to the 45th overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NBA Draft after a decorated college career as PAC-12 Player of the Year out of Oregon.

As the longest-tenured member of the Grizzlies, Brooks has played for three different head coaches. He’s seen the roster transform from a veteran-laden group anchored by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to one now fueled by 22-year-old stars in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant.

Brooks is midway through a three-year contract extension that allowed him to solidify a starting role as well as give the Grizzlies one of the best return-on-investment deals in the league.

We don’t have him to his normal substitution pattern just yet. But it’s going to give us a lot of versatility, having him. I’ve gained a lot of confidence with Dillon out to start the season, to see what Kyle Anderson can do with certain personnel, (and) what bigger wings like Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton have shown us. But now, when you have multiple guys and Brooks getting a bulk of that share, we have more depth throughout the game to give us a lot more defense intensity.

Taylor Jenkins

The two-game trip is symbolic for Brooks because it wraps up with the Grizzlies facing the Jazz on Monday in Salt Lake City. The Grizzlies return for the first time since they lost last season to the top-seeded Jazz in five games during a breakthrough postseason run after the Grizzlies won the NBA’s Play-In Tournament to secure the No. 8 seed.

At the end of last season, Brooks was a key reason why the Grizzlies pushed through to become the youngest team in a decade to advance to the NBA playoffs. In that series against the Jazz, Brooks significantly increased his regular-season production to average 25.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals while shooting 52.8-percent from the field and 42.9-percent on threes.

As a result, Brooks garnered league-wide attention as one of the NBA’s best young two-way players, equally capable of impacting a game on offense and defense.

Returning to Salt Lake City on Monday is a reminder of the form to which Brooks seeks to reclaim in helping the Grizzlies reach their potential this season.

“My whole thing is to be patient. I know I want to get back to where I was locked in at the end of last year, but I have to be really diligent,” Brooks said. “I’ve put in the work to earn that respect and to have that voice out there to be a leader on that end of the floor for my teammates, be that dog out there to lead us defensively and set the tone.”

Brooks is confident it’s only a matter of time before all the pieces fit together again.

Jenkins saw flashes of that elite wing defense in Thursday’s win against the Clippers, particularly how well Brooks approached the assignment of containing George. In the second game of the season with Brooks out of the lineup, George matched his season high with 15 made shots to finish with 41 points on Oct. 23 in a 120-114 home loss. On Thursday, George was limited to 23 points and never got the Clippers really clicking in a game they trailed by as many as 20.

I’ve put in the work to earn that respect and to have that voice out there to be a leader on that end of the floor for my teammates, be that dog out there to lead us defensively and set the tone.

Dillon Brooks

“Dillon relishes the opportunities to guard some of the best offensive players in the game (and) I thought when he was on Paul George his discipline was phenomenal,” Jenkins said. “(Brooks) had a good offensive game tonight, but when he puts that effort forward defensively, it filters throughout the team, and everyone feels that. I’m glad Dillon is back and continues to work his way back into full game shape. I’m proud of what he’s done so far.”

Brooks insists the steps forward he’s taken this week only mark the start of his journey back to peak production. Breaking his hand in a random injury during an offseason workout only delayed the momentum he anticipated carrying into this season. His feel for the game, however, is returning with each game he’s on the court.

“It’s been a rough one, but it’s made me grow as a person and it’s made me even more hungry to play this season as well as I can,” Brooks said of the injury and recovery process. “But I feel good; my hand feels great. I feel like I’m getting a little more wind and conditioning with each of these games. I’m having great balance on my shot, playing with great pace and just keeping my teammates involved as I work my way back to where I want to be.”

His impactful feel for the game, however, is growing each time he steps on the court.

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.

Lang’s World: College Football Winners and Losers

We have hit Week Ten of the college football season, about to turn into the final third of the season, and right when you think you’re getting things figured out, suddenly you don’t know anything. This weekend was nuts, with four top 15 teams catching an L, and a bunch of other teams that I felt pretty confident running with either not covering or just straight up losing.

So, I thought this would be another good week to look at some college football winners and losers. And the more I looked at my notes, the more I realized we may have more losers than winners on our hands.

WINNER: Stetson Bennett IV

What if I told you that the number one team in the country would be quarterbacked by a two-star prospect who was a walk on, who just months ago lost his starting job to a Heisman Trophy candidate in JT Daniels? And despite UGA having a roster jammed with top prospects, including at least three other highly-touted QBs, somehow Stetson Bennett appears to have solidified his hold on the starting job.

He hasn’t been flashy, but man has Bennett been effective. Two weeks ago versus Florida, Bennett completed just 10 passes, but UGA won 34-7. This week against Missouri, Bennett completed a whopping 13 passes, but UGA won 43-6. This is like Trent Dilfer when he was on the Ravens. More than anything, Bennett limits mistakes and puts UGA’s lights-out defense in a position to carry this team. I still think Daniels is the better player, but right now the best team in college football has a quarterback who probably won’t get selected in the NFL Draft.

Never give up on your dreams, kids.

Stetson Bennett

LOSER: Cincinnati

Cincy made a lot of noise last week when the College Football Playoff rankings were announced and the undefeated Bearcats were not among the top four teams. Did they win at Notre Dame? Sure, and it was a good win! But this week they eked out a win over a 3-5 Tulsa team, while one of the few teams that could burnish Cincy’s strength of schedule down the road, SMU, lost to Memphis.

How does Cincy move on up? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Alabama drop a spot or two this week, particularly after struggling against LSU and running for only 6(!) yards. Michigan State caught an L this week, giving every team in the Big 10 at least one loss, and I still think Oklahoma is probably more deserving to make the Final Four than Cincy. But perhaps the best way for the Bearcats to climb the rankings would be just dominating the games they have remaining. Sweating out wins against bad teams does not a compelling argument make.

LOSER: Dan Mullen

The Florida Gators are two-thirds of the way through the season and are under .500, with a 4-5 record. After creating a QB controversy by not playing his most talented QB (Anthony Richardson) early in the season, Florida coach Dan Mullen acquiesced and stuck Richardson in the starting lineup two weeks ago against UGA. It began well, until UGA preyed on Richardson for 21 straight points just before halftime, and then coasted to a 34-7 win. Still, it seemed like something Richardson could build on going forward, perhaps giving Florida some hope. And then this week, with Richardson out after injuring his knee dancing at the team hotel, Florida got crushed by a bumbling South Carolina team, 40-17.

It was a stunning result, honestly. Florida was favored by 18 points! Mullen responded by firing his offensive line coach and, more significantly, his defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who hasn’t been good for years. But putting the blame on Grantham isn’t completely fair—Florida has been a turnover machine on offense, no matter who was in at QB.

All of this comes on the heels of Mullen refusing to talk recruiting at last week’s press conference, which eventually led to all media availability being canceled.

BTW, Dan Mullen just received a three-year contract extension heading into this season. LOL.

Dan Mullen

WINNER: Tennessee

Just a few weeks ago, it sure seemed as though the Vols were treading water. Tennessee got off to a 2-2 start, and after the tortured coaching search that ended up with Josh Heupel at the helm, I was worried about how this would play out long term.

Since then, though, the Vols have gone 3-2 against SEC opponents, but more importantly, they have scored an average of 40.4 points per game, which would seem to suggest they’re getting some stuff figured out in Knoxville. (Making Hendon Hooker the starter at QB was clearly a good start.)

Tennessee plays Georgia this week, so why not test the Vols right away?

LOSERS: Liberty and Ole Miss

I was pretty excited for this matchup last weekend, with two of the more explosive offenses in college football facing off. Of course, it was deeper than that, as Liberty coach Hugh Freeze was formerly the coach at Ole Miss, until the whole football program was swept up in scandal and Freeze was frozen out. But Freeze rose again in the hills of Virginia at the venerable Liberty University, where he’s built a team that has managed to crack the Top 25 the last few seasons.

I figured Freeze would keep it close, scoring a lot of point while looking for some sort of vague retribution. This would Liberty’s chance to show they could compete against the big boys! But Ole Miss scored the first 24 points in the game, and then coasted to a 27-14 win. So much for Liberty getting to that next level.

But then Ole Miss went and did something very Ole Miss, and they started making fun of Freeze on their official Twitter account.

I could see maybe one tweet making a joke about Liberty football or something, but making fun of Freeze being in a hospital bed? Making fun of what Freeze said when people were looking into impropriety AT OLE MISS? I guess Ole Miss is gonna Ole Miss, no matter what.