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Ja Morant in the huddle

MikeCheck: Grizzlies’ rapid progress this season reaffirms promising future amid NBA’s hiatus

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – No doubt, the old saying rings true.

Absence, they say, does indeed make the heart grow fonder. I dearly miss the game I love, and I dearly love the game I certainly miss. Yes, two weeks without the NBA has you speaking, thinking and moving in circles these days as we cope with our quasi-quarantined existence.

The impact of the COVID-19 virus, and the battle to get through this crisis, have drastically altered many aspects of our lives. One thing’s for certain; we’re all in this together – both in struggle and in strength. Prioritizing health, safety and sanity must continue to be the focus.

In the midst of it all, there’s been plenty of time for NBA and Grizzlies basketball junkies like me to sit around and think. With the season suspended indefinitely, it’s easy to wonder just where and how your squad might be right now.

Eventually, NBA games will be back. And whenever that is, count on the Grizzlies being ready.

But Memphis was lined up for one heck of a ride this week.

Jaren Jackson Jr. shooting against the Thunder
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- DECEMBER 26: Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies shoots the ball during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images.

Under normal circumstances, we would have learned quite a bit about the potential postseason fate of the Grizzlies. On Tuesday, Ja Morant and Memphis would have faced Zion Williamson and New Orleans for the second time in four nights amid what was shaping up as a dogfight for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.

On Wednesday, the Grizzlies were scheduled to return home from New Orleans to face the Celtics at FedExForum to complete a thrilling, back-to-back set. Then, Saturday would have featured the first of consecutive showdowns with the defending NBA champion Raptors. The matchup would have been highlighted by Marc Gasol’s first game back in Memphis since the most decorated player in franchise history was traded last season to Toronto.

The payoff from that pivotal transaction gave Gasol a shot to win the NBA title he so coveted in the final stages of his career. And it catapulted the Grizzlies into a rebranding and roster retooling that’s progressed remarkably faster and more successful than most anticipated.

This week, Memphis would have been smack dab in the middle of the toughest stretch of the league’s most difficult closing schedule. Since the NBA’s season was suspended, the Grizzlies’ run of postponed games has included matchups against the Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks and Pelicans heading into this week.

There are at least two things to cling to regarding the Grizzlies as this season hangs in the balance. First is where this team was headed when everything came to a sudden halt. The last interviews I conducted for Grind City Media were with Josh Jackson, Justise Winslow and Taylor Jenkins as the Grizzlies were wrapping up practice at the University of Portland on March 11.

Jackson, a reclamation project who started his season with the G League’s Memphis Hustle, was having his most prolific stretch since joining the Grizzlies. The No. 4 overall pick from the 2017 NBA Draft by the Suns, Jackson had become the latest bright spot in a line of players who were enjoying breakout or breakthrough stretches under Jenkins this season.

Josh Jackson guarding Kawhi Leonard
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 24: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Los Angeles Clippers dribbles into the defense of Josh Jackson #20 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the first half of a game at Staples Center. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

Averaging 17 points per game in March, Jackson ranked as the Grizzlies’ leading scorer for the month and was emerging as a key contributor in the closing rotation. Scoring has always come naturally for Jackson. But teammates, coaches and team executives were most impressed with the strides the athletic swingman made in other aspects of his game and mindset – areas such as his defense, preparation and willingness to accept coaching and any role needed.

“I’m a big believer in learning from any experience you get – good or bad,” said Jackson, who pointed to his growing relationship with former Grizzlies icon Tony Allen for helping find his way in Memphis. “That’s been really big for me. It’s just be myself and control what I can control.”

What Jackson nor anyone else could control was what happened next. Less than two hours after that practice in Portland, the Grizzlies got word that the season was suspended as sports leagues throughout the world shut down to limit the spread of COVID-19. Instead of facing the Blazers the next night in Portland, the Grizzlies were on a plane the next morning to Memphis.

The last few days, ramping up the activity, actually getting to play with the guys and building chemistry, it’s been a lot of fun.

Justise Winslow

And instead of closing in on making his Grizzlies debut, Winslow was again in a holding pattern.

Acquired from Miami at the Feb. 6 trade deadline for Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill, Winslow had spent his first month with the Grizzlies rehabbing from a back injury that limited him to just 11 games this season. At that practice in Portland, Winslow had just pushed through a 5-on-5 scrimmage session with teammates and assistants for his most promising workout to date.

A sweat-soaked Winslow emerged from the court optimistic about finally getting a chance to play alongside Morant, Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks. Those four, plus power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who had been on the verge of returning from a knee sprain in the coming days, represent the five-man starting core the Grizzlies are banking on well into the future.

“I’ve felt great on the recovery side,” Winslow told me that day. “The last few days, ramping up the activity, actually getting to play with the guys and building chemistry, it’s been a lot of fun.”

Suddenly, the remainder of the Grizzlies’ season was set to operate along two tracks. There’s the fun push forward as one of the league’s youngest teams pursued its first playoff appearance in three years. Simultaneously, there’s the task of seeing how well Winslow would fit alongside the other intriguing roster pieces to form a foundational core for the future.

Justise Winslow warmups
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 21: Memphis Grizzlies forward Justise Winslow (7) sets up for a shot before the Memphis Grizzlies vs Los Angeles Lakers game at Staples Center. Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images.

Because of their rapid progress this season, the Grizzlies essentially performed their way out of keeping that protected first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. It was becoming a foregone conclusion the pick would be conveyed to Boston to finally complete the terms of a 2015 trade.

So consider the recent signing of versatile 6-10 forward Jontay Porter as next season’s de facto first-round prospect. Porter, the brother of Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., joined the Grizzlies to continue his rehab from knee injuries that derailed his promising college career at Missouri. At one stage, Jontay was projected as a solid NBA first-round pick.

When COVID-19 fears subside and the NBA clears teams to resume normal training and access, expect the Grizzlies’ performance and conditioning team to prioritize Porter’s development and progress. Whereas Porter might be a future fit, Winslow is eager to be an immediate one.

“A lot of young talent, a lot of versatile guys – I’m just looking forward to getting acclimated,” Winslow insisted two weeks ago. “I’m going to tell myself I’m (physically) there. We’ll go from there and see how I do. Of course, it’s going to take time. But in my head, I’m already there.”

Oh, the possibilities.

Already this season – prior to the stoppage – this 2019-2020 Grizzlies campaign was already a success.

Jenkins, in his first season, was awarded January’s Western Conference Coach of the Month.

Ja Morant and Taylor Jenkins
MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 10: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies and Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies looks on during the game on. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

Morant, in his first season, was a three-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month and favored to ultimately lock up NBA Rookie of the Year honors.

Fellow rookie Brandon Clarke was proving to be a legit steal of the first round of the draft, and undrafted rookie John Konchar had become a steady and effective rotation contributor.

Jaren Jackson was trending toward another uniquely historic season of production as a prolific three-point shooter and shot-blocker at his position.

Valanciunas, Brooks, Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton and others were establishing career seasons in one category or another.

In many ways, the Grizzlies were just getting started when everything stopped. Between Morant, Jaren Jackson, Josh Jackson and Winslow alone, Memphis was about to unveil a unit that would have placed four top-10 lottery picks from the past five drafts on the court.

I’m going to tell myself I’m (physically) there. We’ll go from there and see how I do. Of course, it’s going to take time. But in my head, I’m already there.

Justise Winslow

That process will resume when this all ends.

For Grizz basketball junkies, that provides some sense of hope and good vibes in these otherwise tough times. That’s one thing to cling to as Grizz fans.

The other? Well, that’s the opportunity to look back on some of this season’s most exciting games as part of our “Grizz Rewind” re-broadcasts from FOX Sports Southeast. The series started this past Saturday, when the network re-aired Morant’s first career triple-double from the Feb. 9 road victory against the Wizards.

And the series continues this week, with Tuesday night’s re-broadcast of the Dec. 26 win in Oklahoma City and Wednesday night’s replay of the Feb. 12 home win over Portland.

That bounce back against the Thunder exemplified the Grizzlies’ growth this season. And the triumph over Portland entering the All-Star break was a testament to this team’s grit.

Eventually, we’ll get back to the excitement of where this season was headed.

For now, we can reminisce over some magical Grizzlies moments that got them here.

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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