MikeCheck: Behind-the-scenes story of how timing and teamwork were everything as Grizzlies embraced No. 2 lottery pick
CHICAGO – It was long after those four ping pong balls delivered the Grizzlies the No. 2 overall pick in that sequestered hotel ballroom, and long after Elliot Perry’s wide-eyed gaze from the stage an hour later on national TV registered the reality of that amazing moment in franchise history.
It was also long after the bright lights had dimmed, the production sets were dismantled and the young basketball stars and media in the room had vacated. The Chicago Hilton hotel staff was removing chairs and equipment while breaking down the massive room to signify the ending of a major event.
And it was then when the most subtle but perhaps vital scene unfolded for the Grizzlies.
It was then when Jaren Jackson Jr. sliced through a crowded lobby and into an emptying International Ballroom, embraced Jaren Jackson Sr. and then retreated to a quiet corner of the stage to sit with Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ executive vice president of basketball operations.
Elliot Perry, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Zach Kleiman pose for a photo after receiving the second round pick in the NBA Draft Lottery at the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery on May 14, 2019 at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, IL.
“Hell yeah!” the 6-foot-11 Jackson yelled as he approached. “Did you see what pick we just got!”
Kleiman was taking a brief break from responding to the 115 text messages that bombarded his cellphone in the span of an hour. The two young and talented leaders of the franchise – 30-year-old Kleiman and 19-year-old Jackson – spoke at length about how the Grizzlies entered the lottery slotted eighth but emerged with the No. 2 pick.
But more importantly, Jackson Jr. and Kleiman talked about stepping into a bright future – together.
Kleiman’s message to Jackson at that moment was similar to one he shared earlier Tuesday night while sequestered in a different ballroom to observe the official lottery drawing alongside 13 other executives representing each team in the lottery.
“I’m thrilled for our organization, our fans and the city of Memphis that we have this second pick,” Kleiman said. “Having Jaren plus whatever we do with this No. 2 pick is a pretty exciting position to be in. This is a great outcome for us. We look forward to where this process takes us.”
The Grizzlies now pivot from the sheer euphoria of the lottery to the meticulous process of meetings, measurements and evaluations of the NBA Draft Combine the rest of the week in Chicago. With the Pelicans winning the lottery and the Grizzlies landing second, the NBA is positioned for its two smallest market teams to the make the top two selections in next month’s draft at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
David Griffin, the Pelicans president of basketball operations, tried to remain coy on national television about his team’s draft plans after the lottery results were broadcast. But an hour earlier, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry provided plenty of comic relief to break the tension in the room.
When the Pelicans’ four-numbered sequence hit – 7, 4, 12, 13 – Gentry threw both hands skyward, exploded from his chair, yelled a few celebratory expletives and started to randomly high-five other team executives who were far less enthusiastic about NOT winning the lottery. Didn’t matter to Gentry.
Moments later, Gentry could barely keep a straight face as reporters in the sequestered room asked him whether the Pelicans would indeed use the No. 1 pick on consensus top draft prospect Zion Williamson.
“We’re going to talk as an organization and see what’s best -,” Gentry responded before breaking out of the sarcastically serious routine. “Yeah, right. You’re damn right we know. Before I sat down in here, I wrote down on my notepad ‘This Is Our Moment.’ And I said the only thing we need to decide is where we’ll celebrate, because we’re turning in a big receipt tonight (on our business expense report).”
For Gentry and the Pelicans, the initial lottery reaction was a feeling of redemption for the tenuous saga that unfolded last season with superstar forward Anthony Davis and his desire to leave New Orleans. As the night unfolded in the sequestered room, executives and select media learned the lottery results about an hour prior to the televised show but had to remain locked away until the end of the broadcast.
Some of the most entertaining banter came between Gentry and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka as ESPN’s analysts were speculating whether the Lakers and Pelicans would re-engage in potential trade talks surrounding Davis.
Standing a few feet behind Pelinka in the room as everyone watched the broadcast, Gentry loudly scoffed at any mention of the Pelicans doing anything other than making a determined pitch to sell Davis on playing alongside Williamson moving forward.
NBA Draft Prospects Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett look on at the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery on May 14, 2019 at the Chicago Hilton in Chicago, IL. Photo by Jeff Haynes via Getty Images.
“You got that right, dammit,” Gentry shouted at one point as the room broke up in laughter, even generating an awkward turn and smirk from Pelinka.
Meanwhile, Kleiman’s designated seat for the Grizzlies was right next to Gentry’s on the second row in the room. Yet the approach and reaction from the two couldn’t have been more diametrically opposed. After Gentry’s celebratory strut up and down the aisle, the balls were reset to award the No. 2 pick in the random-but-weighted lottery.
Kleiman reached for his NBA pen and began circling a sequenced set of numbers assigned to the Grizzlies as the machine spit out each of the four ping pong balls 20 seconds apart.
The first number was 5. Then came a 7. Next was 10. And finally, a 12.
A league official matched the numbers to a large board posted along the wall, where 1,001 combinations of four-set numbers were assigned to specific teams, and then announced the result.
“The Memphis Grizzlies!” the official confirmed to the room.
The normally stoic Kleiman nodded in approval, unleashed a brief smile and motioned with his left hand. The Grizzlies had just secured the No. 2 pick for the fifth time in the franchise’s draft history.
A year after Memphis entered the lottery seeded second but fell to the fourth pick, which was used on Jackson, it jumped six spots in the order from eighth to second. The Grizzlies entered with a 6.3-percent chance of landing the No. 2 pick, but a 26-percent shot to jump somewhere into the top four.
Lotto luck actually struck twice for the Grizzlies. After the Knicks landed the third overall pick on the next drawing, one of the Grizzlies' combinations came up again in the selection for the No. 4 pick. So Memphis technically hit the lottery twice. A fifth drawing was then made, and the Lakers ultimately landed in the fourth overall spot.
A month after being promoted to the lead role in day-to-day basketball operations, the lottery delivered Kleiman and the Grizzlies a major jolt in the midst of an offseason makeover. Having already reshaped the front office, the Grizzlies are also in the middle of a coaching search and could be headed for significant trade decisions, including settling on the immediate future of franchise leading scorer Mike Conley and the potential free agency of Jonas Valanciunas.
But the developments at the lottery put the Grizzlies in position to operate from a position of strength, with valuable assets and options. With the Pelicans strongly connected to Williamson, Memphis will have the chance to choose between the two other consensus top-three draft prospects in Murray State point guard Ja Morant and Duke swingman R.J. Barrett.
Having Jaren plus whatever we do with this No. 2 pick is a pretty exciting position to be in. This is a great outcome for us. We look forward to where this process takes us.Zach Kleiman
Theoretically, picking Morant would allow the Grizzlies to rekindle trade discussions for Conley and further restock the roster with young talent and picks that any deal for the 31-year-old catalyst would command. From a skillset dynamic, a Jackson-Morant pairing could be similar in potential to a young Kevin Garnett-Stephon Marbury tandem in Minnesota back in the day.
“Regardless where I go, I’m going to be the same Ja as I was before the lottery,” said Morant, a sophomore All-American who became the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists in a season. “I’m going to continue to work, and whichever team drafts me has obviously seen a lot in me, and I’ll be happy to go there. I’m just going to come in and try to make an immediate impact. Not just on the court, but off the court as well – being a positive role model to look up to.”
On the other hand, Barrett offers a Joe Johnson-type frame and game, which could make him the answer at shooting guard the Grizzlies have been seeking for years. A Conley-Barrett-Jackson-Valanciunas lineup offers enough intrigue to perhaps keep Conley and Valanciunas around to remain in playoff contention and to provide balance and veteran leadership.
Hence, the options seem limitless.
I’m just going to come in and try to make an immediate impact. Not just on the court, but off the court as well – being a positive role model to look up to.Ja Morant
Speaking of timing, many team executives and reps brought lucky trinkets or other items to the lottery. Kleiman pointed to a symbolic watch he wore Tuesday into the sequestered room.
It has a black leather band, with a personal inscription on the back side of the timepiece. The watch was a 2009 gift from Kleiman’s mother, Teri Zenner, who passed away five years ago from cancer.
Zenner was a corporate transactions lawyer in Chicago and was an inspiration for her son to pursue his career passion in law and basketball operations. Kleiman not only wears the watch in tribute to his mother, but also insists on his name including the middle initial 'Z.' (for Zenner) to carry on her legacy.
“This watch is all I’ve got,” Kleiman quietly and cautiously mentioned when asked after the lottery drawing if he carried any secret charms into the room. “To come back home, to have this (watch) and to be here for what just happened, it’s all obviously really special to me.”
Just one of many examples of how lottery night timing was everything for the Grizzlies.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.