Ja Morant is (probably) a Grizzly, plus a bunch of draft thoughts

I was sitting on the couch eating dinner. ESPN was on the TV. I’d been here before on lottery night hoping the Memphis Grizzlies somehow jumped up to the number one overall pick in the NBA Draft.

I was relatively calm as the commissioner unveiled envelop after envelop, getting closer and closer to the spot that, according to the odds, would likely belong to the Grizzlies. But when the time came for the Grizzlies spot, the commissioner opened the envelop, and there was no yellow-eyed blue bear. The Grizzlies had jumped up.

But I knew better than to get too excited. One of the most talked about prospects since his high school days and an almost surefire future all-star was going to go number one. Surely he wouldn’t end up in Memphis, right?

During the commercial break I put my plate of food to the side and stood up and paced around.

The break ended, and I froze. The fourth pick was up.

Not the Grizzlies.

Third pick–not the Grizzlies.

I’m not sure if I blacked out but the next thing I know I’m in the fetal position, ready to explode or be devastated depending on which team is on the next envelop.

The commissioner opens it. It’s the Grizzlies.

I was crushed.

That was lottery night 2003 when the prize was LeBron James. Thankfully, on lottery night 2019–where almost the exact same scenario played out–the Grizzlies pick was top-eight protected, unlike in 2003 when it was top-one protected and owed to the Detroit Pistons thanks to a 1997 trade for Otis Thorpe (who’s only played 47 more games for the Grizzlies than I have).

10 thoughts on the Memphis Grizzlies draft (mostly Ja Morant)

1. While I was disappointed to see the Grizzlies logo on the number two pick envelop, much like I was in 2003, that was short-lived because I think Ja Morant is good–really good.

2. I’m going out on a very short, sturdy limb by saying yes, if the Grizzlies keep the number two pick, Ja Morant should be and will be the pick.

3. No one will, or should, blame the Grizzlies if they do select Morant and, for whatever reason, he busts. This is not 2009. The Grizzlies are not taking the unpopular pick–Hasheem Thabeet–over the popular pick–James Harden. I have seen almost no one suggest they take anyone other than Morant, and my guess is if you were the Grizzlies GM Thursday night, that’s what you’d do, too.

4. The Grizzlies absolutely should, and will, entertain offers for the number two pick. But it will likely take a team overpaying to get the Grizzlies out of that spot.

5. I am sure that the Grizzlies did their homework and seriously considered others at number two, but no one in this draft that’s not named Zion has more upside than Morant. The Grizzlies are in full rebuild mode, and being the small market team they are, they probably need to hit on two more picks like they did with Jaren Jackson, Jr. if they want a shot at being a contender. And, like we’ve already addressed, if Morant busts no one will blame them. Don’t be “The Process” 76ers in 2013 who took a much lower ceiling and presumably higher floor player in Michael Carter-Williams over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Take a home run swing.

6. Ja is going to be fun. His violent dunks are only outdone by his Chris Paul-like passing ability. The Grizzlies have never had a player so dangerous in transition (sorry, James Ennis). Every butt will be out of its FedExForum seat when the visiting team turns it over or a long rebound ends up with Morant. It’s going to be fun.

7. Ja probably isn’t going to play summer league.  That sucks, but I get it. He’s not far removed from a minor knee procedure and there’s no reason to risk it. (An aside: Everyone is always upset when the NBA Finals ends because it means no more NBA, but I have the opposite reaction. It means summer league is around the corner, and I love summer league.  It’s raw and the basketball is awful, but I love it and I think you should, too.)

8. Comparing draft prospects to past or present NBA players is dumb, but that’s what this space is for, so let’s do it. I had trouble coming up with one for Morant. You’ll see Russell Westbrook thrown out a lot, but that’s bad. Yes, they both dunk. That’s it. Rondo? No.  Morant isn’t even close to the defender Rondo was coming out of Kentucky. Trae Young? They’re both elite passers and suspect (at best) defenders, but no. De’Aaron Fox? Refer back to Rondo. Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum? They went to small schools, but no. The best one I’ve seen comes courtesy of @cosmis on Twitter, who compares Morant to a skinnier Kevin Johnson. That’s as good of a comparison as you’re going to see. (Click here if you’re not familiar with him). Johnson, a three-time all-star, averaged 18-9-3-1.5 steals for his career, and he averaged at least 20 points per game fives times and at least 10 assists four times with three 20-10 seasons. If that’s indeed who Morant turns out to be, Grizzlies fans should be thrilled, and he’d challenge (and probably surpass) Mike Conley as the best point guard in franchise history.

9. How does Morant bust? For starters, his defense is bad–very, very bad. It’s hard to overstate how bad of a defender he was at Murray State. It’s easy to explain it away by saying that he carried an incredible offensive load while in college and took his breaks on defense. That’s fair, but it needs to be noted that he has a long way to go on that end, despite averaging nearly two steals per game. Then there’s his shot. Morant’s shot made great strides from his freshman to sophomore season, increasing his three point percentage from 30.7% on 2.8 attempts to a respectable 36.3% on 4.8 attempts. He shot 81% on free throws during his two college seasons, which is always a good indicator for how a prospects shot will translate at the next level, but his release and pull-up jumper need work if he’s to be a star lead guard in the league. Finally, there’s the turnovers. It’s not often a guy averages double-digit assists and doesn’t have at least a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ration, but Morant accomplished that last season, averaging 10 assists and 5.2 turnovers per game. He’s the best passer in the draft, but he was guilty of choosing style over substance at times. I’d be surprised if Morant was a complete bust, but he, like virtually every draft prospect, isn’t bust-proof.

10. This is not a deep draft, but it would not surprise me to see the Grizzlies end up with a second round pick. It could come via a Mike Conley trade, a future draft pick trade or they could even buy their way into the second round, but the Grizzlies–no matter who’s running the show–always seem to end up in the second round.

5 prospects I’m higher on than the consensus

1. Brandon Clarke — I’ll release my final draft board on Thursday morning, but Brandon Clarke is going to be in the top five. He’s got a chance to be Shawn Marion-ish.

2. Goga Bitadze — There aren’t many 6-11, 250-pound bigs you’d feel comfortable playing heavy playoff minutes but Goga has a chance to be one. I’d easily take him in the back half of the top 10, and I think he’s one of the safest prospects in the whole draft.

3. P.J. Washington — He’s 6-8 with a 7-3 wingspan. He was a highly productive offensive player in college, and he projects as a good defender at the next level. I would also take him in the top 10.

4. Grant Williams — Grant Williams should go in the lottery, and he might sneak into the late lottery but odds are he’ll go in the twenties and some team will be very happy to have him. He has a great basketball IQ, good touch, good defensive instincts and, if his shot becomes reliable, he could be a playoff starter/rotation player. (Note: I hate Williams’ fit with JJJ for the Grizzlies, but if they end up with a pick in the twenties and he’s there, I’ll be upset if they don’t take him.)

5. Nicolas Claxton — Claxton went from a possible second round pick to a definite first round pick that could go in the late lottery. He’s a project, but he can already switch on defense and Georgia basically ran their offense through him last year. If he’s given time to develop, he could turn into a prototypical modern big man.

Honorable mention: Chuma Okeke and Jontay Porter

5 prospects I’m lower on than the consensus

1. RJ Barrett — I’m certainly not out on RJ Barrett as a prospect. I’m just lower on him than most. There’s a decent chance he ends up just outside my top five on my final board. He gives me Evan Turner vibes. The best chance of him succeeding is for him to be a primary ball handler on a team. Unless his jumper becomes more reliable, I just don’t see how he positively effects the game without the ball in his hands.

2. De’Andre Hunter — Good individual defender, but are we sure he’s as good of a defender as his reputation would suggest? I’m not. And can a guy who made less than one three per game for his college career be considered a 3-and-D prospect? I still like Hunter in the lottery, but he’s being projected as high as the top five and that too rich for me.

3. Nassir Little — I’m not sure how he sticks longterm in the NBA, and he might be picked in the lottery.

4. Rui Hachimura — What if I told you a big man prospect was 6-8, didn’t rebound well (12.6 REB%), didn’t protect the rim (2.4 BLK%), didn’t shoot threes (31.6% for his career on 76 attempts), and has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio? Meet Rui Hachimura. He’s a classic college basketball box score superstar that’s not a first round prospect, even though there’s a chance he’s taken in the lottery.

5. Romeo Langford — Good scorer, but shot just 27.2% from three at Indiana. There are rumors of a hand injury that may have hurt his jumper in college, and if that’s true he may heal and become a starting NBA wing. But there’s enough risk for me to not feel comfortable taking him before the mid-twenties.

5 second round prospects that intrigue me

1. Terence Davis

2. Mfiondu Kabengele

3. Charles Matthews

4. Shamorie Ponds

5. DaQuan Jeffries

Honorable mention: Danniel Gafford

Closing thought: Cam Reddish

I feel like Michael Wilbon is sitting across from me and I’m about to do a parting shot on PTI, but Cam Reddish needed his own section. It’s hard for me to remember a more polarizing prospect than Reddish. His floor is him being out of the league when his rookie contract is up, and his ceiling is starting wing on a playoff team. I see what the people who like him see, and I see what the people who think he’s a second round prospect see. Guys like Reddish are coveted in the NBA–a 6-8 potential 3-and-D wing–but his freshman season at Duke was not good. It’s also possible for guys to have a one-off bad seasons, but it was bad enough for me to not take Reddish before pick 20.

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