Swift, sweeping changes signal hope for new era of Grizz basketball

Grizz cubs host Chicago Bulls for home opener tonight at FedExForum.


So here we are: The official start of the NBA season. It hasn’t even been a year, and yet what a difference.

Lee Eric Smith

Despite hanging close for three quarters in their season opener in Miami, the Heat outscored the Grizzlies 17-37 in the fourth quarter, cruising to a 120-101 win. Jaren Jackson Jr. led the Grizz with 18 points. Ja Morant scored 14 points in his debut.

In January, the Memphis Grizzlies were a laughingstock, for several botched trades and roster moves. In May, they were a question mark, for the abrupt firing of coach J.B. Bickerstaff and former GM Chris Wallace.  Within weeks, new honcho Zach Kleiman had announced the hiring of Taylor Jenkins, followed by a complete roster overhaul.

By August, the basketball gods had at long last smiled on Memphis, delivering Memphis not only the No. 2 pick in the draft, but a potential superstar in Morant and maybe a steal in Brandon Clarke – two gems on a shiny new, youthful roster. Clarke even led the Summer League roster to a championship in Las Vegas, while Morant and Jackson watched.

Just six months ago, Grizzlies fans were bracing for a long rebuilding process, one that can take years — and may never happen. In Philadelphia, it looks like “The Process” is paying off after a string of awful seasons. In New York, they’re still waiting.

And lest we get cocky, it could be us too. The New Orleans Pelicans just announced that top pick Zion Williamson will be out for 6-8 weeks. An injury could change everything, as could player egos, contract issues, coaching issues . . . like, even with Ja and Jaren, there’s no guarantee this turns into a winner, let alone a playoff team.

But here at the beginning, with the Grizzlies at 0-1 to start this brand new era of hoops, there’s hope. And it hasn’t even been a year yet.

Rookie of the Year?

Quick: Who does the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft play for?

And right about now, you might be asking: Wait, who was the No. 1 pick, anyway? And of course, it was Greg Oden, drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, but his career was cut tragically short by injuries, starting with his rookie season. And while all the pre-draft hype surrounded Oden, it was the No. 2 pick in that draft that’s had the best career: Some guy named Kevin Durant, drafted by the Seattle OklaSuperhoma ThunderSonics.

So when news broke this week about Williamson’s injury, I couldn’t help but imagine what it means for Morant. The young point guard has already shown flashes of what he’s capable of as a distributor, even if he hasn’t fully looked for his own shot yet. Morant averaged 11 points and eight assists in four preseason games.

With Williamson out of action in New Orleans to start the season, all eyes will be on Morant as the Rookie of the Year favorite, with some expecting R.J. Barrett to get attention with the Knicks. So what will it take?

Well, assuming we want Morant not just to be ROY but to become a perennial All-Star, let’s look back a bit. In the 2012-13 season, Damian Lillard leapfrogged from the No. 6 pick to win ROY, averaging 16 points and six assists in 82 games. And a year earlier, Kyrie Irving also took ROY honors with 18.5 points and 5.5 assists in 51 games of a 66-game lockout-shortened season.

There were caveats. Aside from the lockout in Irving’s rookie season, Lillard beat out Anthony Davis (13.5 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks) for ROY – but Davis only played 64 games that season. Had he kept that production over 82 games, he likely would have won.

So what does it mean for Morant? He’ll need minutes, and he’s going to get plenty of them. He’ll need health, obviously. And having a competitor for the honor sidelined for chunks of the season will help too. Team wins will also likely matter as much as his individual stats.  But the opportunity is there for Ja. I don’t think we have to worry about him seizing it.