Gorgui Dieng wasn't sure what to expect. He certainly wasn't expecting this.
The Memphis Grizzlies had acquired him five days earlier. This was his first practice with the team. A seven-year vet, Dieng had been around long enough to know what a typical NBA practice looked like. You watch film, review schemes, insert plays. Most of all, you prepare for your next game, especially when it's your first against one of the teams—in this case, the Portland Trail Blazers—on your tail and trying to knock you out of the playoffs.
Which is why Dieng was surprised when he found himself standing at a make-believe home plate with his new head coach, Taylor Jenkins, about 20 feet in front of him, large plastic ball in hand. Jenkins rolled his pitch in a makeshift game of kickball. Dieng, tapping into his soccer background, wound up his right leg and whacked the ball off the glass partition separating the Grizzlies' practice court from the lobby of the FedEx Forum. Dieng's new teammates crowed and clapped. Happy, but also confused, Dieng smiled—and stood in place.
"They had to tell me where to run," he'd explain the next day. "I had never played anything like that before. I had no idea."
Soon after, Jenkins divided his players into groups of four, each taking with them a kid from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital that he had invited to practice. The teams spent the next half-hour competing in a version of "around the world." The players roared after wins. A stream of yeahhhs and ohhhhhs filled the room.
"The guys have been grinding," Jenkins told reporters once the doors to practice opened. "We thought they could use a mental break, and a little physical break."
Afternoons like these don't exactly explain how the Grizzlies—a team that was selling off almost every part one year ago, seemingly on the verge of a lengthy rebuild—have won 22 of their last 32 games and transformed into the NBA's latest darlings. How the Grizzlies did that is both more simple and complicated.
Instead, think of this story as more of a reflection of the league's latest next team, of how a group of NBA neophytes—on the floor, on the sidelines, in the front office—have found the perfect balance between silly and serious, between organized and loose. This is a team enjoying life before it gets messy and complicated, one in which anything and everything seems possible and where the future feels limitless.
The sell-off started last February. Eleven games under .500 at the trade deadline, the Grizzlies dealt veterans Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green to the Clippers and shipped franchise icon Marc Gasol to Toronto. In April, Jason Wexler, the team's president of business operations, took over as the president of basketball operations as well. Grizzlies owner Robert Pera also fired head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, demoted longtime general manager Chris Wallace and promoted Zach Kleiman, the team's 30-year-old general counsel and assistant general manager, to executive vice president of basketball operations.
Up until that point, Kleiman's basketball experience had been limited. A graduate of the Duke University School of Law, he had spent two years as an associate at Proskauer Rose LLP, the powerhouse New York City law firm that represents the league on various issues and counts both David Stern and Adam Silver's father as former partners. He joined the Grizzlies in June 2015, and was mostly cordoned off from basketball decisions during his first few seasons with the team—his input was generally limited to cap and CBA matters—but it didn't take long for him to impress Pera.
Even before arriving in Memphis, Kleiman had grown accustomed to being the youngest person in the room and adept at navigating the line between respectful and bold. Jon Oram, a Proskauer partner, recalls a night back in 2012 when Kleiman was one of the firm's summer interns, spending parts of his evenings making food runs for his bosses. One evening, he returned from Shake Shack and started handing out burgers. Someone asked for ketchup.
"I forgot to get it," Kleiman said.
The group, Oram recalls, sarcastically "gave it to him pretty good." I can't believe you screwed that up! There's no way we can hire you full-time now! You just destroyed your career! A few weeks later, with his internship complete and having received an offer for a full-time job from the firm, Kleiman, who'd grown close with Oram, stopped by his office.
"I wanted to thank you for everything," he told him. He then handed him a wrapped gift. Inside was a 14-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup.
Kleiman, who has dozens of ketchup packets in his current office—leftovers from a gift sent to him by Oram after receiving his most recent promotion—brought that verve with him to his new job, along with a sharp set of negotiating skills. With the help of former Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho (whom Kleiman interned for in 2012) and former NBA player Tayshaun Prince, who joined the Grizzlies an as executive in 2017, he recognized the Grizzlies' best path forward was to tear everything down.
So the group set about clearing cap space and accumulating assets. When the Warriors needed to dump Andre Iguodala's salary so they could execute the Kevin Durant-for-D'Angelo Russell sign-and-trade with the Brooklyn Nets, the Grizz swooped and grabbed Iguodala (who it was understood would not report to the team) along with a top-four-protected 2024 first-round pick. They later flipped Iguodala at this year's trade deadline to the Miami Heat for younger and cheaper swingman Justise Winslow.
They picked up two more first-rounders from the Utah Jazz in exchange for Mike Conley, who they knew Utah was desperate to acquire. And they traded up in the draft—from No. 23 to No. 21—to land Brandon Clarke, a bouncy rookie rim-runner (averaging 12.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in only 21.8 minutes per game) who pairs perfectly with sweet-shooting center Jaren Jackson Jr., the 2018 No. 4 overall pick.
Memphis also Jedi-mind-tricked the Phoenix Suns into handing over a pair of second-round picks and promising second-year point guard De'Anthony Melton (per-36-minute averages of 15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.8 assists) in exchange for taking lottery bust Josh Jackson off their hands.
To lead the group, the Grizzlies tabbed Taylor Jenkins, a then-34-year-old Mike Budenholzer assistant, to serve as head coach. A Wharton graduate, Jenkins worked his way through the Spurs' G League system before hooking up with Budenholzer in Atlanta in 2013. He moved with him to Milwaukee in 2018, where, in addition to his basic coaching duties, he was put in charge of determining things like who sat next to whom in the locker room and on team flights, key responsibilities for any Budenholzer-coached team, where chemistry and culture are weighted nearly as heavily as pick-and-roll coverages.
Jenkins, who friends describe as "super organized" (he files away every email in an effort to maintain an empty inbox), relished the role. He brought those same skills with him to Memphis, along with many of Budenholzer's tricks (such as taping five boxes to the floor above the three-point line as a tool for emphasizing offensive spacing) and schemes. But he's also felt comfortable making his own tweaks. For example, a pick-and-roll ball-handler finishes 18.2 percent of the Grizzlies' possessions, per NBA.com; that number was 12.2 last year in Milwaukee.
But even the savviest of rebuilds require some luck. And in mid-May, while seated in a Hilton Chicago ballroom alongside representatives from every NBA team drafting in the 2019 lottery, Kleiman received exactly that. Four pingpong balls—with the numbers 5, 7, 10, and 12 etched onto them, respectively—emerged, propelling a team that had finished the previous season with the league's eighth-worst record up to the draft's second slot. Not only did the Grizzlies—who entered the night with a 6.3 percent chance of landing at No. 2—leapfrog five teams, but they did so in a year when grabbing that pick meant being gifted the opportunity to draft a prospect who may be unlike any the league has ever seen.
Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies' third-year shooting guard, could tell even before training camp that Ja Morant was different. It wasn't just that during informal summer runs the 6'3" and not-even 170-pound Morant, "was destroying, dunking, hitting all sorts of shots, getting to the rim at will" despite still working his way back from an arthroscopic knee procedure he underwent in June. There was more to it.
"He was just so full of flair, of energy and emotion," Brooks says. "I had never seen anything like that before."
Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies' 7-foot bruiser who, at 27, is the second-oldest player on the team, recalls a different thought running through his mind during those early scrimmages: "Man, they're running fast. I gotta get my big ass moving."
It takes stars to move the needle in the NBA, and less than 50 games into his NBA career, Morant (17.6 points, 7.1 assists per game) has proven himself to be exactly that. He's the rare point guard who boasts both elite explosiveness and court vision. While his fluidity, highlight-worthy hops and temerity to trash-talk James Harden have turned him into a viral star, his ability to manipulate every level of a defense with bobs, weaves and roving eyes is what separates him from almost all of his peers. He's been the engine behind the Grizzlies' leap from the league's 27th-ranked offense last season to 18th this season (as of the All-Star break).
"It's the little things with him," says Jackson, who's emerged as the one of the league's premier stretch 5s (17.1 points per game while hitting nearly 40 percent of the 6.3 three-pointers he's attempting per game). "Sometimes it's just me getting a little look from him that no one else would notice."
The chemistry between the two dates back to July, when the new teammates, both out with injuries, formed an off-court bond. They ate together, lifted together and shot together. They sat with each other during games. They discovered that they shared a similar sense of humor. "We're gonna clown a lot," Jackson says. "That's my boy." They'll often break up each other's media scrums with silly routines, such as Jackson sliding over and asking in a high-pitched voice: "Ja Morant, can I have your autograph?"
"We know exactly what we both can do on the court," Morant says. "That little joking, that plays a part in it, too. It's the little things like that I feel like makes a great team. You be around us in our locker room, all we do is just laugh and joke, but we do know how to get serious."
That there's no ill will from Jackson—the franchise's previous crown jewel—toward Morant is a testament to both Jackson's maturity and Morant's ability to galvanize those around him. The public got a glimpse of this in early February, when Morant used Twitter to amplify Brooks' verbal swipe at Andre Iguodala, who had reportedly threatened to sit out the entire season if the Grizzlies failed to deal him before the deadline. But ask coaches and teammates past and present about Morant's ability to lead, and they'll say he does his best work behind the scenes.
Morant's high school coach, Dwayne Edwards, recalls walking into the locker room one time with his team trailing a star-studded opponent by 12 at the half. Morant was telling his teammates, "Don't worry, we're gonna be all right, we're gonna win." Edwards looked at his assistants. "We're like, 'What do you mean we're gonna be all right?!" he recalled. "We're getting killed." Morant exploded for 36 points and led Crestwood to a comeback win.
Jenkins says there are times where he'll enter the locker room at the break and find Morant leading a discussion.
"He just gets it," he says.
This is the honeymoon period in Memphis. Flirting with a playoff spot (at 28-26, they're in eighth place in the Western Conference and have already surpassed their preseason over/under of 25.5, making them the first NBA team to do so this season) is beyond what anyone thought possible for this team. But now is when life gets complicated, as the graveyard full of NBA teams prematurely anointed future kings can attest.
For Kleiman, the job shifts from clearing players out to betting on which players to bring in.
The Winslow deal was his first big gamble. (Morant, according to most NBA executives and scouts, was the obvious pick at No. 2.) The Grizzlies love that Winslow drilled 41.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season, and they have little long-term concern about his health after seeing his medical reports, despite his history of injuries. They also think his strong defense will fit snugly next to their core of Morant, Jackson, Brooks (who is averaging 15.7 points per game while shooting 38.5 percent from deep and recently signed a three-year, $35 million extension) and Clarke (the 1.46 points per possession he's averaging as a roll man put him in the 96th percentile leaguewide, according to NBA.com).
Still, Winslow's extensive history of injuries, his likely inability to play the point-forward position he excelled at in Miami (thanks to Morant's presence) and Memphis' willingness to absorb the bloated contracts of Dion Waiters and Dieng (thus blowing up its 2020 cap space) did raise some eyebrows around the league.
"We're well-aware we leveraged our cap space, we pulled ourselves out of the free-agent market," Kleiman said. "There's an opportunity cost to doing so. None of that's lost on us. ... Our sense was that there was no path that realistically had anywhere close to the odds of us adding a player that we think is going to be as strong of a fit on the court and off the court as Justise Winslow."
Jenkins' job will change, too. Right now, his players adore him. They love how one minute he'll break out The Woah during during practices and the next he'll lace into someone during a film session. "And it doesn't matter if you're a franchise piece or the last man on the bench," Brooks said. "He's going to treat you the same way." But as Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown can attest, the vibes around a team can flip quickly once expectations do. Morant, meanwhile, will have to prove that his wiry frame can absorb the rigors of an NBA schedule, and that he can handle the traps thrown at a player who routinely finds himself at the top of opposing scouting reports.
But those are all topics for a future day.
"Zach and I obviously just went to our first trade deadline and went to our first draft or first free agency," Jenkins says. "These are all early steps for us."
Right now, the Grizzlies are trying to focus on the present and relish that magical electricity that comes along with an improbable playoff chase.
The day after the team's kickball practice, a few minutes before tipoff against the Blazers, Morant approached the Grizzlies' public address announcer with a request. He was going to be wearing a headband for that night's game, and as a tribute to his new in-game accessory, he wanted to be introduced as "Headband 12." Later, midway through the second quarter, he set up Clarke for three straight dunks. He twisted his fingers into circles and raised them to his face after each one. Fans throughout the arena, including former Grizzlies shooting guard Tony Allen, who often sits courtside for games, did the same.
After the win—an impressive 111-104 performance, putting them four games ahead of the ninth place Blazers—Morant was asked about the celebration.
"Goggles and headbands," he said. "I'm trying to put everybody on board."
Yaron Weitzman covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. His new book, TANKING TO THE TOP: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports, will be released in March and is available for preorder here. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.
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