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.

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.

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.

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.

MikeCheck: For Grizzlies rookie Ziaire Williams, coach’s orders are simple – compete and have fun

Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins had two specific demands of Ziaire Williams in the rookie lottery pick’s initial days adjusting to the NBA at the MGM Resorts Summer League.

“He’s only been with us for a minute or two, but I’ve said, ‘I only want to see two things out of you right now,’” Jenkins relayed of this week’s conversation with Williams. “I want to see you have fun, and I want to see you compete. That’s all I care about. Don’t worry about missing shots (or) messing up an assignment. Just learn, and grow.”

That’s the extent of the summer league syllabus as Williams, the 10th overall pick in last month’s draft, prepares for his second outing with the Grizzlies in Las Vegas. The 19-year-old athletic swingman out of Stanford is eager to learn, grow and build on Monday’s summer league debut when he contributed to nearly every statistical category in 23 minutes.

Williams smiled as he reflected on his first ‘welcome to the NBA’ moment. It came when he stole a pass near the top of the key and raced off in transition as his slender, 6-foot-8 frame glided toward the basket for a breakaway dunk. It was one of a growing number of summer highlights for the Grizzlies, who beat the Nets 91-84 in their Vegas opener.

Memphis returns to action Wednesday to face the Heat in the second of four games over a stretch of seven days in Vegas. In the long-term plan, the Grizzlies traded up and targeted Williams in the draft to ultimately plug between franchise catalysts in point guard Ja Morant and power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. – all picked in the top 10 of the past four drafts.

Williams’ combination of length, athleticism, intelligence and potential as an elite wing scorer and defender only add to an encouraging young core the franchise has assembled. Four of the previous six players the Grizzlies selected in the draft made the NBA All-Rookie team.

The short-term expectations are reasonably tempered for Williams, whose 185-pound frame will need time to develop into an NBA body. It was just a little more than a year ago when Williams was teammates with Bronny James and Zaire Wade – the sons of icons LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Now, Williams is transitioning to playing against NBA fathers.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for Williams, who still receives encouraging text messages from “uncle Dwyane” and “uncle ‘Bron” as he takes the initial steps into the demands of the NBA. He’s certainly putting in the relentless work it takes to prepare his mind and body.

Williams said he got ready for the draft by pushing himself with private trainers through twice-daily workouts over a span of six hours. To gain weight, he also converted to a 5,000-calories-a-day diet. Because the Grizzlies acquired the rights to draft him in a trade with New Orleans that involved swapping picks and veteran players, Williams and fellow first-round pick Santi Aldama could not participate in last week’s Salt Lake City Summer League until all logistics were finalized. Williams and Aldama didn’t go through their first practice with the Grizzlies until Sunday, the eve before Monday’s debut in the Vegas summer league.

In other words, NBA life has been coming at Williams fast. But he’s so cool, calm and mentally prepared for this opportunity, one could hardly detect any nervousness.

“Getting that first dunk was a good feeling for sure,” Williams said on scoring his first basket early in the first quarter of Monday’s game. “I just read the play really well and it was good to hear the crowd cheering, because I haven’t had fans since high school. I was just trying to go out there and play hard and help the team come out with a win.”

Williams finished that game with seven points, two offensive rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block. He struggled to find the range on his three-point shot, which will be a development priority throughout the summer and into his rookie season. But, as Jenkins pointed out, the mission right now is to simply grow acclimated to the team’s systems, have fun and compete.

The growth opportunities continue for Williams and the Grizzlies, who are accustomed to success as they develop their young prospects this time of the year. Memphis was the last team to win the MGM Resorts Summer League title when it was played two years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of last year’s summer league play.

I just read the play really well and it was good to hear the crowd cheering, because I haven’t had fans since high school. I was just trying to go out there and play hard and help the team come out with a win.

Ziaire Williams

But the Grizzlies are back with one of the league’s newest and top students of the game.

“As far as coach Taylor just telling me to have fun and compete, it’s been helpful a lot,” Williams said of his mindset this week. “I don’t pay attention to any outside noise, it just allows me to play my game and compete. And it definitely allows me to play freely with confidence.”

Teammates have already seen that competitive confidence on the defensive end.

“He’s a really big wing and he’s got a good feel for the game already,” Grizzlies second-year guard Desmond Bane said of Williams. “You can tell he’s got a knack for scoring. I like the way he hustles and competes on defense. One of the (opposing) guys got it going and (Ziaire) wanted to check him and stay on him, so that’s special for a young guy.”

Those intangibles and that lofty potential make Williams a unique fit for Memphis.

“He’s super-excited being with us,” Jenkins said. “He’s got great teammates around him in this summer league, and coaches are going to push him. The sky is the limit for this kid, he’s got so much talent. He’s got a lot of work to do for sure, but this is just the starting point for him.”

You can tell he’s got a knack for scoring. I like the way he hustles and competes on defense. One of the (opposing) guys got it going and (Ziaire) wanted to check him and stay on him, so that’s special for a young guy.

Desmond Bane

Much like on the way to his first summer highlight, Williams is taking everything in those long, explosive strides.

“My flow, my rhythm, I’m just letting it come to me,” Williams said. “As the games go on, I’ll get more comfortable. Finding ways, whether it’s cutting or coming off screens, I just find my way. But my teammates are making it super smooth. It’ll come, though. I just have to get my reps.”

Plus, compete and have fun along the way.

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: As Grizzlies summer guide, Rajakovic extends coaching journey that began at age 16

MEMPHIS – Among the highlight moments from the Grizzlies stint at this week’s Salt Lake City Summer League has been a special anniversary for one of the staff’s top assistants.

Darko Rajakovic wouldn’t want to commemorate his 25th year in coaching any other way.

As lead coach of the Grizzlies’ summer league team, Rajakovic takes pride in grinding this group of players through the team’s summer development program. After all, helping prospects build foundations to pursue professional basketball careers is a mission and passion Rajakovic has embraced since his taking his first coaching job at age 16.

That’s right – 16!

There is a mutual trust. We have a great relationship and are consulting on everything. We’re helping each other in so many ways.

Darko Rajakovic

Over the past 25 years, the teams, leagues, players and countries have changed for the native of Serbia. But the standard of developmental success remains the same for Rajakovic, who leads the Grizzlies into Friday’s final game in Salt Lake City before the team transitions to Las Vegas for next week’s start of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League.

“There’s so many areas to improve with a team that’s only been together a couple of days,” Rajakovic said of the task he was assigned when head coach Taylor Jenkins pegged him to run the summer league team. “There is a mutual trust. We have a great relationship and are consulting on everything. We’re helping each other in so many ways.”

After splitting their first two games against a split roster of the host Utah Jazz, the Grizzlies could close out the Salt Lake City leg of summer league play with a win Friday against the Spurs. Memphis won Tuesday’s opener by 39 points in a balanced performance sparked largely by returning roster players who participate in a combined 206 NBA games last season.

That’s ball-movement and playing hard on the defensive end. The moments we did that, we played well. We just didn’t do it enough (Wednesday). We’ll need to do more scripting and playing well together.

Darko Rajakovic

The Grizzlies sat their more experienced young players in Wednesday’s loss, but are likely to have their returning core of Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman and John Konchar available Friday.

Rajakovic wants to see the Grizzlies close out the week with the same energy, relentless defensive effort and execution they showed to start the week. On Tuesday, Memphis produced balanced scoring, 12 blocked shots, forced 21 turnovers and scored 104 points on 26 assists.

Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman cheering from the bench
SALT LAKE CITY, UT – AUGUST 4: Desmond Bane #22 and Xavier Tillman Sr. #2 of Memphis Grizzlies stand on the sidelines during the game against the Utah Jazz White during the 2021 Salt Lake City Summer League. Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images.

“We’ve got to stick with our identity, what we do,” Rajakovic insisted. “That’s ball-movement and playing hard on the defensive end. The moments we did that, we played well. We just didn’t do it enough (Wednesday). We’ll need to do more scripting and playing well together.”

Rajakovic and Jenkins are certainly working well together as the Grizzlies continue to build on a team that last season was the youngest to make the NBA playoffs in a decade.

Jenkins added Rajakovic to the Grizzlies staff last year after he spent parts of the previous nine seasons with the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder organizations. Rajakovic, 42, also coached in the G League as well as internationally in Spain and his native Serbia.

We’re trying some new things, some different things and are just trying to learn from this experience together.

Darko Rajakovic

“He has shown a passion, drive, high basketball IQ and love for teaching the game at a high level, both internationally and in the NBA,” Jenkins said of adding Rajakovic to the staff. “He will continue to help enhance the development of our players, staff and team for the future.”

From coaching his first national youth teams in Serbia as a teenager to leading the Grizzlies summer league entries this month, Rajakovic has traveled a unique global basketball journey.

“I’m grateful for coaching summer league this year,” Rajakovic said. “We’re trying some new things, some different things and are just trying to learn from this experience together.”

From sweet 16 to Salt Lake City, the growth and grind define Rajakovic’s path.

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: Two takeaways from Grizzlies’ dominant summer debut, and a look-ahead to Wednesday’s game

Improving on a 39-point victory in their Salt Lake City summer league debut won’t be an easy task for the Grizzlies, but their comfort level and continuity will certainly give them a shot.

The Grizzlies return to action Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz’s White team coming off a 104-65 dismantling of the Jazz’s Blue squad in Tuesday’s opening game of summer league play at Vivint Arena. If the Grizzlies looked like a team that’s been there before, there’s good reason.

They have.

It was only three months ago when Memphis carried the NBA’s youngest playing rotation into a first-round playoff series against the Jazz. The Grizzlies won the series opener in Salt Lake City against the league’s top-seeded team before losing in five games to close out their first playoff appearance in four years.

The Grizzlies are back in Utah with a summer league team that started five players who combined to play in 206 NBA regular season games last season. Anchoring that group are rising second-year veterans Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman, who combined for 25 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and three steals in a game the Grizzlies dominated from start to finish.

Bane and Tillman were on the floor for the Grizzlies during that playoff series in May, and intend to set the summer league tone by leading with a level of postseason intensity.

I’m comfortable being vocal when I see stuff and being able to keep my teammates accountable and allowing them to keep me accountable for sure.

Xavier Tillman

“I don’t think you can put a price on experience, and I think we got real quality experience throughout the whole entire season last year, but in the playoffs especially,” Bane said. “It’s a really good start to the summer for sure. Leading by example is first and foremost.”

The Grizzlies coaching staff tasked Bane with taking on more playmaking responsibilities this summer to expand on his game after leading the team in three-point shooting last season. The 6-6 shooting guard will spend the bulk of his time at the point this week as the Grizzlies play three games in four days before moving on to the Las Vegas Summer League next week.

Tillman, a 6-8 forward/center, wants to build on his 11-point, 13-rebound double-double from Tuesday night. But development this summer isn’t as much about stats as it is about the statements he’s making as a frontline leader with an eye on expanding his voice next season.

“I’m more than willing to do it, especially going into next season with that second unit,” Tillman said of being the focal point on defense. “I’m comfortable being vocal when I see stuff and being able to keep my teammates accountable and allowing them to keep me accountable for sure.”

Rookie Impact

Rookie first-round picks Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama aren’t expected to be available to join the summer league team until they clear NBA draft night trade guidelines later this week. But the Grizzlies got huge contributions from another set of rookies they picked up after the draft on free agency development contracts.

Former DePaul swingman Romeo Weems and University of Tennessee standout Yves Pons delivered impressive debuts with relentless energy and effort plays on Tuesday. Weems led the Grizzlies with 17 points and added six rebounds, three steals and a block in 19 minutes. He made both of his three-point attempts and was perfect on five free throws.

He’s going to be a really good player. He’s got long arms and defensively he’s very confident. He’s really trying to play the right way and was successful with it.

Darko Rajakovic

Pons, a 6-6 dynamic athlete around the rim, showed some versatility in his game by also knocking down a pair of threes and blocking two shots. His 12 points off the bench included three highlight-reel dunks, punctuated by flushes on two lobs in transition. Pons, the SEC’s 2020 Defensive Player of the Year, signed a Two-Way contract on Monday, and is positioned to spend time with both the Grizzlies and G League’s Memphis Hustle this coming season.

Grizzlies summer league coach Darko Rajakovic had high grades for Weems and Pons, who both went undrafted last week but have quickly stood out in their initial days with Memphis.

“Energy, relentless, ability to defend one through five,” Rajakovic said of Pons’ explosive ability on both ends of the floor. “He still has a ways to go in coverages but his physical ability covers a lot. He was just free and cutting. When he had open shots, he shot without second thoughts.”

For Weems, who just turned 20 this summer after two college seasons, the intangibles matter.

“Since he walked in our gym, he showed a big desire to work our way,” Rajakovic said of the 6-7 guard/forward. “He’s going to be a really good player. He’s got long arms and defensively he’s very confident. He’s really trying to play the right way and was successful with it.”

Next Up

The Grizzlies face Jazz White at 8 p.m. before wrapping up the Salt Lake City summer league with Friday’s game against the Spurs. Tuesday’s game featured a familiar face, with former Grizzlies first-round pick Jarell Martin playing for the Jazz Blue team as he looks to regain an NBA roster spot. Martin spent three seasons in Memphis before he was traded to Orlando in 2018, and then spent last season playing in Australia.

Rajakovic wants to see the Grizzlies maintain their 20-20 vision on both ends of the court in Wednesday’s matchup. Memphis forced 21 turnovers and dished 26 assists on Tuesday, which are benchmarks for success in coach Taylor Jenkins’ system.

“That’s something we’ve preached since training camp,” Rajakovic said.

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: Grizzlies embrace return of NBA Summer League play for developing young core

MEMPHIS – Despite arriving in two different NBA Draft classes, Desmond Bane and Ziaire Williams share at least one developmental function in common as they take the next step in their respective young careers.

They’ll spend the month of August as Summer League rookies with the Grizzlies.

Coming off an All-NBA Rookie Team selection this past regular season, Bane is expected to get his first taste of summer league action as early as Tuesday when the Grizzlies open play in this week’s three-game Salt Lake City Summer League.

Williams, the 10th overall pick in last week’s draft, will be on the verge of his Grizzlies debut as Memphis then transitions to the Las Vegas Summer League that runs through the middle of August. That’s also expected to be the case for fellow first-round pick and forward Santi Aldama.

Ziaire Williams posing outside FedExForum
MEMPHIS, TN – JULY 30: Ziaire Williams #8 of the Memphis Grizzlies poses for a portrait on July 30, 2021 at FedExForum. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

But last year’s rookies will set the initial tone for the Grizzlies in this year’s summer games.

The COVID pandemic prevented Bane’s 2020 draft class from participating in summer league play last year. But with the summer circuit restored this year, the Grizzlies’ offseason development schedule is back in full swing with entries in both leagues.

“We’ve got our full offseason program coming, and our guys are going to be in the gym putting in work day to day, a lot of skill development, the reps our guys are going to get in summer league, I know our coaches are excited about that,” Grizzlies vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman said recently. “We can have a real offseason this offseason.”

It’s an opportunity for summer schooling the Grizzlies don’t take for granted.

Over the next three weeks, a team of Grizzlies rookies, first- and second-year players – among other roster hopefuls – are scheduled to compete in three games in Salt Lake City and another four contests in Las Vegas to qualify for seeding in the Vegas league’s postseason tournament.

Technically, the Grizzlies are defending champions in the Las Vegas Summer League after winning the 2019 tournament title. The pandemic shuttered summer league play last season, but the Grizzlies are back and eager to continue building on a team that advanced to the NBA playoffs with the youngest rotation in the league last season.

It’s just the beginning, and I’ve got a lot more to learn. I think we’ve got an extremely hungry group.

Desmond Bane

That rotation includes Bane, the 30th overall pick in last year’s draft, who shot a team-best 43.2 percent on threes in 68 games, with 17 starts last season. Bane headlines the Grizzlies’ Salt Lake City summer league roster alongside forward/center Xavier Tillman, who shot 55.9 percent from the field, finished fifth on the team in rebounding and played 59 games as a rookie.



The lessons Bane and Tillman learned from rotation roles last season will allow them to take on leadership responsibilities and primary roles during their summer league stints as they look to improve.

“Everything’s just been happening so fast, but I’ve definitely learned a lot, how to take care of my body and the up-and-down the NBA brings,” said Bane, who averaged 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season. “It’s just the beginning, and I’ve got a lot more to learn. I think we’ve got an extremely hungry group.”

You could only have so much growth. For rookies like Des and X and Killian and Sean to come in and hit the ground running the way they did, rookies around the league (last) year, I give them a ton of credit. They were really fighting an uphill battle.

Zach Kleiman

In addition to Bane and Tillman, other players on the Salt Lake City summer league roster who played on the Grizzlies playoff team last year are guard John Konchar and forwards Killian Tillie and Sean McDermott. After the season ended, Kleiman said one of the most encouraging takeaways from the Grizzlies first winning season in four years was the rapid progress the youthful core made amid difficult circumstances.

The 2020 NBA Draft was delayed until November, and players didn’t have traditional offseason development, including summer league participation. Training camp, preseason and the regular season were all part of a truncated schedule that started a month after the draft.

It’s pivotal and the starting point on whatever decisions we make. We know what our vision is and hopefully that leads to more success.

Taylor Jenkins

“We maxed out everything we could under the rules, but it was limited,” Kleiman said of the development process in the face of last year’s league-wide challenges. “You could only have so much growth. For rookies like Des and X and Killian and Sean to come in and hit the ground running the way they did, rookies around the league (last) year, I give them a ton of credit. They were really fighting an uphill battle.”

That resilience set the tone for the team’s approach to this summer’s progress.

“It’s the number one thing we always talk about – how we work, how we develop players (and) it starts with protecting what we do and what we’re about,” coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It’s pivotal and the starting point on whatever decisions we make. We know what our vision is and hopefully that leads to more success.”

For the young Grizzlies, success starts in the summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach Kleiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Schmitz

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

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

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