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.

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.

MikeCheck: Constructive communication key as Grizzlies set early season standards

MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies didn’t wait until returning home from a successful four-game road trip to take inventory of their biggest area of growth so far this season.

That process started in the heat of battle, in the heart of San Francisco the other night.

Trailing by 19 points to a proud and unbeaten Warriors team on the second night of a back-to-back set, the Grizzlies could have easily settled, accepted defeat for a second night in a row and retreated to Memphis and regrouped for their own homestand.

Ja Morant interviewing with Rob Fischer
SAN FRANCISCO, CA – OCTOBER 28: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies interviews after the game against the Golden State Warriors. Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/NBAE via Getty Images.

But that would hardly be what these Grizzlies are at their core.

So, they assessed the situation midway through that game, committed to having some hard conversations about accountability and rededicated themselves to salvage the task at hand.

“I told our coaches before the game that this was going to be a great test for our guys early in the season,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said of facing his team’s first dose of adversity on the way to capping the trip with Thursday’s 104-101 overtime victory against the Warriors. “Obviously, you’ve got to give our guys a lot of credit.”

That credit rating is building by the game as the Grizzlies (3-2) return home after bracketing wins over the Clippers and Warriors around a close loss to the Lakers and a lopsided setback to the Blazers. One key that connected Memphis throughout its early-season journey was a commitment to meaningful and constructive communication.

We lost a close game against the Lakers, a tough one in Portland, and (it’s) definitely been a long road trip. We bounced back and played hard all the way throughout. My teammates and I were talking after we were down 19 at one point, so it is good to get a win like that for sure.

Desmond Bane

From franchise catalyst Ja Morant to 19-year-old rookie lottery pick Ziaire Williams, every player on the roster is empowered to speak up amid challenging times. To that end, no player is above reproach when mistakes are made and adjustments are needed.

Those levels of trust and credibility are at the foundation of what the Grizzlies are building in hopes of making a second straight run to the playoffs as one of the league’s youngest teams. Jenkins and several players credited the open communication they’re showing as the essential element that allowed them to rally from an early 19-point deficit against Golden State. That strong finish came a night after the Grizzlies fell flat in a blowout loss in Portland.



The challenge now is to settle in and find consistency at home. Saturday’s game against the Heat opens a stretch in which the Grizzlies play eight of 10 at FedExForum entering the Thanksgiving holiday. Consider it another growth opportunity for a team eager to stretch itself as many of the talented pieces come together around Morant and a retooled rotation.

“Hopefully, Grizz nation shows up, and I’m sure that they will – it’ll be fun,” swingman Desmond Bane said of carrying momentum from the trip into Saturday’s game. “We lost a close game against the Lakers, a tough one in Portland, and (it’s) definitely been a long road trip. We bounced back and played hard all the way throughout. My teammates and I were talking after we were down 19 at one point, so it is good to get a win like that for sure.”

Communication keeps the Grizzlies focused on playing to their strengths.

A lot of this experience is going to help us going forward. We just want to make sure we repeat that for any close games.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Against the Warriors, a defensive turnaround was needed. And the Grizzlies provided that spark by generating deflections and steals to stifle Golden State defensively and get into transition offensively. Memphis generated a combined 26 steals and blocked shots that led to scoring 23 points off Golden State turnovers.

Through five games this season, the Grizzlies are performing among the NBA’s best teams on both sides of the ball. They are fourth in the league in rebounding (50.2) and fourth in steals (10.4), while also third in total three-pointers made (71) and fourth in assists (26.2).

That level of success is an early indicator of continuity, chemistry and clear communication.

We can get better in certain areas late in games. I put a lot of pressure and blame on me for being that point guard, because I have to get us in better actions to score and win.

Ja Morant

“We talked a lot better, and I just think we responded very well,” forward Jaren Jackson Jr. said of the connection his team is establishing on the fly this season. “A lot of this experience is going to help us going forward. We just want to make sure we repeat that for any close games.”

Solid habits are still forming for the Grizzlies. And they’re being pushed by Morant’s leadership and execution on the court in the third-year guard’s breakout start to the season.

Morant is the NBA’s second-leading scorer at 30.4 points a game and is also averaging 7.8 assists and 5.4 rebounds while shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 40.6 percent on three-pointers. Entering the weekend, Morant was featured on NBA.com as one of the top-five early favorites for league MVP.

From here, the goal is sustainability.

“I feel like we’ve been good, came a long way and we’re continuing to learn,” Morant said. “We can get better in certain areas late in games. I put a lot of pressure and blame on me for being that point guard, because I have to get us in better actions to score and win.”

Morant then addressed the Grizzlies’ biggest area of growth and improvement.

“Communication is the biggest thing – we have to get better at it,” Morant said.

Fortunately, these Grizzlies don’t bite their tongues talking their way through 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.

MikeCheck: Morant mindset fuels fearless approach as Grizzlies face challenging start to season

Fresh off completing a near-flawless performance in the Grizzlies’ season-opening home victory the other night, Ja Morant perhaps delivered his best effort after the game.

Morant’s scoring and playmaking were fabulous.

His postgame evaluation and perspective were even more on point.

“I know what it takes for us to get to that next level,” Morant surmised after the Grizzlies passed their first official test of the 82-game schedule. “My job is to continue to push us to get to that next level, continue on the floor to be a leader. We’ve got everybody we need. We’ve just got to continue to grow with each other and go out and play.”



If his words don’t quite reveal it, his relentless approach to this season certainly does.

Morant isn’t into any excuses. He’s only focused on execution.

That Morant mindset leads the Grizzlies into the fire of a treacherous four-game trip coming off their record-setting, 132-121 victory against the Cavaliers on Wednesday at FedExForum. That slate begins with a weekend back-to-back set in Los Angeles against two NBA title contenders in the Clippers on Saturday and the Lakers on Sunday.

And from there, the Grizzlies close the journey with another back-to-back set on Wednesday and Thursday against the Trail Blazers and Warriors. It’s all part of an early stretch in which the Grizzlies will play eight of nine games against teams that either made the playoffs last season or participated in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament.

So, it comes as no surprise that Morant is determined to attack the start of his third NBA season the way he storms up and down the court with the basketball in his hands. Morant’s mission to set the tone for the Grizzlies this season was evident from the outset in Wednesday’s opener, when he scored 20 of his game-high 37 points in the first half and attempted a career-high 29 shots from the field.



That take-charge approach is one the Grizzlies need from their catalyst as they begin the season with second-leading returning scorer Dillon Brooks still recovering from a fractured hand. It’s also essential as Memphis incorporates three new starters in wing players De’Anthony Melton and Desmond Bane, along with a veteran newcomer in center Steven Adams.

And it’s absolutely necessary as the Grizzlies give a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. the space and cover to gradually develop his stride alongside Morant as one of the NBA’s top young tandems.

I’m really proud of his leadership throughout, just encouraging guys when there were some tough times, and then just to see him make his mark, especially in that fourth quarter, was big for us to get that win.

Taylor Jenkins

Having opened the season with the third-youngest roster in the league, and no player over the age of 28, coach Taylor Jenkins knows that there will be early growing pains this season. But the progress the Grizzlies made through the preseason offered glimpses of just how prepared this team is to face any adversity ahead.

Jenkins believes Morant’s ability to adapt his game to any situation necessary is one of the biggest strengths the Grizzlies carry into the grind of an 82-game regular season.

“We really haven’t had a ton of time yet to really go through these end-of-game moments in the preseason, and to get to it in that first game is awesome,” Jenkins said of Morant’s ability to take over in the late stages as the Grizzlies pulled away from Cleveland. “I’m really proud of his leadership throughout, just encouraging guys when there were some tough times, and then just to see him make his mark, especially in that fourth quarter, was big for us to get that win.”

Balance for the Grizzlies will be key to success this season.

We’ve been at this for two, three years (together), so I think we’re all growing up together. We all understand what it takes to win. It’s not easy in this league.

De’Anthony Melton

Scoring will be needed beyond Morant’s binges, particularly against the caliber of teams Memphis will face on this upcoming road trip. There will need to be a repeat of the multiple players who scored in double figures on opening night, when Bane added 22 points and Melton chipped in 20. Teamwide defense and rebounding must remain priorities, with Jackson, Adams and Kyle Anderson combining for 27 of the team’s 53 boards.

As first impressions go, the Grizzlies couldn’t have painted a more productive picture offensively on the way to setting franchise opening-night records for scoring (132) and made three-pointers (14).

“We’re all grown up,” Melton said of the collective energy and production he’s seen from the team’s blossoming core. “We’ve been at this for two, three years (together), so I think we’re all growing up together. We all understand what it takes to win. It’s not easy in this league.”

De'Anthony Melton against the Cleveland Cavaliers
MEMPHIS, TN – OCTOBER 20: DeAnthony Melton #0 of the Memphis Grizzlies controls the ball against Collin Sexton #2. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

And it certainly won’t be easy over the coming days as the Grizzlies grind their way along the road against some of the elite teams in the Western Conference.

But there’s a fearless young leader steering these Grizzlies, one whose opening-night performance was hardly a fluke. In fact, Morant isn’t taking a backseat to anyone this season while pushing the Grizzlies forward.

“Experience is pretty much all I can say,” Morant said of what’s driving him this season. “The main thing I’ve been telling our team is that we’ve got to win (in different ways). We’ve got to win the pretty ones and the ugly ones. We’ve got a few things to work on, but we’ll be fine.”

Morant will make headlines for his highlight plays this season.

But it’s his solid foundation and astute perspective that keep the Grizzlies deeply rooted.

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: SEC Coach Power Rankings

It’s been a while since we last checked in on the true axis of college football power, the coaching brethren of the SEC. Honestly, it’s probably been too long, considering just how volatile things can be among SEC coaches. One loss can change everything, as we’ve seen over the years. And two or three losses can cost you your job.

Figuring out an SEC’s coach’s place within the SEC hierarchy is no easy feat. There are no written rules, no strict structures by which we can rank these gentlemen. Instead, it’s as much an art form as anything. Each school is a unique situation, a fluid situation requiring a reading of the actual program, the boosters, the alumni, the fan bases, and how each coach exists within that spectrum.

Let’s dig in…

EXEMPT: Ed Oregeron

Literally AS I WAS WRITING THIS COLUMN, news came down that Ed Orgeron was out at LSU. Which is all kinds of incredible, when you really think about it, considering he WON A NATIONAL TITLE AT LSU 21 MONTHS AGO. Not even two years! And now he’s gone.

To be fair, I had Coach O next to last on my initial list, because there had been all kinds of rumors swirling the last few weeks and months. Even as they put the finishing touches on a win over Florida on Saturday, the announcers were talking about how this was a terrific way to go out, if this was indeed the end for Coach O. As they were beating Florida!

Which is kinda crazy, if you really think about it. A coach shows up, wins a title, and gets shoved out not even two years later. But that’s the SEC, shout out to Gene Chizik.

I don’t know where Coach O ends up now. USC? On the pundit desk on ESPN when the SEC flips over? Narrating audiobooks? I just know college football is more fun when Coach O is in it.

Now, to the power rankings…

1. Nick Saban

Yes, the GOAT lost a game earlier this season to Texas A&M and his former assistant, Jimbo Fisher. Did it affect his position on this list? No, it did not. Nick Saban remains the best coach in the SEC and the greatest college coach of all time.

Are there some cracks in the armor? Perhaps. As we talked about this week on Grind City Media’s “The Odds Couple,” you can make a case for Alabama no longer having the most dominant defense in the SEC. Sure, they’re still recruiting top players, but so is UGA, and between the SEC recruiting race and Alabama’s constant turnover of players to the NFL (and coaches to other programs), maybe the Tide have finally reached the point where the talent and youth are slightly outweighing the experience.

Either way, we all know Alabama is still just one win over Georgia away from being back in the National Championship Game. And Nick Saban is going to be the coach at Alabama for as long as he wants to live in Tuscaloosa.

Nick Saban yelling on the sideline

2. Kirby Smart

How ‘bout them Dawgs! It’s been an incredible year for the Georgia Bulldogs, who enter this bye week 7-0, with the consensus top defense in the country. They’ve allowed just 4 touchdowns this season—all season long. And as great as they’ve been defensively, you also have to credit their offense, which has looked at worst efficient and at times even explosive, all while performing mostly without starting QB JT Daniels, who has battled injuries.

In a lot of ways, Smart has doubled down on his strategy he’s employed ever since he was hired in Athens, focusing on defense and letting the offense sort of exist on its own. This UGA’s team has a little bit more dynamism on offense than in past seasons, but Kirby still relies on the defense, and his game plans remain more conservative than OAN News. The thing is, it’s working. UGA is atop the AP polls for the first time in a long time, and with a favorable schedule, UGA will likely stay there until the SEC Championship Game.

At this point, the only thing left for Kirby to do is win the biggest one. There have been some mild grumbles from fans the last few years, waiting for Kirby to get the Dawgs over that final hump. If it doesn’t happen in the next five years or so, we might have to revisit this discussion. But the way things stand now, Kirby has plenty of runway to get UGA to finally soar.

3. Mark Stoops

The Kentucky coach remains one of the most anonymous coaches in the SEC—he’s not even the most famous Stoops in college football! But he’s plugged away at Kentucky and quietly built a real program. Despite notching their first loss of the season on Saturday at the hands of UGA, Kentucky is the best they’ve been since Tim Couch was there, and that’s thanks to Stoops. They’re going to be good again next year, too, with QB Will Levis returning and spending another season under first-year offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who calls some fun plays.

(Although it’s sorta funny that teams in the SEC East now have to deal with UGA basically becoming Alabama East… and now Alabama might be moving East also.)

Mark Stoops calling a timeout

4. Jimbo Fisher

Jimbo Fisher left Florida State after winning a title, and came to Texas A&M for a huge payday. He did ok? I mean, there were a few 9-4 years in there, and last year they finished 9-1 and won the Orange Bowl. But this season started with two losses, and A&M seemed to be, at best, treading water.

Then Jimbo signed a huge contract extension, which seemed odd from the outside. According to USA Today, the new deal made it nearly impossible for Jimbo to get fired.

Fisher, 56, is making $7.5 million this year and would be owed about $95.6 million if he is fired without cause on Dec. 1. Prior to the extension, he would’ve been due $45.6 million.

But it also doesn’t cost Jimbo anything to walk away. Oh, and did you hear that LSU has an opening at head coach? And did you hear who the athletic director at LSU is? That’s right, it’s Scott Woodward, Jimbo’s longtime friend and the exact same man who signed Jimbo to that huge deal at TAMU.

No matter how all this plays out, Jimbo is the one with all the power right now. And I’d imagine there are probably some Aggies out there who wouldn’t mind seeing him walk away.

5. Lane Kiffin

Some coaches are just the right fit for a school and a fanbase, and Lane Kiffin has been exactly that for Ole Miss. He’s cocky and brash and sort of weird, and if that doesn’t perfectly describe Ole Miss, I don’t know what does. Tennessee fans seemed to target Kiffin especially this weekend with their varied detritus from the stands, and while I would never condone this behavior, I will admit that it wasn’t entirely surprising.

Kiffin is also a heckuva an offense coach, helping Ole Miss top categories across the board and turning Matt Corral into a legit Heisman candidate. Unfortunately, Ole Miss has also been bad on defense, really bad. I don’t know how Kiffin can get Ole Miss past this hump where they currently reside, but it’s not going to be easy. The other idea is, maybe they never have to get past this hump? Just live here, winning 8 or 9 games a year and scoring 40 points each week and giving fans a reason to show up at The Grove, week after week.

Lane Kiffin pointing

6. Sam Pittman

Wait a second, the Arkansas coach is ranked ahead of the Florida coach on this list? Well, as Sam Pittman might say, YESSIR! Look, Pittman isn’t too far removed from being a cartoon character of a football coach, but you can’t deny the job he has done at Arkansas. Just a few years ago they were a total joke, and now they are not only good, but they seem to be on the verge of sustainable success—building a culture that lasts beyond having just one good quarterback.

7. Dan Mullen

Dan Mullen should probably be higher on this list. After Florida lost Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook and Urban Meyer, they spent a few years wandering in the wilderness, before luring Mullen, Meyer’s former assistant, back to Gainesville. He’s revered as an amazing offensive mind, and known as a terrific recruiter.

Since Mullen’s arrival, the results have been above average. Over his first three seasons, Mullen posted a 29-9 record, which at most schools would be considered great. But not at Florida. This season the Gators are off to a 4-3 start, including a bad loss to LSU for the second year in a row, and the Gators have UGA waiting in two weeks. Oh, and the Gators seem to have a quarterback controversy on their hands, which is always fun!

For so long, even when he was the coach at Mississippi State, Mullen was talked about as the perfect guy for Florida. Well, the Gators got what they wanted. Maybe it wasn’t the best thing after all?

8 (tie). Josh Heupel

I am not sold quite yet on the Heupel hype at Tennessee. He had two great years at UCF, and in his first year at UT, the team seems to be trending in a positive direction. But scoring 40-plus against Missouri and South Carolina doesn’t matter when you’re losing to the Ole Miss’s and Florida’s of the SEC. And when you consider how Tennessee’s hiring of Heupel was such a convoluted process, we know the patience doesn’t run long in Knoxville.

8 (tie). Bryan Harsin

I’m lumping Harsin and Heupel in together because they’re in such similar situations. Both are in their first years in the big time, emerging on top after funky coaching searches, trying to make a dollar out of the change left behind by the previous regimes. I haven’t really been impressed with Auburn this season, but I don’t know how much of that is just Harsin trying to make Gus Malzahn’s odd ends meet in the middle.

Bryan Harsin looking on

10. Shane Beamer

South Carolina is bad, and to compound their badness, they’ve had some rotten luck this season with injuries and recruiting misses. Beamer basically has to rebuild SC from the ground up, but I like the attitude and honesty we’ve seen from him thus far. I just hope the fans in South Carolina give him enough time and space to really get this thing on track.

11. Eli Drinkwitz

Drinkwitz had one great season at Appalachian State before getting gobbled up by Missouri, and thus far in Columbia, the returns haven’t been all that encouraging. A decade ago, Missouri won double-digit games a couple of times, but once you’re down in the SEC, it’s really tough to climb back to the top. As Coach Drink is finding out now.

12. Mike Leach

For so, so long, the pipe dream of college football fans everywhere was to see Mike Leach show up in the SEC and to bring his caffeinated air raid offense with him. But now it seems like everyone is running some version of an uptempo, pass-happy offense, and thus far Leach’s schemes haven’t been enough to make up for the lack of talent in Starkville. In a season and a half at Miss State, Leach is 7-10. Joe Moorhead went 14-12 in two seasons and got fired. So…

13. Clark Lea

*shrug emoji*

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.