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Ja Morant and Zion Williamson

MikeCheck: Grizzlies coping with absences and injuries in first matchup of NBA top picks Morant, Williamson

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

NEW ORLEANS – The Grizzlies bring a four-game winning streak into New Orleans on Friday night, but could also be burdened with a potential major void in their power rotation when they face No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson and the Pelicans.

Already set to be without starting power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. as he serves a one-game league suspension, Memphis could also be missing backup rookie power forward Brandon Clarke due to hip soreness. Neither Jackson nor Clarke participated in the team’s morning shootaround at Smoothie King Center in advance of Friday’s game against the Pelicans.

Both Jackson and reserve swingman Marko Guduric were suspended by the NBA for leaving the bench area during an altercation between the Grizzlies and Knicks on the court in the final minute of Wednesday’s victory at Madison Square Garden. Starting small forward Jae Crowder was fined $25,000 by the NBA for his role in the skirmish instigated by the Knicks but is available to play Friday.

Obviously, J.J. is a huge piece for us and we’re going to miss him, but he’ll be back in the fold next game. He’s in positive spirits and he’ll be ready.

Taylor Jenkins

The Grizzlies announced after Friday’s shootaround that Clarke was doubtful to face the Pelicans because of hip soreness, aggravated during Wednesday’s 127-106 win in New York. That combination of issues leaves Memphis extremely thin up front, where starting center Jonas Valanciunas could be the lone traditional power player available in the rotation.

In his first comments since the NBA announced the suspensions of Jackson and Guduric, Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said the team respects the league’s decision and will move on. Jackson and Clarke combine to average nearly 30 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game as vital options in pick-and-roll schemes and key components on defense.

“We’ve done it all season long, relying on our depth and any five guys we put out there, we expect to compete and play at a high level,” Jenkins said of adjusting the rotation. “Obviously, J.J. is a huge piece for us and we’re going to miss him, but he’ll be back in the fold next game. He’s in positive spirits and he’ll be ready.”

Despite the absences for the Grizzlies, the matchup still features plenty of star power and intrigue. It’ll be the first time Williamson, the top pick in last June’s draft, will face No. 2 overall pick and fellow South Carolina native Ja Morant. Williamson and Morant spent one summer as AAU teammates early in their high school careers and maintained a bond entering the league.

Ja Morant and Zion Williamson
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 14: Ja Morant (L) of the Memphis Grizzlies and Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoot during warmups before a semifinal game of the 2019 NBA Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Williamson, the explosive power forward out of Duke, was sidelined the first half of the season after minor knee surgery and missed the Pelicans’ 126-116 win at Memphis in the Jan. 20 MLK Celebration Game. Williamson made his regular-season debut in New Orleans’ following outing and has averaged 18 points and 8.3 rebounds on 63.3 percent shooting in four games.

Meanwhile, Morant has taken over as the league’s most dominant newcomer this season and has won consecutive Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in Williamson’s absence. At every turn, Morant has downplayed questions about potential competition with Williamson for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award this season.

Instead, Morant is simply thrilled to see his friend healthy and ready to play at a high level. Both Williamson and Morant said leading into Friday’s game that they don’t communicate frequently outside of when they see each other or when there’s a big development in their lives.

But both expressed support and loyalty that go back to when Morant was a 10th-grader and Williamson was a high school freshman the day they met for a summer workout.

“He did a 360-degree windmill (dunk) on the other side of the court with our younger (AAU) team,” Morant said of the first thing he remembers from when the two met. “And then coach pulled him over to play with us. That’s my first memory of him. I feel like we both know that we have the talent to be on this level, and it was just about working to get here. We were No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft, both from South Carolina. It was our goal, and we’re here now.”

Zion Williamson signing autographs
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 20: Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans signs autographs prior to a game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images.

Williamson’s path to the league took him through one of the nation’s top college programs at Duke. Morant was largely overlooked by major colleges, but flourished at Murray State and became the first player in NCAA history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists last season.

The two will be teammates again next month during All-Star Weekend in Chicago. The NBA announced Friday that Williamson and Morant will anchor Team USA in the Rising Stars game against Team World in a showcase of the league’s top rookies and second-year players. Jackson will join Morant on Team USA, and Clarke, a native of Canada, will play on the World team.

Williamson recalled how he and Morant were the “role players” on the team during that summer season five years ago. He said it was hard to see then what they both developed into now.

And then coach pulled him over to play with us. That’s my first memory of him. I feel like we both know that we have the talent to be on this level, and it was just about working to get here. We were No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft, both from South Carolina. It was our goal, and we’re here now.

Ja Morant

“We might have thrown it out there a few times, rarely,” Williamson said of dreaming of making the NBA with Morant someday. “I didn’t even think I would go to a high Division-I college then, if you asked me. It was definitely my parents that pushed me, giving me the mindset to do something big.”

That’s another quality Williamson and Morant share. Morant’s parents also remain a major force in their son’s life. Tee Morant was especially a driving force in the dynamic point guard’s development along the way.

And that makes Friday’s occasion a marquee moment for both players and their families.

Even though both players are far more focused on the game itself.

“When we’re on the court, I’m not thinking about that,” Williamson said of the connections with Morant. “We’re trying to go for the win. We definitely stay in touch. If you know that I mess with you, it’s not like I have to call you a hundred times or text you all day. If I mess with you, I mess with you. It’s as simple as that.”

Morant agreed.

Ja Morant dribbles past Lonzo Ball
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 20: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball against the New Orleans Pelicans. Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Grizzlies had it rolling the last time they entered a game against the Pelicans, and ended up having their season-long, seven-game winning streak snapped two weeks ago. Memphis has now won four straight games heading into the second of four meetings with New Orleans.

This game is about making adjustments amid a bit of adversity.

We’re trying to go for the win. We definitely stay in touch. If you know that I mess with you, it’s not like I have to call you a hundred times or text you all day. If I mess with you, I mess with you. It’s as simple as that.

Zion Williamson

“It’s definitely tough missing a guy like Jaren on the court,” Morant said. “But I feel every guy we have on this team is capable of contributing something for us that helps us win a basketball game. We all have this we-over-me mindset. We rallied around Marko and Jaren and said, ‘Hey, it’s just one game. It’s in the past. Let’s focus on what we have to do. Next man up, be ready when your number is called, be ready to go out here and fight for this win.’”

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.

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