Pop quiz: Who was the last superstar to play for your Memphis Grizzlies – you know, the kind of player fans even non-NBA fans know?
Okay, no I won’t. The reason you can’t name one is because there hasn’t been one. And if we’re being completely honest, we may not have one now. We just don’t know yet. But is there hope that the Memphis Grizzlies have finally landed a bonafide superstar with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft?
Ja, for sure. In fact, if Ja Morant is as good as he is projected to be, this is unchartered territory for the home team.
“The thing that stands out first and foremost when talking about Ja is the athleticism, the explosiveness… it’s unbelievable,” said Grizzlies EVP of basketball operations Zachary Kleiman. “The thing that (also) stood out to us about Ja is the basketball IQ. When he breaks down defenses, gets into the paint, he’s two steps ahead of everyone.”
You could go all the way back to Vancouver looking for superstars and the biggest names you’d come back with would be Mike Bibby and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. If you don’t recognize those names, that’s my point.
Pau Gasol won Rookie of the Year, and eventually two championships. But a superstar? In Spain, definitely. But in Memphis, he was the simply best player on a series of mediocre teams. There was hope that both Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo would be those marquee names, but it never happened in Memphis or anywhere else.
The Core Four, beloved as they were, had no superstars and only showed up on national media’s radar when they threatened to topple the superstars. Free agency hasn’t brought a superstar either. I mean, in 2016, the Grizzlies were pounding their chest over the biggest free agent signing in franchise history: Chandler Parsons. Chandler. Parsons.
If you’re wondering if Jaren Jackson Jr. is a superstar, the answer is . . . not exactly, not yet. It’s hard to imagine now, but on draft night in 2018, Jackson was a question mark at No. 4 to many Grizz fans – especially with sharpshooter Trae Young still on the board.
We know now Jackson’s a stud, and he certainly has the skill and personality to be a star. In fact, paired with Ja Morant, the Grizzlies may have the NBA’s most exciting young duo since Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dominated in OKC.
Morant: Made for Memphis
Morant is from tiny little Dalzell, South Carolina – population less than 3,000. Being from small-town Mississippi myself, I can tell you there’s an almost intrinsic craving to prove that you can compete with anybody, despite growing up rural. There’s an unspoken voice you hear: They think they’re better than me.
If you doubt me, here’s a test: Think of how some people get a chip on their shoulders when someone looks down their nose at Memphis and its people. Got it? Now consider: Many of those same people could never imagine living in my hometown of Holly Springs because it’s so small, has “so little to offer.” Got that? Good.
Dalzell is three times smaller than Holly Springs.
It will become the stuff of legend, Ja Morant’s upbringing – the full-length basketball court that Tee Morant built to train his son, the deafening sounds of crickets chirping as the hooping continues under the glow of a street light. There’s video of Tee putting Ja through NBA-style drills.
“It was tough. At a young age, jumping through those tires wasn’t fun at all,” Morant sheepishly said during his introduction. “I used to be kind of mad, but you see it all paid off.”
And out of that, Morant became Dalzell-good, even South Carolina-good. But was he NCAA good? Despite winning all the way through high school and alongside AAU teammate Zion Williamson, no one was scouting Ja Morant. In fact, a Murray State representative was scouting someone else when he noticed Morant and made him an offer.
None of which is to say that Ja Morant has an inferiority complex. If anything, he comes off as coolly confident, something his father also drilled into him. Moments after donning his Grizzlies cap, he was asked about how he arrived at this moment. “It started with me,” he said. “I felt like, if you don’t believe in yourself, who will?”
The next day, at FedExForum, Morant was asked how he’ll handle the expectations that come with such a high selection.
“I’m going to still be the same Ja. I don’t think that’ll ever change,” Morant said. “Obviously, coming from where I’m from, my story, I’m always going to come with that chip on my shoulder.”
So for those of you doing the math at home: A talented-but-overlooked country kid with something to prove is poised to play in a smaller city with a reputation for feeling slighted and overlooked, a town that nearly 20 years in still feels a need to prove it deserves an NBA team.
If that’s not a match made in Memphis, I don’t know what is.
Again, we’ve had the scrappy underdog story here in Memphis before – but not with a player who’s expected to bring this much national attention along with him.
Will he live up to the hype? Only time will tell. And lest we forget, both Ja and Jaren are still teenagers. So temper your expectations. But it looks like the Grizzlies have potential superstars in the making.
When was the last time you could say that?