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Weekend Focus: Grizzlies Shift Focus from Draft to Free Agency

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Five thoughts as the Grizzlies transition from the draft to the July 1 start of free agency.

Draft deals strengthen development pipeline

The Grizzlies entered Thursday’s draft without a pick in either of the two rounds, yet emerged with two of the more intriguing prospects outside of the lottery when they acquired the rights to California big man Ivan Rabb and Pac-12 Player of the Year Dillon Brooks out of Oregon.

We’ll evaluate what the Grizzlies might be getting in those two prospects in a bit. But the way general manager Chris Wallace and fellow front-office executives John Hollinger and Ed Stefanski worked the phones to execute two trades underscored the aggressive approach they’re taking to restock the roster.

The Grizzlies had every intention of entering the draft, and they solidified those plans at the mid-to-late point of the first round. Striking the deal with Orlando to send the Magic next year’s second-round pick acquired from Brooklyn gave Memphis the No. 35 overall pick Thursday that turned out to be Rabb. At the time, the Grizzlies had no way of knowing Rabb would be there. But the team’s logic was that the best available player at that spot was worth sacrificing what very well could turn out to be a slightly better draft spot in 2018 should Brooklyn finish at or near the bottom of the league as expected.

The Cavaliers, Warriors and Clippers were all set to either trade or buy into the second round, and there were reports the Cavaliers and Kings were working a deal to snag Rabb with the No. 34 pick. But an apparent breakdown between those teams opened the door for the Magic to select Rabb for the Grizzlies one pick later. Wallace, Hollinger and Stefanski all confirmed later that the Grizzlies then pursued deals with a handful of teams in an attempt to chase Brooks in the draft order and ultimately caught the versatile small forward in the No. 45 spot by sending a future second-round pick to Houston.

“We had a group of guys we liked as we were sort of assessing the market to see what it took to get in, and these things happen sort of bang-bang on the clock,” Wallace said. “You never know that you’re going to be able to pull it off. Our staff, John Hollinger and Ed Stefanski in particular, working the phones … we got valuable picks there. We had both guys ranked ahead of where they were selected.”

Strictly on resumes, a draft haul of a 2015 McDonald’s All-American and a Power 5 conference player of the year from a Final Four team would typically suggest that team was picking in the lottery. Instead, the Grizzlies secured those two prospects in the top half of the second round of Thursday’s draft.

There are legitimate questions as to why Rabb (defense/limited range) and Brooks (athleticism) slipped into the draft’s bargain bin. But the Grizzlies aggressively put themselves in position to pounce on two prospects who could be among the steals of the draft, especially if their developmental production at the next level comes anywhere close to matching their pedigree and potential.

Rabb initially adds to logjam in power rotation

Rabb, a 6-11 power forward, heads to a team that has no shortage of options at his position – for now.

So was he was brought as insurance to replenish a frontline that includes looming free agents JaMychal Green and Zach Randolph? Does Rabb offer the flexibility to move on from veteran Brandan Wright, who has been injured parts of the past two years and voiced displeasure with his role at the end of the season as he enters the final year of his contract? Or does Rabb’s addition send a message to 2016 first-round pick Jarell Martin that his time to make a lasting impression on this team might be running short?

The answer could be all of the above, or simply that Rabb was picked to be the next intriguing entry in the Grizzlies’ development pipeline. Rabb’s upside is that of a player who was a top-10 rated prep prospect who led the Pac-12 in rebounding last season and produced more double-doubles in two seasons than any University of California player has over the past 20 years.

On the other hand, the knock on Rabb is that he came back for a sophomore season and didn’t necessarily dominate the game to the degree some NBA scouts expected. He’ll get both a clean slate and hands-on attention in Memphis, where opportunity might be an offseason of attrition away.

Brooks’ shooting addresses Grizzlies’ need

Soon after the Grizzlies acquired Brooks in the draft, Wallace immediately defended questions about his athleticism and size by stressing two essential qualities of the former Oregon standout.

“He can shoot and score the basketball at a high level,” Wallace said. “And he’s a winner.”

In other words, Brooks was the best player on Oregon’s best team in nearly 80 years. He averaged 16.1 points, shot better than 40 percent on threes and nailed game-winning shots against Tennessee, UCLA and California during a season that culminated in the Ducks’ run to the Final Four.

For the Grizzlies, the 6-7 forward arrives at a position that needed an infusion of youth, with 35-year-old Tony Allen and 40-year-old Vince Carter heading toward free agency. Beyond that, Memphis’ only other experienced players on the wings are swingman James Ennis, who is entering the final season of his contract, and Chandler Parsons, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery.

If Brooks can make the adjustment to the defensive demands at his position, there’s room to grow rapidly into a rotation prospect in Memphis. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a native of Canada – just like the franchise that pursued him in the draft.

Another seismic free agency period looms

For the third consecutive offseason, Memphis is bracing for offseason decisions impacting members of its beloved Core Four. Two years ago, Marc Gasol never really tested free agency on the way to signing a five-year, $110 million deal. Last offseason, it was Mike Conley who landed a five-year, $153 million contract to stay that was the most lucrative deal in NBA history at the time.

This time around, it’s Allen and Randolph – the two rugged veterans often credited for arriving and elevating the Grizzlies into a perennial playoff contender. Both are considered role players at this stage of their careers, but they still hold value to Memphis on and off the court. The Grizzlies must also address the status of Green, a restricted free agent, and Carter in the coming weeks.

Wallace admitted some tough decisions are ahead as the Grizzlies prepare for July 1, but he also indicated the moves made in Thursday’s draft held no correlation to the team’s free-agency agenda. One thing to keep in mind: the projected decrease in the 2017-18 salary cap from $102 million to $99 million doesn’t necessarily have a major impact on the Grizzlies.

Barring a major trade, Memphis isn’t expected to enter free agency with significant cap space to be a major player for outside free agents. Gasol, Conley and Parsons will account for nearly $75 million of the Grizzlies’ $92 million in guaranteed salary commitments for next season. However, Memphis can exceed the salary cap to bring back its own veteran players under collective bargaining agreement rules.

Memphis will also likely have the use of the mid-level exception to add a free agent on a contract that would start at a first-year salary of as much as $8.2 million should its total payroll remain below the projected $119 million luxury tax line. Gauging the mid-level market and then figuring out how to handle Green and/or Randolph is widely expected to be the initial priorities in free agency for the Grizzlies.

Fizdale undergoing offseason development, too

New draft picks and young roster prospects aren’t the only ones pushing through offseason development for the Grizzlies.

Coach David Fizdale confirmed he’s spending time this summer meeting with professional and college coaches from various sports, motivational speakers, movie industry executives and corporate icons to study different leadership methods he can apply to coaching and development.

Fizdale started the annual process when he was an assistant in Miami under Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. After losing to the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, Spoelstra’s staff spent time with then-Oregon football coach Chip Kelly and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer to discuss how to integrate the “pace-and-space philosophy” into the Heat’s strategy to open the court for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Miami then went on to win consecutive titles after the Heat tweaked their system, personnel and philosophy.

“It’s development time for me, too,” Fizdale said recently. “If you’re not gaining ground and getting better, collectively and individually, you’re going in the other direction.”

Now in Memphis, Fizdale is building on three player developmental characteristics – speed, skill and toughness – as he prepares to enter his second season with the Grizzlies.

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