Eight months ago in Toronto, Marc Gasol’s rambunctious kids ran around the house with an old pal. After 10 1/2 seasons as Memphis Grizzlies teammates, Gasol and Mike Conley were about to play against each other for the first time. But first, pasta.
The night before, Conley was back in Memphis, already his second visit of the season as a member of the Utah Jazz. His return, featuring a tear-inducing tribute video, was strange, almost dreamlike, for both him and Gasol. The center had been traded the previous February, and on opening night received a Raptors championship ring with “GRIT&GRIND” engraved on the inside, but he still hadn’t had his homecoming. Initially scheduled for March 28, it will have to wait until next season, whenever that is.
The two men who used to sit next to each other on every flight and bus ride “chopped it up about Memphis,” Conley said. “Old times and the new team,” the one that is now riding with a different duo: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson. For Conley, it was still weird to see Grizzlies highlights. “You expect to see your number go across the screen.”
In the NBA, rebuilding can be a painful, joyless slog. The wrong trade or the wrong pick can keep a franchise adrift for years, with all but its most hardcore fans tuning out until things turn around.
This is not what happened in Memphis.
As the 2019-20 season restarts on Thursday, the Grizzlies are eighth in the Western Conference, 3 1/2 games ahead of the ninth-place New Orleans Pelicans. Morant, the surefire Rookie of the Year, is as inventive as he is productive, the leading man in the most charming new show on League Pass. Jackson is like an active volcano, a sight to behold right now with the potential to be truly frightening.
“They probably had the best transition you could ask for,” Conley said. “Knowing that you had two guys, both a guard and a big who played together for so long, and you get a lot of great years out of ’em, and then you go start over again and you get two guys that could be way better than we ever will be or could be.”
In separate interviews, Conley and Gasol both described Memphis as “fun to watch” and expressed admiration for new coach Taylor Jenkins. “I’m just very happy for the city and the franchise,” Gasol said. These Grizzlies, dubbed #GrzNxtGen — Morant and Jackson have embraced the slogan, which appeared sans hashtag on the growl towels distributed at their home opener — are far faster than the Grit-‘n’-Grind squads that bullied Western Conference teams into submission, but they make the previous generation proud.
Before the hiatus, Tony Allen could regularly be found courtside, shouting defensive coverages and showing his support. He is now a player development coach for the Memphis Hustle, the Grizzlies’ impeccably named G League team. In February, Zach Randolph sat next to Allen and got a standing ovation while “We Don’t Bluff,” the Grit-‘n’-Grind anthem, played over the PA system. Gasol, the league’s preeminent basketball purist, loves the next-gen Grizzlies’ unselfishness.
“They play together, they move the ball, they fight,” Gasol said. “There’s games they’re going to win, there’s games they’re going to lose, but you can see what Coach Jenkins is trying to do with the team. Their guys are in the right positions. It’s fun.”
It is a “blessing” to work with Morant, Jenkins said before a scrimmage game on Sunday in Orlando, wearing a team-branded mask and a T-shirt that read “MENTORING MATTERS.” Morant is a highlight-conjuring magician, but Jenkins, who is four months older than Gasol, prefers to talk about the substance behind his style.
“Oftentimes I come to him and ask him what he’s seeing,” Jenkins said. “What’s he feeling? I’ve got my thoughts lined up for any conversation. He’s so great at asking great questions about how he can be better, how the team can be better. I think we’ve seen an evolution from a leadership standpoint over the course of the season that’s really coming out here.”
On the first day of training camp in October, Jenkins told the Grizzlies they must compete hard, play together and commit to improvement. The season would be about laying a foundation, and the process-oriented Morant didn’t need to be convinced to buy in. Early on, Jenkins sat down with him for a film session, only to find out Morant had already watched all the clips himself.
“He can be quiet,” Jenkins said, but Morant was never shy about talking basketball with veteran teammates. Over time, he became more vocal in huddles and during timeouts. Last week, after a sluggish start against Philadelphia in Memphis’ first scrimmage, he spoke up at halftime.
For a maestro with the ball in his hands, Morant is strikingly allergic to dribbling the air out of it. He doesn’t hoard assists, but averages 6.9 of them in 30 minutes a game anyway. When teams started throwing all sorts of different, aggressive schemes at him, he learned to recognize them quickly and adjust his attack accordingly.
“His demeanor on the floor, it’s awesome,” Gasol said. “He’s a great leader.”
Morant uses the phrase “we, not me” in interviews, and it actually seems earnest. On one possession, he might fire a no-look, left-handed pass through three defenders to an open teammate. On the next, someone else might initiate the offense, while Morant happily sets a screen and makes a hard cut.
“You forget that he’s a rookie, watching him,” Conley said. “The things he’s doing, a lot of guys in the league can’t do. And he’s doing it at  years old, whatever he is. He’s special.”
The best young players are the ones whose weaknesses seem to represent possibility. Morant is shooting an encouraging 36.7 percent from 3-point range, but he’s more comfortable inside the arc. Imagine what he could do after a few summers spent shooting thousands of pull-up 3s.
“He’s only scratching the surface of what his beautiful career is going to be,” Jenkins said.
Conley still tells Jackson, with love, to stop fouling so much. From afar, though, what’s most apparent is that Jackson is “comfortable with himself,” Conley said. “He’s not trying to be something that he’s not.”
It might be more accurate to say that Jackson is trying to be something entirely new.
As a rookie, Jackson shot 3-pointers about as frequently as Paul MIllsap (3.4 attempts per 36 minutes). In Year 2, he has shot them almost as frequently as J.J. Redick (8.1 per 36). To call him a stretch big would be to sell him way short — he doesn’t just space the floor, he makes 3s on the move, with the gravitational pull of a guard.
“Last year it was more pick-and-pop, spot corner 3s, things like that,” Conley said. “Now he’s coming off plays designed for him.”
Gasol thinks Jackson is shooting “more consciously,” he said. “And not holding the ball as much.” Related: When a Grizzly has an open 3, Jenkins is known to yell, “Let that motherf—er fly!”
Considering the increase in difficulty and volume, Jackson’s improved accuracy (39.7 percent) is bonkers. In December, he made seven 3s in a quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks, looking like a giant Klay Thompson. His most ambitious attempts bring to mind the Washington version of Davis Bertans, and the way he frees himself and sets his feet in the halfcourt is reminiscent of Minnesota-era Kevin Love.
The crazy thing about this is that Jackson’s first NBA coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, compared him to Kevin Garnett. Jackson is a month younger than Morant, and his game can go practically anywhere. Occasionally he makes you question assumptions that you didn’t even know you’d made, like the notion that a team can have a rim-protecting center and a guy who takes stepback 3s but they can’t be the same person.
A couple of times a game, there are hints of what it might look like if Jackson becomes a more polished playmaker. He does not need to expand his repertoire at all, however, to remain a natural partner for Morant. They started talking a month before they were officially teammates, and, as they clowned around and cheered on Memphis’ summer league team in Las Vegas, they could’ve been mistaken for childhood friends. “You just see it naturally growing,” Jenkins said, in pick-and-rolls, on defense and off the court.
“They’re just hungry,” Jones said. “They don’t take anything for granted. They’re not happy in any way or feel entitled to anything. They’re going to continue to work. They’re going to continue to get better. That’s what makes them so special.”
Something bordering on miraculous is happening in Memphis. “It’s amazing,” guard Tyus Jones said, how everybody gets along and comes to work with a smile on his face. “It’s not the norm to have so much selflessness in the locker room.” This is particularly true when it is filled with players trying to prove themselves.
One explanation is that the Grizzlies are living the most charmed life in professional sports, that of the unexpectedly good team. Jones, however, said he could feel it in training camp. He didn’t know much about Jenkins, but respected his clear and consistent communication. Anthony Tolliver, who joined the Grizzlies on a 10-day contract in early March, immediately learned they were not a typical bunch of young guys.
“They don’t play young and reckless, you know?” Tolliver said. ” They play disciplined basketball. They play hard.”
Tolliver, 35, has bounced around enough to appreciate that “we actually play for each other,” which he wishes were more common. “I’ve seen a guy be such a cancer in the locker room that it ruins the entire feel of the entire team.” Third-year wing Dillon Brooks said recent Memphis teams didn’t share this group’s “winning mentality,” attributing its success to a “family atmosphere” and “trust between coaches and players.”
Brooks also credited the front office, led by Zach Kleiman. As Gasol extolled the Grizzlies’ virtues, he name-dropped the majority of the players in the rotation. Reserve guard De’Anthony Melton, Gasol noted, does a “great job” playing off the ball and defending on the perimeter. The same night Memphis drafted Morant with the second pick, it stole forward Brandon Clarke with the No. 21 pick. Since then, all Clarke has done is help the team win.
“Brandon, he plays such a great style of basketball,” Jenkins said. “You don’t have to run plays for him, and he’s super efficient. Defensively, one of the best team defenders out there. He’s always in the right spots. He makes the right plays. He sparks our transition.”
Clarke is the reigning summer league MVP, and he should be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Perhaps no player in the NBA makes basketball nerds sound nerdier: His floater is immaculate! His advanced stats are mind-boggling! How did all of these scouts overlook his steal and block rates?
Melton was another robbery, acquired from Phoenix in the Josh Jackson salary dump. “We knew he could make an impact defensively,” Jenkins said, but the Grizzlies have also been far better on offense with him on the court. He pushes the pace and rarely makes mistakes.
Jonas Valanciunas provides brute force and a soft touch on the inside. Kyle Anderson brings defensive versatility and smarts. Jones keeps the second unit steady. Brooks, 24, is sometimes the oldest player on the court in crunch time, and he usually draws the toughest defensive assignment. If you ask him, Memphis has clicked because “everybody’s in tune,” but that is different from saying the players are always in perfect harmony.
“We’re able to talk to each other in a certain way,” Brooks said. “Like, aggressively, trying to get things done. And guys just take it. And ultimately it seems like we’re having an argument, but at the end of the day we know we’re brothers and we’re all here to try to win.”
In March, Jenkins said he felt the Grizzlies were in a “great spot.” They had started the season 6-16, but “showed pockets of growth” in December, with wins against Miami and Oklahoma City, teams that destroyed them in the fourth quarters of previous meetings. Their defense slipped in their five-game losing streak after the All-Star break, then got back on track when they smacked LeBron James‘ Lakers on the second night of a back-to-back.
After that 6-16 start, the Grizzlies won 26 of their next 43, ranking 15th in offense, eighth on defense and 11th in net rating in a three-month stretch.
“Even through some of the tough moments, they’ve never wavered,” Jenkins said. “There’s been a resiliency in this group.”
The playoffs were not guaranteed and the Pelicans had a cupcake schedule, but Memphis was on the verge of getting Jackson back from a knee injury. “We just wanted to keep it rolling,” Jones said. Then the pandemic hit, and the league was in limbo.
“It was weird,” Clarke said. “It sucked because we all wanted closure, really. We all wanted closure to the season because we worked so hard. We really pushed for the eighth seed.”
As weeks and months went by, thoughts about the season ending were “definitely going through my head,” Morant said. He used his free time, though, to get stronger. He said he put on 12 pounds, partially thanks to a two-week minicamp of sorts at his house in mid-June.
Now the Grizzlies are trying to pick up where they left off, if such a thing is possible. “It’s almost like a new season, in a way,” Jones said: Eight seeding games with real stakes, and unless they have a four-game lead on the ninth seed at the end, they’ll need to win at least one of two play-in games to qualify for the postseason.
Tolliver thinks the Grizzlies have an advantage because their young legs will be able to handle playing every other day. Jones thinks their biggest edge is their camaraderie, which will be required in this unprecedented situation. After their first practice in Orlando, Jackson said everything was “seamless.”
Already, however, there have been hiccups. On Wednesday, the team announced that Jones would be sidelined for a week with knee soreness. This followed last week’s news that Justise Winslow, their trade-deadline acquisition, hurt his hip in practice and will no longer make his debut at Disney World. Anderson started at small forward in the scrimmage games, and Grayson Allen might have a chance to play, having recovered from a hip injury of his own.
The Winslow injury serves as a reminder that simple, feel-good sports stories inevitably get complicated. Memphis made a big bet that he will fit next to its core players, a bet that hinges on his health and his jump shot. No team with Morant and Jackson on it will ever catch the league off-guard again. Expectations have a way of harshing good vibes.
The best argument for the Grizzlies’ continued rise is that Jenkins and his staff have tried to teach them how to “win organically,” in Brooks’ words. The coaches judge them on how well they practice the habits that lead to wins, rather than the wins and losses themselves.
If #GrzNxtGen is going to have the staying power of Grit-‘n’-Grind, they will need to maintain that approach. Gasol called their upside “scary high,” but stressed that it is “early in the process” and “we gotta give ’em time and patience.”
All season, reporters have asked Morant and Jackson about Conley and Gasol, Memphis legends whose jerseys will hang in the rafters at FedExForum in the not-too-distant future. The comparison might be unfair, but it is unavoidable.
“We’re not the same team as before,” Morant said. “Totally different players. But at the end of the day, we still have that grit. We go out and play with that fire. We get out and run, we’re very young, we’re a new team that’s trying to do the same things but accomplish more than the past teams.”
Morant will play against Gasol and the defending champions for the first time on Sunday, Aug. 9, four days after another meeting with Conley’s Jazz. Jackson, a bridge between the two eras, is grateful he got to learn from the old guard.
“It’s beautiful,” Jackson said. “I got to be part of both. What we’re doing now is something very special and it’s its own thing. Grit-‘n’-Grind was something that carried the city for it feels like forever. And I definitely think the fans feel like that, and it’s not something we forget. It’s something that we just add a layer onto. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make it our own.”
In that respect, #GrzNxtGen is undeniably on its way. Memphis fans are “loving our style,” Brooks said. “They’re loving Ja and his flair. They’re loving Jaren. The way we play is exciting to watch.” Even their flaws are kind of endearing. Young, fast teams are supposed to turn the ball over. And when was the last time the Grizzlies didn’t need a bit more shooting?
“I’ve still got a lot of family in Memphis,” Conley said, “and that’s all they talk about is the Grizzlies and how excited they are for ’em.”
Before the front office moved him to Miami in the Winslow trade, forward Solomon Hill told Morant that he looked forward to bringing his kids to a Grizzlies game seven or eight years from now. Hill pictures himself sitting in the stands, content in retirement, reflecting on how the seeds they planted have grown.
This season, Memphis has been the happiest place in the NBA. If there is any tension, it is between where the Grizzlies are now and where their talent might take them. Brooks, who signed a three-year extension in February, called Morant and Jackson the team’s “pillars,” the franchise players who make everything else fall into place. Memphis is several steps away from contention but Brooks believes its pillars and its culture will make it a place other players want to play.
“We can build a dynasty,” Brooks said.