Ja Morant and Grizzlies work on surprisingly quick rebuild
If Grindfather was an elected official in Memphis, Tony Allen would win without opposition.
The heartbeat of the Grizzlies’ most successful teams ever, Allen was a defensive-minded, snarling guard who played like he had the city’s blue-collar DNA pumping through his veins. He was Grit and Grind — the slogan his teams lived on the court one wrestling match at a time, hence the nickname “the Grindfather.”
Wednesday night during Memphis’ final game before the All-Star break, Allen, who hasn’t played since 2017, is sitting courtside in a blue suit, his elbows on his knees as he leaned out of his first-row seat. He barked defensive calls, clapped for stops and cheered for scores. He shook hands. He posed for pictures. He got involved.
When Grizzlies rookie point guard Ja Morant, one of the league’s most exciting young players, really started to cook in the first half of a 111-104 win against Portland, it was Allen, standing up with his hands cupped around his eyes like an imaginary set of binoculars staring at Morant, who was doing his new assist celebration right back at him, while the crowd roared.
The past was right there in the present, the two working in harmony.
Morant, big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and rookie forward Brandon Clarke will be on the court Friday night for the Rising Stars Challenge to kick off All-Star weekend in Chicago.
In Memphis, maybe more than any other NBA city, getting the stamp of approval from a revered figure like Allen matters. Even though he’s from Chicago, played at Oklahoma State and won a title in Boston, Memphians view Allen as an extension of themselves — a player who was willing to get into the muck, willing to revel in the ugly and one capable of succeeding because of it.
“It just shows his heart,” Morant said. “You can see when they put him up on the Jumbo, the love everybody still has for him here. … It’s just special.”
The Grizzlies weren’t supposed to create something special again this quickly. The team ushered out Grit and Grind by dealing center Marc Gasol to Toronto a year ago and Mike Conley to Utah this offseason. Rebuilds in the NBA are usually long and full of losing.
Jennifer Hudson will perform a special tribute before the NBA All-Star game to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and the others who were killed in a helicopter crash.
But in the course of just two drafts, Memphis has reloaded, first with Jackson in 2018 and, more importantly with Morant in 2019. The Grizzlies acquired Clarke, who was selected 21st overall by Oklahoma City, with a draft-day trade.
“He’s definitely going to be somebody we talk about for a long time,” Portland veteran Trevor Ariza said Wednesday of Morant.
Ariza saw Morant speeding down the court in transition and crossing over at an impossibly low angle from a crouch, the veteran forward from Westchester High and UCLA stuck to the court while the rookie got an easy layup.
Forty-eight games into his NBA career, Morant’s become the favorite for the league’s rookie of the year, averaging 17.6 points and 7.1 assists for the Grizzlies, capitalizing on the head start he got on Zion Williamson, who missed the first three months of the year with a knee injury.
Two games over .500, Memphis is well ahead of schedule, though they don’t seem to be in a rush. Instead of grinding through a full day’s work before taking on Portland — rookie coach Taylor Jenkins organized a game of kickball Tuesday. Earlier this season it was a game of dodgeball. And if he can get his hands on the skinny yellow bat and a duct-taped ball to make the breaking stuff even nastier, a Wiffle ball game might be next.
“We just want to create a competitive environment,” Jenkins said. “And today, when we were playing kickball, guys wanted to win. You could hear it. Guys wanted to win, wanted to celebrate winning. And when a team was losing, you could tell that they would be like, ‘OK, we’ve got to dig down deep.’”
The Grizzlies will be building with a core of guys that projects to be together for the extended future. Only reserve guard De’Anthony Melton is a free agent this summer, with the key players such as guard Dillon Brooks and center Jonas Valanciunas all signed up.
The NBA fined Clippers forward Paul George $35,000 on Thursday for publicly criticizing officials after a loss in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Jackson and Morant, though, are the key ingredients to the future in Memphis. The two ooze chemistry. After morning shoot-around, Morant sneaked behind the Memphis Grizzlies’ interview backdrop to heckle Jackson. After the kickball game, Jacksonplopped down next to Morant’s locker to tease him about the eventual sales of Morant-branded goggles.
It’s the type of connection that fans gravitate toward, the early steps in rebuilding the same kinds of connections that Allen, Conley, Gasol and Zach Randolph had with the city.
“They’ve got to build that. But they’re definitely in the right direction with it because they’re winning ball games. The games aren’t meaningless,” Allen said at halftime. “They always mean something. When you’ve got games like that, the crowd, the sixth man, Grizz Nation, they always are following behind. It’s like secondhand to them.
“… It all started with the ‘Grit and Grind’ culture. It’s the Grizz Next Generation culture. All it’s going to take is winning and winning and winning. And they’ve got the right guys.”
Season ticket-holders who can’t attend every game are actually making money on their investments. The team store is jam-packed and Morant jerseys are hard to keep in stock.
He’s not the Grindfather — that title is reserved for Allen — but Morant might be next of kin.
“It’s kind of like the love I feel. I know his is different, obviously. He’s been here longer, done a lot,” Morant said of Allen. “But that’s the same type of love I’m trying to get.”
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