MikeCheck: As season opener looms, growth-minded Grizzlies preparing to ‘protect the culture’

CHICAGO – They’re more than mantras.

Consider them more like guideposts and guardrails to keep the Grizzlies on track. At the start of each of his
three seasons in Memphis as coach, Taylor Jenkins set a clear and definitive tone for the
team’s mission from the outset of training camp. Year one’s task was to ‘build the right way’ as Jenkins took
over as a rookie head coach a few months after changes took shape in the front office and a retooled roster was
developing.

Going into his second season last year, Jenkins and the Grizzlies set out to ‘fortify the foundation.’ And after
delivering the franchise’s first winning record and playoff berth in four years – with the NBA’s youngest
playing rotation – the next objective is in place.

“Protect the culture,” Jenkins surmised as he looked ahead to the start of his third season with the Grizzlies.
“There’s growth in a lot of areas, and the chemistry within this team is showing a lot. Coming into Year 3,
you’re wondering about retention areas from one year to the next. But I feel guys are accelerating a lot with
some of the things we ended the season with last year. Our guys are more quickly getting to the things we need
to as we get closer to opening night.”

The Grizzlies entered the weekend having concluded their six-game preseason slate with Friday’s loss in Chicago
against the Bulls. Behind them is a productive and encouraging three weeks of training camp and
exhibitions that showed strides made in key areas as well as some challenges that will be addressed moving
forward.

There’s growth in a lot of areas, and the chemistry within this team is showing a lot. Coming into Year 3,
you’re wondering about retention areas from one year to the next. But I feel guys are accelerating a lot
with some of the things we ended the season with last year. Our guys are more quickly getting to the things
we need to as we get closer to opening night.

Taylor Jenkins

But more than anything else, there’s a sustainable culture in place. And Jenkins has seen franchise cornerstones
in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant work to protect what’s been established.
Along the way, newcomers such as veteran Steven Adams and rookie lottery pick Ziaire
Williams
have seamlessly stepped into that culture as ideal fits for the present and future.

After regrouping through the weekend, the Grizzlies will gear up for Wednesday’s season and home opener at
FedExForum against the Cavaliers. Then comes a difficult four-game West trip with matchups against the Clippers
and Lakers on a back-to-back set and ends with another two-games-in-as-many-nights slate against the Blazers and
Warriors.

In all, eight of the Grizzlies’ first nine games this season are against teams that made the playoffs last season
or were in the NBA’s play-in tournament. But even as they maintain a methodical development approach overall,
the Grizzlies emerged from the preseason with the postseason mentality to pick up where they left off six months
ago.

ja maront highfive teammates
Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbles the ball
past Lonzo Ball #2 and Nikola Vucevic #9 of the Chicago Bulls in the second half during a preseason game at
United Center on October 15, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images.

“We have a lot of guys returning, and the mindset is the same,” Jackson said of capitalizing on the lessons that
culminated in last season’s first-round series against the top-seeded Jazz. “We reached a point last year where
we achieved some of the things that were our main goals, like getting to the playoffs. And that was good. But
once you get to that, you’ve got to build off it with other things. We’re not satisfied with that at all. We
have a lot going on here.”

The Grizzlies made progress in several key areas through their preseason preparation.

Morant’s leadership, intensity and production set a tone from the outset. His intentions were clear when he
responded to top basketball executive Zach Kleiman’s assertion on Media Day that Morant would be a certified NBA
All-Star this season.

We reached a point last year where we achieved some of the things that were our main goals, like getting to
the playoffs. And that was good. But once you get to that, you’ve got to build off it with other things.
We’re not satisfied with that at all. We have a lot going on here.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

“I feel he’s telling you all the right thing,” Morant said through a sheepish grin. “Stay tuned.”

Morant then turned in a near-flawless preseason stretch in which he averaged 22.3 points on 63.4-percent shooting
in 24.7 minutes. He also led the NBA in fast break scoring and points in the paint entering Friday’s preseason
finale. Finding ways to mesh with Adams while also rekindling his connection on the court with Jackson were
priorities for Morant.

The result was a two-game stretch in the preseason that saw the Grizzlies obliterate Charlotte and Detroit to
lead by as many as 39 points with Morant, Jackson and Adams all in action. Morant insists the encouraging sample
sizes were a result of the chemistry the group built over weeks of informal workouts when many players got
together on their own well ahead of camp.

Injuries and attrition slowed the process of Morant and Jackson sustaining the on-court bond the franchise hopes
will lead to success well into the future. But they’re ready to blossom now.

“If we all stay healthy, there’s nothing we can’t do,” Morant vowed. “I’m speechless being able to play alongside
a guy like J.J. – it’s good for me. Both of our goals this summer was to work on our bodies. That’s why we were
together so much this summer, to build our chemistry.”

Jenkins sees the results of the initial work put in to protect the culture.

“The guys are super motivated, super locked in,” Jenkins said. “We know it’s a long season and there’s a ton of
work to do. But our guys have that mentality of, ‘We know what we’re capable of doing.’ We know what we’ve got
to get better in, and the priority is to understand where we’re at and the self-motivation needed to approach
the rest of the season.”

I’m speechless being able to play alongside a guy like J.J. – it’s good for me. Both of our goals this summer
was to work on our bodies. That’s why we were together so much this summer, to build our chemistry.

Ja Morant

For the Grizzlies, it’s a culture of chemistry.

It’s a culture of incremental progress.

It’s a culture of competitive growth.

The proper pillars are in place to protect it.

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 Broken ATMs

I am old enough to remember using the ATM back when I was a college student at the University of Georgia. I walk to a row of them right there outside the bookstore, and withdraw $20 at a time. These days you can hardly buy an order of french fries for ten bucks, but back then, twenty dollars was enough for a sumptuous fast food meal outside of the meal plan plus a movie and a couple of games of pool in the Tate Center. This was a big night out for a broke college student. (And then there was the night my friend Mike accidentally added a zero to his ATM order and withdrew $200 instead of $20, which very nearly bankrupted him.)

These days we live in a mostly cash-free society—I can go weeks or months without opening the cash slot in my wallet. Still, the ATM remains, an idea or concept as much as anything practical, a place where we go when we need a little cash to help us along. There’s a deal we make, of course, to get that money. It isn’t free—it’s our money, we just store it away and get it when we need it.

Unless, of course, the ATM is broken, and then it starts just spitting out free money, like something out of a cartoon. That’s the dream, right? Free money?

Well, there are a few college football teams that have essentially been broken ATM’s over the years for those of us who like to drop a few dollars on the games. These are teams that we believe in, that we know no matter how high the line gets, this team has the capability to cover that number.

Here are three of my favorite broken ATMs this season.

Head coach Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs

UGA

When you know, you know, right? It’s not always comfortable to admit it out loud, but most of the time, we know the truth, even if we don’t want to admit it. As a former UGA student, I try to watch their games with a distanced eye, to not allow my personal feelings interfere with the reality of how good UGA may or may not be.

But two weeks ago, I knew. UGA was playing Arkansas, a team that was undefeated at the time, with quality wins over Texas and Texas A&M on their ledger. Meanwhile, UGA was missing their injured starting QB, JT Daniels. I thought this was going to be a real test for the Dawgs, but they came out and ran up a 21-0 lead, and ended up winning 37-0.

My friends, UGA is for real. They are fine on offense, even if Daniels is still nursing a lat injury, but defensively this team is completely locked in. Consider this: They’ve played four SEC opponents, and have given up a total of two touchdowns to those teams. Meanwhile, teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas can’t give up scores fast enough.

More relevantly to this conversation, UGA has covered the spread in four of their last five games, and the one they didn’t cover was against South Carolina, where they missed the cover by just 2.5 points. They’ve had some big spreads, but haven’t had any issues covering — against Vanderbilt the spread was 35 points, and UGA won by friggin’ 62.

This Saturday, UGA hosts an undefeated Kentucky team, and Kentucky fans are, justifiably, riding high for their team. I mean, I got SportsCenter anchors who went to Kentucky talking trash to me on Twitter.

The thing is, Kentucky certainly is good this season. But they aren’t that good, and they’re going to lose to UGA. The line this week is over 20, but I still love the Dawgs to cover every week this season, no matter the number.

IOWA

OK, I realize that I have now told you that it’s worthwhile to bet on the two teams ranked one and two in the country, and you are probably saying, “Thanks a lot, Norman Einstein!” But I tend to think these teams have risen to the top because of the way they’re playing, not that we are betting them because they’re 1 and 2,

ANYWAY, the Hawkeyes opened this season against an Indiana team that, at the time, was highly regarded. Iowa was favored by 3.5 points, and then they won by 28. A week later, Iowa played Iowa State, giving 4.5 points, and won by 10. Since then they’ve rolled, basically, even covering by half a point against a top five Penn State team.

Iowa isn’t a very fun team to watch — they grind it out offensively, and defensively they’ve been solid, but not flashy. But man do they keep covering, week after week. Iowa is 7-1 against the spread in their last 8 games, and this week they host a middling Purdue team and give 12 points. I don’t care — I’m sticking with these Hawkeyes.

Liberty Flames wide receiver CJ Daniels

LIBERTY

By now if you don’t know about Liberty, I don’t know what to tell you. Hugh Freeze was a rising star coach in the SEC, got swept up in a scandal and turned up at Liberty, where he has built a spread-busting machine.

Consider: In their last 14 games, Liberty is 13-1 against the spread. It’s been a remarkable run, and as long as Hugh Freeze is content to stay up there in Virginia and beat up on these overmatched schools, I am content to continue putting money on them week after week, like this week when they are 32 point favorites on the road at Louisiana Monroe. (They’re 8-1 against the spread in their last 9 road games.) Give me Liberty or give me bust!

Lang’s World: College Football Week 5 Winners and Losers

We’ve reached the kinda-sorta one-third mark of the college football season, so let’s zoom out and look at the college football landscape as conference play starts in earnest.

Winner: Nick Saban

I know, I know. Nick Saban is about as exciting as watching grass grow. But the Alabama Crimson Tide, who came into this season having lost their starting QB, RB and WRs, as well as their play caller and a host of defensive starters, have not missed a beat. Their closest call was against a top-ten team in Florida, who they got up big against and hung on to beat by two. But otherwise, the Tide has not seemed troubled. They have a big game this weekend against an explosive Ole Miss offense, then play a reeling Texas A&M, and coast until the end of the season, when they close out against a really good Arkansas and a really weird Auburn.

All of this to say, don’t be shocked if Bama rolls right back to another title. The one weakness you could probably point to might be their offense, which “only” scored 31 against Florida, but assuming they get by Ole Miss, the Tide will have a few weeks to get rolling again.

As always, it’s Nick Saban’s world, we’re just living in it. You don’t need gimmicks or flash or slogans or other stuff. We talked about style vs substance a few weeks ago. What really matters? Just win, baby.

Loser: Spencer Rattler

A few weeks ago, I was fond of referring to Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler as “future Falcons QB Spencer Rattler.” I said that because as a Falcons fan, I knew we were going to be awful this season. And with Matt Ryan in the final year of his megadeal, it has seemed pretty clear as the Falcons were setting up to flip the roster next season, many scouts had Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler at or near the top of their mock drafts.

Then I started watching Rattler play, and… well, I’m still not sold. First of all, he’s small enough that I had to pick up the phone to google his height. According to Wikipedia, Rattler is 6-1. And if he’s 6-1, I’m 7-2. But size can be overlooked, as with Rattler’s predecessors at OU, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray. Yet unlike those two, Rattler doesn’t seem to have the ability (or desire, perhaps) to use his speed to really spread the field. Last week against West Virginia, for instance, Rattler had 9 rushes for 0 yards. Instead, Rattler seems content to stay in the pocket and throw contested darts—last week someone on Twitter referred to him as Rex Grossman, and I nearly spit out my drink.

I could care less that Oklahoma hasn’t looked like a top 10 team, because at the end of the year their defense still isn’t good enough to keep them in games once they play a genuinely tough opponent. But considering the way the QB position in the NFL is trending, having mobility and extending plays with your legs is paramount. I don’t know if Rattler is the right fit for an NFL team looking to reach that next level.

Perhaps I should start referring to “future Falcons quarterback (and Atlanta native!) Malik Willis”?

Spencer Rattler tackled

Winner: Cats and Hogs

If you had told me one year ago at this time that Arkansas and Kentucky would become two of the more compelling teams in the SEC, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are, one year later, with Arkansas sitting pretty at 4-0 (including decisive wins over Texas and Texas A&M), and Kentucky also at 4-0.

Kentucky has played an easier schedule, but they’re 2-0 in the SEC so far, with wins over Mizzou and South Carolina. Last season they spent most of the year running into the line, using a wide receiver at QB. This season they’ve got a vertical offense, and while their win over South Carolina didn’t seem great — turnovers killed them — they still got the win. Most SEC fans probably couldn’t pick Mark Stoops out of a lineup, but to me he’s got Kentucky solidly in that third spot in the SEC East, with room to grow their share. (Well, at least until Texas and Oklahoma arrive and Alabama or Auburn flips sides.)

And I genuinely can’t believe Arkansas is where they are. They were a mess last season, with Feleipe “Ballpark” Franks at QB and coach Sam Pittman running around unifying the fanbase. This season the Razorbacks have a dynamic QB in KJ Jefferson, using an innovative offense that chews up yards on the ground, takes big shots through the air, plus what I think is an underrated defense. I don’t believe they’ve got enough to hang with UGA for sixty minutes this week in Athens (especially with Jefferson injured late last week), but I won’t be surprised if they cover the 18.5 point spread.

Loser: Auburn

What in the name of Gene Chizik is happening on The Plains?

Ever since quarterback Bo Nix won the starting gig a season ago, he has had a tenuous hold on the job. He finally got yanked down the stretch last week against Georgia State, a game Auburn bounced back to win late. In the wake of that near-win over Georgia State, the Tigers fired their wide receivers coach this week, a move which new head coach Bryan Harsin described as “not ideal.”

You know what else seems to be not ideal? Being the head coach at Auburn, where every move is under scrutiny from an overly involved fanbase. It’s still very early in the Harsin era, but remember how many coaches were in the mix for a search that was basically hilarious before Auburn eventually landed on Harsin. Auburn has no shame making a change on the sideline, and while Harsin still has the cover of basically using Gus Malzahn’s players while settling into the job, that clock at Auburn ticks as loud or louder than it does anywhere else.

Bo Nix running

Winner: Presbyterian College Football!

We can forgive you if you don’t know much about Blue Hose football. Heck, I have a relative who teaches there, and I still don’t know much about it, at least historically. But a lot of college football nerds took notice of Presbyterian during the last offseason, when the FCS school hired Kevin Kelley as their head coach. Bring in a high school coach from Arkansas? Yes, but one who is deeply idiosyncratic, in all the best ways. Mostly, Kelley is known as the coach who never punts — he always goes for it on fourth down, figuring the odds will work in his favor. Similarly, he prefers going for two instead of one after scores. Their kickoffs? Usually onside kicks. Sometimes they win big, sometimes they don’t.

In Arkansas, Kelley won a few state titles. Thus far in Clinton, SC, Kelley and Presbyterian have had a wild ride. They opened with an 84-43 win, in which their QB threw 10 TD passes. Since then they’ve levelled out, and currently they have a record of 2-2, which also includes a 72-0 loss.

I don’t know if Kevin Kelley will turn Presbyterian into an FCS powerhouse or use the gig as a springboard to a bigger location, but I’m all for schools who are willing to do things differently.

Lang’s World: Deion Sanders is bringing Jackson State into Prime Time

On Saturday afternoon here in Memphis, Jackson State University squared off against Tennessee State University, in this year’s iteration of the Southern Heritage Classic, a matchup of HBCUs that has been held annually in Memphis since 1990. Jackson State won the game going away, 38-16, thanks in large part to 362 passing yards (and 3 TDs) from QB Shedeur Sanders.

Sanders was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, a top-15 ranked pocket passer who won three Texas state titles, and received scholarship offers from everyone from pretty much every big school in the South, from Alabama to UGA to Florida State.

Yet, Shedeur eventually ended up at Jackson State, a school with about 7,000 total students, the size of the student section at some of those other colleges. And he’s leading JSU through a season where they’re garnering more national attention than they’ve ever received before.

And for that, we can thank Deion Sanders. Excuse me, let’s make that Coach Prime.

Now, Deion Sanders is my favorite athlete of all-time. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise — I grew up in Atlanta, after all, and for a significant portion of my youth, Deion was the most exciting player on the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Falcons, at the same time. I had Deion posters on my wall, and jerseys from all of his teams. When the Falcons eventually let Deion go and he returned to Atlanta as a member of the 49ers, I went to the game, and was there when Deion got into a slap fight with Andre Rison then eventually picked off a pass, ran the length of the field for a touchdown, and pulled a muscle while dancing in the end zone.

I treasured Deion not just from an athletic standpoint, but from a social perspective as well, as Deion high-stepped into a rapidly changing South and basically forced many Atlantans to examine their positions on a lot of things. As Deion told me many years later, “I was a complex black man. Being the first in years to come out and do it the way I did it. And not only that — my game backed up my name. A lot of people who came out like I did didn’t have the guts to back it up. But my game backed it up. So they [the media] said, ‘Shoot, what can we say about this guy? We gotta attack his character. Because we can’t attack his game. We can’t sit him down and put a microphone in front of his face and not have him articulate his way out of it.’ So I could verbally whup ’em and I could physically whup ’em. So they had to attack my character.”

Deion could be a divisive personality, certainly, but that in many ways forced people to publicly take sides. I was (and remain) proudly and unapologetically a Deion stan. What he did was incredible — playing two professional sports at the same time, and doing it at a high level — and no amount of talking or dancing would ever dissuade me from my belief that Prime Time was one of the GOATs.

A few years later after he left Atlanta, I got to interview Deion Sanders. He was not long removed from his playing days, and was working as a pundit for “The NFL on CBS.” I spent a Sunday at the CBS Studios in Midtown Manhattan, following Deion around and asking him about his life and his career. Because I had studied him so obsessively, I was able to query him on some details that he said nobody had ever asked him about before. He always wore his football gloves unbuckled, for instance, so that the little velcro strap would flutter in the breeze. The NFL threatened to fine him, Deion said, unless he wore them closed. Ever the creative problem solver, Deion got the glove company to make him gloves that had two fasteners, one which he could close, plus an extra strap that would hang open. I still wear my glove hanging open to this day when I play golf, my own little tribute to Deion.

Deion Sanders Hall of Fame

A few weeks after that interview, I was sitting at my desk one day when my work phone rang. I answered, and there on the other end of the line was Prime Time himself, calling to say hello and make sure I had everything I needed for the article I was writing. I’d given Deion my business card, but never in a million years expected him to actually proactively reach out to me. Before long we were calling each other regularly, and when Deion would come to New York City each weekend for his CBS duties, he would touch base. At the time, Deion was heavily involved with the ministry of Bishop TD Jakes, and each time I called him, he answered his cell phone with the words, “Praise the Lord.” Not, “Hello,” or, “Hey,” but always “Praise the Lord.” Eventually, after much negotiating with my fiance, I asked Deion to officiate our upcoming wedding. After brief consideration, he gracefully demurred, noting he wasn’t certified to officiate weddings in the state of Georgia.

Our friendship eventually petered out, although I suspect Deion still has the same cell phone number, since it ended with his longtime jersey number 21. While we stopped communicating, I never stopped rooting for Deion, as he returned to pro football with the Ravens, then pivoted back to being a media personality, then started a sports-centric charter school in Texas. These ventures have been met with varying levels of success, but the common theme whenever Deion is involved with anything is that you get the full Deion experience. The personality, the panache, the style — all that stuff is genuine; that’s who Deion has always been. When Deion was leaving Florida State, he showed up for the NFL combine wearing his finest suit. He told me one of the people working at the combine pulled him aside and said, “Sorry sir, no agents are allowed.”

This has been a bit of a stumbling block at some points in his career, as some managers or coaches felt like Deion valued himself over his teams. And maybe he did. But he also helped two teams get Super Bowl rings and made the NFL Hall of Fame. I think the Falcons probably could have used him for longer than four years.

Almost one year ago, Deion announced that God had called him to become a college football coach, and he was going to become the head man at Jackson State, which hadn’t had a winning season since 2013. They had some growing pains out of the gate last season, but this year, with a full complement of transfers and recruits, are off to a strong 2-0 start.

To me, what Deion is doing is remarkable. It still hasn’t been a full year, but he’s already raised the national profile of Jackson State, and he’s building a program where players who want a chance to get to the next level can get that chance with the mentoring of one of the greatest to ever do it. If you want to learn what it takes to make it in the NFL, would you rather learn from Deion Sanders or, say, Shane Beamer or Josh Heupel?

And unless you’re a fan of a school playing against Jackson State, how can you root against what Deion is doing? Do you not want to see young people have the best chance possible to make their dreams come true?

I have no idea if Deion will make a long-term career out of being a football coach, or if this is just some diversion. His track record doesn’t really seem to suggest an ability to focus on any project for too long — see his rap career, for instance — but even if Deion only lasts a few years at Jackson State, that may be enough. Even though he’s only been there twelve months, Deion Sanders is already pushing Jackson State and the SWAC into the Prime Time.

MikeCheck: Sanders, George pushing HBCU football to new heights entering Southern Heritage Classic

MEMPHIS – First, let’s set the record straight right from the start.

Deion Sanders and Eddie George are not – and will not be – saviors of HBCU football.

The coaching legends, eventual Hall of Fame talent, pageantry, legacy and global impact of football at historically black colleges and universities were solidified long before Sanders and George arrived on their respective campuses this year.

The heavy lifting and lane-clearing were already done decades ago by the sacrifices, sweat, blood, tears and triumphs of the likes of Eddie Robinson, John Merritt, Jake Gaither, Bob Hayes, Jackie Slater, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and countless others.

Sanders leads Jackson State and George guides Tennessee State into Saturday’s Southern Heritage Classic at the Liberty Bowl in a game billed as the biggest and most anticipated in the 32-year history of the Classic. It’s all true. The spotlight has never flashed brighter on this game, mainly because of the larger-than-life personalities and resumes of the current coaches.


Coach Prime, as Sanders insists on being called, is a Hall-of-Famer whose spark and flamboyant style on and off the field made him one of the NFL’s greatest players and winners. Social media was made for Sanders. In many ways, he was well ahead of his PrimeTime. And George’s rugged, workmanlike zeal as a bruising All-Pro running back for the Tennessee Titans made him one of the most beloved players on any level among this region’s football fans.

Yet still, despite all the hype and spotlight that will shine on these coaches this weekend, Sanders and George aren’t saviors of HBCU football. No, instead they embrace being much-needed servants of HBCU football. The highest-profiled servants these ranks have ever experienced. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome on the field, both Jackson State and Tennessee State will emerge winners – as will the HBCU sports landscape overall.

What Sanders and George are in the process of doing that’s most important is discovering how to combine their passion with their purpose, respectively. With their resources, exposure, media connections and corporate investments, both former NFL standouts are creating lanes on multiple levels to connect student athletes in and around their programs to pro careers.

ESPN and other major networks will broadcast more HBCU football games this season than ever before. Last week, Jackson State opened with a win over Florida A&M in Miami’s NFL Stadium. Sanders’ former teammate and Hall of Famer Terrell Owens was on the JSU sideline. That was also the case during the spring season when Sanders made his debut in Jackson with a surprise pregame visit from Hall of Fame quarterback and former Cowboys teammate Troy Aikman.

Likewise, George made his coaching debut at TSU last week on the campus of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in the Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic against Grambling. TSU lost the game to Grambling, but one of the victories beyond the final score was seeing two-time former NFL head coach Hue Jackson serving as George’s offensive coordinator.

It’s just enhancing a better system, a better quality of life, a better wholistic approach to what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to advance. When I reach out and say what we need is X, Y, and Z for our players, people step up and do it. And that’s a way we can keep our program sustainable.

Eddie George

Imagine what access to that level of coaching, elite talent and knowledge will do for recruiting, fundraising and exposure for HBCU football. Memphis will be the epicenter of it all this weekend. And it continues a trend of high-profile former athletes lending their names, brands, resources and careers to elevating the quality of education and life on HBCU campuses.

Coaching football and developing players for pro careers represent only a fraction of the job duties Sanders and George have taken on. Their purpose and passion go well beyond that.

“What we both bring are resources we have nationally, that probably wouldn’t come to this university without that,” George said of his commitment to TSU. “It’s just enhancing a better system, a better quality of life, a better wholistic approach to what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to advance. When I reach out and say what we need is X, Y, and Z for our players, people step up and do it. And that’s a way we can keep our program sustainable.”

Sanders shared a similar perspective. His endorsement impact and professional relationships have sparked a paradigm shift at Jackson State, whose facilities and equipment have undergone a massive makeover.

“As long as we keep the standard the standard – I’m pretty sure coach George has a standard there as well,” Sanders said. “We will not compromise that. We will not be complacent with that. You put guys around you who have been there and done that, who can echo that, but also have the affection and affinity to hug and love and embrace these kids. Let’s challenge them to go to the next level. We want the best for these kids. I don’t think they really understand what they have just a phone call or touch away. I don’t think they understand that in its totality.”

Sanders and George are opposites in personality, but completely aligned in vision.

Deion Sanders coaching on the sideline

This weekend, Memphis will showcase what’s on the verge of becoming the epitome of HBCU football. The Southern Heritage Classic will pit two tradition-rich, like-minded programs coached by legendary former NFL players who didn’t need these jobs. Sanders and George instead saw them as mutual investment opportunities. They didn’t need the unique challenges that have hindered traditionally under-resourced, overlooked football programs from a mainstream perspective. Sanders and George are tackling solutions.

HBCUs have always been about providing opportunities that didn’t previously exist.

For Sanders and George, this is a symbiotic relationship.

Jackson State and Tennessee State provide them historic foundations to launch coaching careers on the shoulders of legends. Sanders and George will use their talent, experience and connections to raise HBCU football beyond previous limitations and expectations.

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.

Grizz Gaming: Accepting the End Game

And then it ends. Just like that.

An entire year of working seven days a week—of scouting, of interviewing, of drafting, of building a team, of making calls, of trying to anticipate problems and confronting them before they fester, of scrimmaging and scrimmaging and scrimmaging and scrimmaging, of watching film, of creating content, of paperwork, of making sure every detail is taken care of, and doing it all while navigating a global pandemic. You’re up to your neck in it, and then it all ends. Just like that.

A few days ago in Dallas, season four of Grizz Gaming came to a disappointing halt with a loss in the NBA 2K League playoffs. Grizz Gaming had our best season in franchise history, finishing with an 18-10 regular season record and as the third seed in the Eastern Conference. But then the rug got yanked out from under us.

Seasons have fixed end points—that’s literally what defines a season. They go from pole to pole, from one randomly selected date to another, but there is an arc to them, and we ride that curve and write our own narrative as best we can. For Grizz Gaming, we entered this season with one goal: Make the playoffs. We’d been close, oh so close, but had never gotten over that hump.

This year, however, we did it. We made the postseason, and we won our first game, then lost games two and three, ending our story. We were close in both of those last two games, down single digits in each contest, but we couldn’t narrow the gaps. What went wrong? Plenty. There isn’t one thing I could point to, and to be blunt, some of that blame belongs at my size thirteen Space Hippies, as well. We all could have been better. Because now it’s over. Just like that.

Vandi and Spartan celebrating

And it hurts, it hurts a lot. I wanted to give my guys a quick talk on the bus ride back to the hotel after our elimination, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get the words out without my voice breaking. I don’t know if people understand is what a grind this league is, both physically and mentally. Sure, we are just playing a video game, but winning in the 2K League requires all five players working in sync, at all times. We did the math the other day and figured we must have logged somewhere around 500 scrimmage games over the last few months. You have to lock in and stay locked in for hours at a time, which isn’t as simple as it sounds. It was right around 100 degrees all week in Dallas, and in the room where we played our games, with dozens of people in there and the TV lights on, it was pushing 90 degrees, with no ventilation. (A power outage minutes into our first game didn’t exactly help, either.)

Right now, as I write this, I am completely drained. I am sitting in my hotel room in Dallas, my sweat-soaked clothes and hat from last night’s game in a pile over in the corner. We are a few hours away from our flight home to Memphis, and I’ve spent the last hour filling out spreadsheets to get my guy’s travel booked from Memphis to their actual homes. They each moved to the 901 for the last six months and gave it their everything. They were willing to sacrifice to be part of a bigger whole, and I will forever love each of them for that. There were people off the virtual court who also put in so much work, from Token helping us get ready for the draft, to Lexi, to Sam and Stef, to Corey, to our web team and our video team. From the top down, the Grizzlies organization has been unbelievably supportive of us. And I have to also say thanks to my wife and son, for being so understanding when I basically disappear each summer.

The last few months have been a blur. There’s so much happening outside of the 2K League world right now that I haven’t even had to time to fully process, from the Braves moving into first place to the start of the college football season to the loss of Charlie Watts. I’m looking forward to having time to do some of the things that I enjoy over the next few weeks.

I’m also looking forward to getting back some pieces of me (shouts to Ashlee Simpson). I’m tired of being too nervous to eat before our games, of having a constant low-grade headache on game days, of the perpetual stress of keeping this train on track, of having my mind so filled with things that need to be done that the thoughts spill over onto the Notes app on my phone, lest they be lost forever. We may have lost in the playoffs, but I have become an undisputed world champion at internalizing anxiety while projecting confidence, although this comes with consequences. (One trick I learned this season was instead of sucking on Ricola during games, Rolaids can be helpful.)

Of course, six months from now I’ll forget all of that and be ready to be back at it. Because at the end of it all, there is no feeling as amazing as winning, and there’s no feeling as awful as losing. We learn to live with the losing so that we can experience those blissful winning moments.

It’s hard to understand it’s over until it’s actually over, and it’s equally difficult to accept that we had a great season while we’re still in the shadow of our season-ending loss. At some point, hopefully soon, we’ll be able to laugh about some of the great times this season produced. Right now, we’re still in pain.

You play and you work and you compete, with everything that you’ve got.

Then it ends. Just like that.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

MikeCheck: My ‘5 Can’t Miss Games’ at FedExForum as Grizzlies embark on 2021-22 season

The NBA schedule is out, and it can only mean one thing: the countdown to the first look of the 2021-22 season at the Nxt Gen Grizzlies is officially underway.

Another productive offseason of dealing and development has delivered the Grizzlies to the doorstep of growth as one of the league’s most exciting and compelling young teams.

Anchored by franchise catalysts Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and augmented by retooled roster depth, the Grizzlies aim to build on a breakthrough season. With a 38-34 finish last season, Memphis made the playoffs for the first time in four years and became the youngest team in a decade to reach the postseason.

All the work we put in (last) season to get to the playoffs, it just makes you hungry. We said after our first year and after my second year, we’ve got more work to do, because these guys are ultimate competitors who want to get to the highest level. And it takes work. That’s what’s motivated everything this offseason.

Taylor Jenkins

With a restored 82-game regular season scheduling format back in place, NBA teams are optimistic about returning to form after two seasons of disruptions by a global pandemic. For the Grizzlies, encouraging growth continues as coach Taylor Jenkins enters his third season.

“Experience is everything – it’s the most valuable thing you can gain year in and year out,” said Jenkins, whose team opens training camp late next month. “All the work we put in (last) season to get to the playoffs, it just makes you hungry. We said after our first year and after my second year, we’ve got more work to do, because these guys are ultimate competitors who want to get to the highest level. And it takes work. That’s what’s motivated everything this offseason.”

With the Grizzlies’ 2021-22 schedule set, here are my ‘Five Can’t Miss Games’ at FedExForum:

Oct. 20 – Cavaliers at Grizzlies

Expect plenty of energy and pulsating anticipation entering the Grizzlies’ season and home opener against the Cavaliers. With Morant ready to take the next leap in his game, and with Jackson eager to restore his standout production after returning to full health, the Grizzlies have a great chance to make an opening statement at home on Opening Night. On top of that, this is a matchup of two of the NBA’s explosive young point guards in Morant and Collin Sexton.

Brandon Clarke driving to the basket
MEMPHIS, TN – JANUARY 7: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Dec. 9 – Lakers at Grizzlies

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the Lakers have assembled plenty of aging superstars to make another run at a title. And it shapes up as the ultimate boom-or-bust season for the four future Hall of Famers, who make the first of two December visits to Memphis on this night. In fact, the Grizzlies face the Lakers four times in their first 42 games this season – with the series wrapping up by the second week of January.


Jan. 17 – Bulls at Grizzlies

The Grizzlies host these Bulls on the most important home date of the regular season in the annual MLK Celebration Game. A weekend of inspirational community events culminates once again in a compelling game. Outside of the Lakers, no team in the league revamped their roster more this season by taking huge, risky swings than the Bulls. By trading for Lonzo Ball and adding DeMar DeRozan in free agency, Chicago is going all in to restore itself among the East’s elite.

Ja Morant guarding Zach LaVine
MEMPHIS, TN – APRIL 12: Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball during the game against Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

March 8 – Pelicans at Grizzlies

The Grizzlies play nearly a dozen nationally televised games on TNT, ESPN or NBA TV. Among that group is this tilt with a developing division rival in the Pelicans. Morant and Zion Williamson are the marquee names as the top two picks from the 2019 draft solidify All-Star status. But this game also marks the return of beloved big man Jonas Valanciunas to FedExForum to face his former team after being traded this summer following a career season.


March 26 – Bucks at Grizzlies

The Grizzlies get their lone visit from Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending NBA champs as Jenkins also faces his mentor in Mike Budenholzer. The last time Giannis came to FedExForum, he celebrated teammate Jrue Holiday’s game-winning shot by praising those Memphis lemon-pepper wings in the locker room. The Grizzlies have held their own against the Bucks recently, as the only team with an undefeated record (2-0) in Milwaukee’s new arena.

Dillon Brooks and Giannis Antetokounmpo
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE – MARCH 04: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks goes to the basket against Dillon Brooks #24. Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images.

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.

MikeCheck: On heels of successful summer, Grizzlies set to carry strong chemistry into camp

Scrambling to grasp the Grizzlies concepts after arriving in a trade from Milwaukee, Sam Merrill barely had a practice session with his new team before being tossed into action during a recent summer league game in Las Vegas.

Thankfully, one of Merrill’s new teammates helped pave the way.

“My first game was that Wednesday, and Ja came in and gave me a couple of tips during halftime,” Merrill reflected.

Franchise catalyst Ja Morant wasn’t on the Grizzlies summer league roster. For that matter, nor were Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke or any of the other higher-profile, more experienced veterans from Memphis’ main team.

But Morant’s interaction with Merrill was just one of many examples of the leadership, chemistry and camaraderie that defined the Grizzlies connection on and off the court this month.

In recent weeks, there have been two squads of Grizzlies on display – those young players developing in games through two summer league stints, and those veterans determined to support them from the sidelines every step of the way.

You can tell they care about everyone on the whole team, so the hospitality is there, man. They’re a fun, young group of guys and they’re always laughing. So we were just trying to translate that energy.

Ziaire Williams

The Grizzlies wrapped up play in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League on Monday to finish 3-2 in Las Vegas after going 2-1 in the Salt Lake City Summer League. They finished this phase of development the same way the team started: with key veterans in attendance, eager to help their younger teammates transition to the league.

It isn’t uncommon to see a marquee player or two from each of the 30 NBA teams show up in Vegas to watch from the sidelines. However, few teams showed up night after night essentially en masse like the Grizzlies. With Morant most visible, a core of returning Memphis players were not only fixtures at summer league games, but also contributed to the development process.

“It’s big-time for sure, because they help me and the whole team,” Grizzlies rookie and No. 10 overall lottery pick Ziaire Williams said of having roster vets close by. “You can tell they care about everyone on the whole team, so the hospitality is there, man. They’re a fun, young group of guys and they’re always laughing. So we were just trying to translate that energy.”

The goal is to translate that energy to the next step in the process.

With NBA training camps for the 2021-22 season opening late next month, the Grizzlies are operating this summer like a team that wants to maintain chemistry and momentum. That focus keeps the team maneuvering on multiple fronts this offseason.

While much of their core featuring Morant, Jackson and Brooks remained intact, the Grizzlies made two significant trades that over the past month impacted their depth. Jonas Valanciunas, last season’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, was dealt to New Orleans for the lottery pick that allowed the Grizzlies to draft Williams. That deal also landed the Grizzlies center Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe.

Adams, a playoff-tested veteran during Oklahoma City’s perennial playoff runs with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, is expected to fill much of the interior rebounding and toughness role Valanciunas held. Bledsoe was subsequently dealt again this week to the Clippers in a move that brought guards Pat Beverley, Rajon Rondo and forward Daniel Oturu to Memphis.

He’s going to help our entire group. He’s going to be able to do so many things for us on the offensive end, with our pick-and-roll game, his finishing game. He’s got a great ability to elevate our defense, too. He’s going to add a lot to us, a toughness.

Taylor Jenkins

NBA rules allow teams to carry up to 20 contract players on a roster during the offseason. But that number must be trimmed to a maximum of 15, plus two “two-way” developmental players, for the regular season. The Grizzlies are in the process of finalizing another deal this week to send Beverely to Minnesota to acquire guard Jarrett Culver and Timberwolves big man Juancho Hernangomez. In essence, the Grizzlies appear to have additional roster moves to make, possibly heading into camp but certainly by the start of the regular season.

For now, there’s enthusiasm with the additions the front office has made through the draft and initial trades to solidify the foundation taking shape. With 22-year-old Morant leading the way, the Grizzlies became the youngest team in a decade to advance to the playoffs last season.

While watching the summer league Grizzlies compete in Las Vegas, coach Taylor Jenkins spoke on the value that a player with Adams’ success and experience can add to the mix in Memphis.

“He’s an ultimate competitor, a winner on a lot of different levels and sets a tone on and off the floor, because he’s such a great leader,” Jenkins said of Adams, who also spent time in Vegas with his new team recently. “He’s going to help our entire group. He’s going to be able to do so many things for us on the offensive end, with our pick-and-roll game, his finishing game. He’s got a great ability to elevate our defense, too. He’s going to add a lot to us, a toughness.”

While the Grizzlies front office worked to shore up the roster for the coming season, the coaching staff prioritized putting the team’s promising young players in position to improve.

Xavier Tillman high fiving teammates
LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 11: Xavier Tillman Sr. #2 of Memphis Grizzlies high fives his teammate during the game against the Miami Heat during the 2021 Las Vegas Summer League. Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images.

Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman built on strong rookie campaigns last season by taking the next step to round out their respective games in both summer leagues. Both played two games apiece in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, with Bane shifting from his natural shooting guard spot to the point to improve his overall playmaking.

Last season’s leader among all NBA rookies in three-point shooting, Bane averaged 24 points on 69-percent shooting from three-point range in his final two games in Las Vegas. He also averaged four assists, with three turnovers as he sorted through growing pains at point guard.

But that’s basically what summer schooling is all about in the Grizzlies’ development program.

Tillman was arguably one of the most versatile and productive players in the Vegas league, averaging 14.5 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and 1.5 blocks in two games. Both players were in Jenkins’ rotation last season, and should again provide productive depth.

“They’re playing with bigger roles and they’re trying to get the ball more in their hands to gain experience in those situations,” Grizzlies summer league coach Darko Rajakovic said of Bane and Tillman. “In summer league, you’re going to have good decisions and bad decisions, but this opportunity allows them to continue to grow. It means so much to those guys. They’re very vocal and they own it. This is the opportunity to make the next jump in their careers.”

The Grizzlies also got promising contributions from their incoming rookie class. Williams showed flashes of the athleticism, slashing and an ability to be disruptive defensively that led to Memphis moving up in the lottery to target the 6-foot-8 swingman who turns 20 next month.

In summer league, you’re going to have good decisions and bad decisions, but this opportunity allows them to continue to grow. It means so much to those guys. They’re very vocal and they own it. This is the opportunity to make the next jump in their careers.

Darko Rajakovic

The Grizzlies will be patient with progress, but Williams know what’s expected from Day One.

“Really just to play hard, be a threat offensively and defensively, and cause havoc,” said Williams, who scored double figures in three of his four Vegas games. “I know how coach Jenkins is really big on defense, and I know my defense is going to take me where I want to be as the games go on. I’ll get more confident, get more of a feel for it and get more on pace.”

After some initial stumbles, No. 30 overall pick Santi Aldama also found his summer stride.

Aldama struggled with his shot early in Vegas after traveling directly from his native Spain the previous week. But the 6-11 forward delivered his best game in his final outing on Sunday, when he finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 26 minutes.

“It’s a learning experience just to play games here and get used to the NBA world,” Aldama said. “I have to take it step by step. The staff has been good with me, just helping me out. We have to have patience and get ready for what is coming.”

What’s coming is a brief respite before the complete roster gathers in Memphis in a few weeks to start workouts ahead of camp. Even as the roster transitions, there won’t be many strangers when it’s time to show up for work again.

That’s also what summer league support is all about in the Grizzlies’ development program.

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.

Grizz Gaming: Mission Accomplished, but Plenty of Work Left

As the sun rose on Thursday morning, I rolled over in bed, and the first thing my wife said to me was, “Well, how does it feel?”

She didn’t specify a topic, but I knew what she was talking about: Twelve hours earlier, Grizz Gaming had finished our 2021 season in the NBA 2K League with a 2-0 sweep over Raptors Uprising. The wins locked us into the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and left our record at 18-10 for the regular season. This was our best finish in franchise history, and the first playoff appearance in franchise history.

I felt a range of emotions, but more than anything, it felt validating. We’d been so close for so long, finishing one game out of the playoffs for each of our first three seasons. As I’ve said before, it would make you shake your head and laugh if it wasn’t so ridiculous. But the truth is, at the end of the season it doesn’t matter if you finished one game or one hundred games out of the playoffs—either you’re in or you’re out.

From day one of this season, our goal has been making the playoffs. To be honest, that’s been our goal every season, but it wasn’t until this year that I was willing to say it out loud. Previously, we worked and we fought, sure, but I kept our goals private. This season, I took a page from Oprah: I would try to speak our goal into existence. What else did we have to lose?

So when we started the scouting process heading into this season, each time that our retained players (Vandi and Authentic) and scout (Token) and I spoke to potential draftees, I made clear that it was playoffs or bust.

It helped that I finally felt like I was getting closer to figuring out this 2K League coaching thing. Almost every coach in the League has some kind of history in the 2K community, except for me. So I’ve spent the last four years playing catch-up, learning animations and coverages and badges, while trying to keep us winning games.

But the real reason we won two-thirds of our games this season? We have a great team. It’s simple and obvious, but sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer. The group of players we have on our roster right now are six great 2K players, who more importantly have all bought into the team concept. They understand the value of sacrifice, of putting team over self. That’s not a lesson I’ve had to teach them, which makes it even more satisfying.

We got off to a 9-1 start to our season, and everything seemed to be trending in the right direction. Then things swung the other way, when we had a stretch against our toughest competition, and to be honest, we stumbled, going 3-8. But we buckled down and fought back, making some adjustments and finding our way forward. And wouldn’t you know it, we managed to win 6 of our last 7 games, on the way to that 18-10 record, and the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The other thing most people will never understand is just how much work is involved. We practice seven days a week, for about five hours per day. That means all summer long, when my son is out of school, I’m at work every day. It would probably be easy for me to set up some scrimmages and let the guys come in and scrim without me, but that doesn’t seem right to me. If they’re going to work, I’m going to be there with them. That sacrifice is what makes us a team, a unit. These guys have done everything I’ve asked them to do, all season long. What more can a coach ask for?

With one mission accomplished, what’s next? Well, now we go to the postseason and look to make some noise there, which we are fully capable of doing. Along the journey of this season, we’ve seen enough to know how to play at our best. We’ve reached our destination. Now it’s just a matter of executing.

And to my wife’s question? It feels good. Pretty, pretty good.

MikeCheck: Grizzlies big men Tillman, Aldama using NBA summer stage to expand do-it-all ‘toolbox’

When he arrived as a second-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Xavier Tillman brought with him a reputation as one of the nation’s most rugged and effective defenders.

A year later, the former Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year is emerging as one of the more clutch offensive performers and playmakers among the Grizzlies’ young core.

So what’s been the source of Tillman’s encouraging transformation?

“Definitely development,” the Grizzlies’ rising second-year big man insists. “Just working day in and day out, and then having the coaching staff and the video guys always in my ear. They’re saying, ‘Take those shots. We want you to shoot those shots. We see you working day in and day out, so just be confident in it.’”

Tillman’s comfort level and confidence continues to grow as he rounds out his game with each opportunity he steps onto the court for the Grizzlies. Building on an encouraging rookie season during which he blossomed into a steady rotation role, Tillman is currently branching out as one of the leaders on the Grizzlies’ summer league team.

The burly, 6-foot-8 Tillman is no longer simply the big man setting vicious screens, snatching rebounds and banging in the post at the power forward and center positions. His voice as a vocal leader has always resonated, even during his rookie season when he played in 59 games, earned 12 starts and averaged 6.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and shot 55.9 percent from the field.

Just working day in and day out, and then having the coaching staff and the video guys always in my ear. They’re saying, ‘Take those shots. We want you to shoot those shots. We see you working day in and day out, so just be confident in it.’

Xavier Tillman

Tillman is using this summer league stint to showcase other aspects of his game as one of the team’s featured players. In his debut two weeks ago in Salt Lake City Summer League, Tillman had 11 points and 13 rebounds. He opened this week in Las Vegas at the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League with a team-high seven assists while initiating offense in a ‘point-center’ role.

And the offense continued to shine on Wednesday with another seven assists to go with three steals. Tillman has also knocked down timely shots, including three-pointers, during key stretches of the games Memphis has played in Salt Lake City and Vegas so far.

The playmaking responsibilities have been needed on a summer league team that lacks a traditional point guard. The Grizzlies have been using rising second-year shooting guard Desmond Bane at the point this summer, and have also used versatile wing player John Konchar on the ball. Grizzlies summer league coach Darko Rajakovic is seeing a mix of progress and growing pains as players adjust to different assignments in the spirit of development.

John Konchar looking for a pass
LAS VEGAS, NV – AUGUST 9: John Konchar #46 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball during the 2021 Las Vegas Summer League. Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images.

“It’s a challenge for them and it’s a challenge for me and my coaching staff,” Rajakovic said. “But at the same time, it’s fun to see those guys develop a little bit outside of their comfort level and go through some growing pains. It’s positive, and they’re expanding their boxes. And that’s what this is all about; it’s about player development and continuing their growth.”

More growth opportunities are in store this weekend as the Grizzlies face the Kings on Friday night and the Bulls on Sunday in Vegas. Memphis is coming off a 97-94 double-overtime loss to the Heat on Wednesday, but the outcome is hardly what these games are about in the summer.

But at the same time, it’s fun to see those guys develop a little bit outside of their comfort level and go through some growing pains. It’s positive, and they’re expanding their boxes. And that’s what this is all about; it’s about player development and continuing their growth.

Darko Rajakovic

For the Grizzlies, growth is measured by incremental progress within their development system. During summer league, sometimes a practice session behind closed doors can produce more breakthrough moments than the actual games on national television.

Those non-game days have been essential for the Grizzlies, who are working to expand the games of their returning roster players while also aggressively on-boarding their incoming rookie class. That latter group includes first-round picks Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama, who have pushed through two practices and two games in a span of five days already this week.

“It’s a whole new world,” Aldama said of his first taste of NBA summer league action. “Ziaire, he’s a great kid and he’s trying to help me out, and I’m trying to help him out. We’re both rookies, so everyone has been helping us. Summer league is really fast and different from what I’m used to. It’s a learning experience just to play games here and get used to the NBA world.”

For newcomers such as Aldama, the final first-round pick of last month’s draft, or young vets like Tillman, the NBA world this time of year is all about adjustments and adapting.

“When I’m in games, I’m just playing and doing what I do – I try not to think too much about it,” Tillman said. “And if I see something on film, I go out and try to correct it the next 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.