MikeCheck: NBA’s ‘Rising Stars’ game shines global spotlight on Grizzlies’ emerging young core
Long before ever connecting on lob dunks during their breakout rookie seasons in Memphis, Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke pondered a potential partnership from a distance.
Exactly 2,081 miles separated their respective college campuses.
Morant, then a sensational sophomore point guard at Murray State, would stay up late to catch Gonzaga’s games on television. Clarke, a prolific power forward for the Zags, would often check highlight shows to see what all the hype was surrounding Murray State’s playmaker.
But there was one question Morant and Clarke kept asking themselves: what if?
“I remember being like, ‘Man, what if I was ever playing with Ja? That would be crazy,’” Clarke said of admiring Morant’s attacking style and fancy passes this time a year ago. “It’s crazy, because I actually watched Ja quite a bit in college. And to know, at that point, he was thinking pretty much the same thing of me – that’s just really cool.”
Playing together as two of the centerpieces in Memphis’ exciting young core has been everything Morant and Clarke expected – and then some. In fact, they’ve excelled so rapidly and well this season with the Grizzlies that they’ve performed their way into becoming opponents again, now headed for a showdown in Chicago during NBA All-Star Weekend.
As two of the most productive rookies in this season’s class, Morant and Clarke will suit up on opposite sides in Friday night’s Rising Stars Challenge. Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in last June’s draft, will push the pace for Team USA. And Clarke, a Canada native selected No. 21 in the first round, will pound the boards and rock the rim for Team World.
It’s crazy, because I actually watched Ja quite a bit in college. And to know, at that point, he was thinking pretty much the same thing of me – that’s just really cool.
The game, broadcast on TNT, features the NBA’s brightest young players who are either rookies or in their second season in the league. Grizzlies second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is back for a second run in the Rising Stars and joins Morant on the USA squad.
For as much as the game is a showcase of the league’s emerging global talent, it also shines a spotlight on a trio of Grizzlies anchoring the NBA’s youngest and arguably most surprising team. Morant and Jackson, both 20, and the 23-year-old Clarke spark a Memphis team that entered All-Star Weekend with a 28-26 record, their best mark at the break since the 2016-17 season.
“It’s special for our organization, and obviously our team,” first-year Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “It’s a reflection on our team success up to this point in the season, and their individual success. I’m super excited for Jaren in his second year, and Ja and Brandon as rookies. They’re going to represent our organization well. So it’s just a first step in their bright futures, individually and for the organization.”
The Grizzlies have won 22 of their last 32 games to surge into eighth place in the Western Conference standings, and are positioned for the final spot in the playoff race. Morant, Clarke and Jackson arrived in Chicago intent on keeping the fun times rolling.
Slowing down isn’t an option.
Clarke enters the Rising Stars game after matching his career high with 27 points along with six rebounds, two steals and a block in Wednesday’s 111-104 home win over Portland.
It’s a reflection on our team success up to this point in the season, and their individual success. I’m super excited for Jaren in his second year, and Ja and Brandon as rookies. They’re going to represent our organization well. So it’s just a first step in their bright futures, individually and for the organization.
The game before that, Morant posted his first career triple-double, with 27 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in Sunday’s road win at Washington. That victory pushed the Grizzlies past their Las Vegas-projected win total of 26.5 games for the season.
And two games before that, Jackson notched his league-best 20th game of the season in which he finished with multiple made three-pointers and multiple blocks. During that Feb. 5 win in Dallas, Jackson finished with 19 points, including four made threes, to go with six rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 32 minutes.
Obviously, everyone’s goal is to one day play in that Sunday game. But being able to do this at this point in our career is a great achievement, and it just goes to show all the hard work we’re putting in.
“Maybe in terms of how much we’re winning, the pieces are starting to come together how we thought it could,” Jackson said of the Grizzlies developing and gelling quickly this season. “But as far as how we’re playing together, it’s always sort of been there. It’s just a matter of getting out there and gaining experience.”
Jackson played in last year’s Rising Stars game in Charlotte, but was shut down for the rest of the season soon after to recover from a deep thigh bruise. Through just 58 games as a rookie, he became the first rookie in NBA history to finish with at least 50 made threes, 50 steals and 50 blocks while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.
This season, the 6-11 versatile catalyst has improved across the board to average 17.1 points and 1.6 blocks while shooting 46.8 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent on threes in 52 games. Jackson believes the group has the potential to make the jump from the Rising Stars contributors to become participants in Sunday’s marquee All-Star Game.
“It’s just a great thing for our team to have three guys involved,” Jackson said. “Obviously, everyone’s goal is to one day play in that Sunday game. But being able to do this at this point in our career is a great achievement, and it just goes to show all the hard work we’re putting in.”
And one time, I told my dad, ‘Man, just imagine him in the pick-and-roll with me, where I can just put it by the rim and he can go and get it.’
Morant, the three-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month, leads all first-year players in scoring and assists. He ranks among the NBA’s leaders in fourth-quarter scoring and regularly contributes circus passes, highlight-reel dunks and acrobatic drives to every game experience.
Many of those fantastic plays either start or finish with Clarke in the mix. That amazing chemistry with Clarke was something Morant anticipated before the two landed in Memphis together.
“I used to watch Gonzaga to watch Brandon play,” Morant said of marveling at Clarke’s athleticism and ability to run the floor. “And one time, I told my dad, ‘Man, just imagine him in the pick-and-roll with me, where I can just put it by the rim and he can go and get it.’”
And then draft night rolled around in June. A little over an hour after the Grizzlies chose Morant, the trade emerged that sent Clarke’s draft rights from Oklahoma City to Memphis.
“So the night we get him, my dad was like, ‘Yo, you remember what you said after the season about Brandon?’” Morant said of the draft night discussion with his father, Tee Morant. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ And now look!’ (Clarke) is just a special guy. He’s got a different motor.”
Memphis sees that rookie engine click on all cylinders each night.
Morant is averaging a team-high 17.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and a steal in 29.9 minutes a game and is on pace to set franchise rookie records for assists. Clarke averages 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting a team-best 62.3 percent from the field, which is fifth-best in the entire NBA.
They’ve achieved big things together so far this season.
Now, they can’t wait to go at each other as competitors.
“I’ve got smoke coming for me, I know,” Clarke joked of the trash-talking that commenced the moment the Rising Stars rosters were announced last month. “I’ve been watching Ja and Jaren play the whole season, so I’ve seen it all. If I see Ja or Jaren coming down the lane, I’m moving. I’m not getting dunked on by Ja. And I’m definitely not letting Jaren get me in that game.”
Clarke insists his Grizzlies teammates and Rising Stars opponents might be in for a surprise.
“They haven’t seen all of my tricks or dunks, either,” Clarke continued. “So I’ve got some things I’m going to pull out for them, hopefully.”
For the Grizzlies on Team USA, the strategy is simple.
I’ve been watching Ja and Jaren play the whole season, so I’ve seen it all. If I see Ja or Jaren coming down the lane, I’m moving. I’m not getting dunked on by Ja. And I’m definitely not letting Jaren get me in that game.
“I’m not going to give any tips to Brandon,” Jackson said. “I’m going to tell Ja how it’s going to be, and we’re going to go out there, get them early, then make sure we don’t forget to win.”
“We’ve got that smoke for B.C.,” Morant promised. “For that game, he’s on the other side.”
Then, they’ll reconnect in Memphis and resume this season’s thrilling ride.
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.