Before last week’s massive Andre Iguodala trade, here I was, writing about how the Grizzlies should NOT make trades, for fear of disrupting team chemistry.
It’s not just the guys you lose – respected vets Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill – it’s the new guys also. How will Justise Winslow, Gorgui Dieng and Jordan Hill fit in?
Apparently, the answer is: Kickball. When I arrived at FedExForum on Tuesday afternoon for the media scrum, we learned that after a film session, head coach Taylor Jenkins bypassed pro-level basketball for child’s play.
“We all needed it. Guys have been grinding,” head coach Taylor Jenkins smirked after practice. “We’ve had plenty of practice time, plenty of film sessions. Just a little mental break, a little physical break.
“Obviously, it’s about our chemistry on the court,” Jenkins said. “But for us, it’s more about the relationships off the court. That’s the first thing we hit them with. Them being with us in D.C. . . . ”
Ah, yes – Sunday’s come-from-behind 106-99 road win over the Washington Wizards. The final seconds of the game were winding down as a Wizards shot caromed off the rim and into rookie superstar Ja Morant’s hands, providing his first career triple-double: 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
That was cool.
But it was what happened afterward that may have been even more impressive. As soon as the buzzer sounded, the entire Grizzlies bench rushed over to hug and congratulate Morant – a genuine display of happiness and joy among teammates, especially in the “just business” aftermath of the trade.
But there was another celebration of Morant’s big night – one that newcomer Jordan Bell caught on camera. As Morant finally enters the locker room, the Grizzlies rush him, dousing him with bottled water as if it were champagne, celebrating his milestone as if it were a championship.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” said Bell, who has celebrated actual championships during his stint with the Golden State Warriors. “I come into the locker room and I sit down, guys are passing out water. I’m like, ‘I’m not thirsty, but I appreciate it.’ They’re like, ‘No, it’s for Ja.’ And I was like ‘Cool! We’re doing that? I’d never done that before.”
Clips of both celebrations have gone viral, which isn’t surprising given Morant’s star power. But fans looking for the star power are also getting a taste of the chemistry and camaraderie that made my concerns about disruption seem stupid.
“Them being with us in the D.C. game,” Jenkins said, “seeing the joy, especially in that big comeback win, the celebration in the locker room for a teammate, that’s what we’re about, just a positive environment.”
Dieng said he felt the love immediately.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I first got here, everyone was so nice,” Dieng said, his choice of words implying that “nice” was a pleasant surprise. “They’re very close to each other and that’s what I’m all about.
He added, “I feel like I have my family back home (in Senegal) and I spend most of my time with my teammates. They’re like family to me. I care more about my teammates than I do myself. It’s a group of guys . . . I just feel like they want me to be here. That’s very exciting.”
Winslow immediately won over Memphis fans when he posted a selfie in a throwback Grizzlies cap shortly after the trade.
“I feel like this environment, this setting, this city really fits who I am,” said Winslow, who is still recovering from injury. “Like I said, it was meant to be.”
Winslow isn’t sure when he’ll be on the court, but when he does suit up, he’s got his eyes on the playoffs too. He remembers how a playoff run with the Heat helped accelerate his growth.
“Those types of experiences early in your career, those can take you a long way,” he said. “That helped motivate me and taught me what this league is really about. When you get to the playoffs, that’s when everything – your habits, your standards – all that comes into play.”
Morant will join Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke in the Windy City this weekend, and will introduce themselves to the world in the Rising Stars game on Friday, which is part of NBA All-Star Week. Morant and Jackson will represent Team USA while Clarke, a Canadian, will play with Team World.
The rest of the squad? I wouldn’t be surprised if the camera cuts to a shot of the entire team in Chicago at the game. Either that, or we’ll see Instagrams with all the guys, including the new ones, crowded around a TV, cheering a Morant dunk.
How silly of me to think that this band of brothers could be rattled by a trade.
“(I had) no concerns,” Jenkins said. “I have the utmost faith in the vets that remain. Jonas has been a big time leader for us. Kyle (Anderson), Tyus (Jones) . . . we’ve leaned on them all season long. And our young guys, the growth that they’ve shown, they’ve been empowered by the vets to be more vocal.
“No concerns, because you see the evolution of this group, the confidence they have in each other, to lean on each other. Jae and Solo meant a lot to us, but we’re very happy with the guys we’ve added and know that our young core is trending in a great direction when it comes to leadership.”
Well alrighty then. GRIND ON, GRZNXTGEN!
(Lee Eric Smith is an NNPA award-winning columnist, who has covered the Grizzlies for more than 10 years. Follow him on Twitter: @L3ESmith or Instagram: l3esmith.)