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VOL. 131 | NO. 131 | Friday, July 1, 2016

Grizzlies Like Draft Results, But Still Need Conley to Run the Show

By Don Wade

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Not a lot of films have their world premieres in Memphis. But if it is summer and the Grizzlies have a crucial player becoming a free agent, then it’s time for a Craig Brewer short film.

While the Grizzlies feel good about players taken in the recent NBA Draft, the team still considers re-signing free agent point guard Mike Conley the franchise’s top priority. 

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Last year, the Memphis-based director delivered “Marc Gasol of Memphis.” And when the Big Fella signed a new long-term deal with the Grizzlies, it almost felt preordained. He might originally be from Spain, but he sort of grew up here, too, playing at Lausanne Collegiate School.

For point guard Mike Conley, Brewer has made “Our Conductor.” The film spans two minutes and 44 seconds and opens with Justin Timberlake saying, “Mike, this is for you from all of us with all our heart.” Brewer’s short makes use of a symphony orchestra with Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen all dressed for the occasion and supplying narrative.

The film debuted on the Grizzlies’ website, www.nba.com/grizzlies, at 11:11 a.m. Monday, June 27, and the time was a nice play on Conley’s jersey number. Spoiler alert: Gasol says his dream is to win a championship in Memphis with Mike Conley. 

“Mike Conley, he’s the Memphis maestro,” Randolph says, and it has been true – even when Conley had to don a mask to take down the Golden State Warriors in a playoff game when he had a broken face.

But while the Keep Conley Campaign is in full force, the team also has to continue its due diligence apart from its veteran point guard. 


New Kids on the Block

Last week, Memphis drafted Wade Baldwin IV out of Vanderbilt in the first round. As a name, it seems like a lot of pomp and circumstance for a guy that the Grizzlies are counting on to be a young purveyor of Grit ‘n’ Grind.

On the other hand, Baldwin showed off some vocabulary when asked if he had worked out for the team before last week’s NBA Draft.

“I didn’t meet with the Grizzlies, didn’t work out for them,” said Baldwin, a 6-foot-3 combo guard who went 17th overall. “I would assume they came to a plethora of games throughout the season at Vanderbilt.”

Going forward, of course, fans will be much more interested in seeing if Baldwin can live up to his 3-point shooting in two seasons as a Commodore (42.2 percent, 84-for-199) than if he can continue to go deep with vocabulary words.

As of July 1, Conley’s free agency begins. While there remains a solid foundation of optimism that he will follow Gasol’s lead from last year and return to the Grizzlies on a new, lucrative long-team deal – and the Grizzlies by rule can offer more money and more years than other NBA teams – nothing is certain.

To that point, the Grizzlies claimed guard Tony Wroten off waivers. Wroten, 23, began his NBA career with the Grizzlies as the 25th overall pick in 2012. But a reshaped front office that at the time had pushed general manager Chris Wallace off to the side let Wroten go. He showed some promise in Philadelphia, averaging 13.0 points and 3.0 assists over 72 games in 2013-14 and then 16.9 points and 5.2 assists in 30 games in 2014-15. 

A knee injury hastened Wroten’s exit from Philadelphia and, more recently, the New York Knicks. He arrives as cheap insurance, especially in case Conley does not re-sign with Memphis. Wroten also perhaps allows Baldwin to develop at a slower pace.

Baldwin, in the ideal scenario, begins the season as the team’s third point guard and then progresses to where he is Conley’s main backup but also capable of playing in the backcourt alongside Conley.

The Grizzlies also believe that Deyonta Davis might turn into an NBA shot-blocking machine. Davis, a 6-foot-10, 240-pounder out of Michigan State, was still on the board at 31. So Wallace did some dealing with his previous employer, the Boston Celtics, and sent the Grizzlies’ 2019 first-round pick to Boston for picks No. 31 and 35.

Davis had been projected to go in the first round. Baldwin, in some mock drafts, had been projected to go in the lottery.

So new Memphis coach David Fizdale had an easy spin job – or it may have just been the truth – the next day when he said, “Quite honestly, I wanted both of them from the beginning. But the odds of getting one of them, when you look at the draft, were very small.”

That’s one way of looking at things. The other way, the way that is informed in part by so many disappointing Grizzlies Drafts Past, is that Baldwin was still there at 17 and Davis was still there at 31 for valid reasons.

Davis played just one year at Michigan State. And while he set a school freshman record with 64 blocks, he averaged just 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds and it took him until mid-season to secure a starting spot. 

Baldwin, while putting up get-your-attention numbers from 3-point range and with the athleticism and wingspan to be a strong defender at the NBA level, is also not without concern. He was a below-average shooter from 2-point range, struggled to finish at the rim, and perhaps arrives with an inflated sense of his current ability level.

Asked if there was any NBA player with which he might compare, he said: “A little bit of Russell Westbrook, with my own modifications to it, of course.”

But hey, give the kid credit for confidence.

The Celtics grabbed Serbia’s Rade Zagorac, a small forward, with the No. 35 pick for the Grizzlies, and Wallace indicated he will stay overseas for further development. Same story for center Wang Zhelin of China, whom the Grizzlies took with the 57th overall pick.


Same Floor Leader, New Followers?

Re-signing Conley is the “first priority,” Wallace said, and Brewer’s film makes everyone feel a little better about the notion of him staying. It is very difficult to imagine the Grizzlies without him.

“Don’t get it twisted,” Tony Allen says in the film. “He’s all heart, Grit ‘n’ Grind.”

No argument there. Still, Conley rightfully wants to see the Grizzlies add real offensive talent. And Conley is in demand.

At SI.com Rob Mahoney wrote: “Once (Conley) makes his choice, a few teams will be left to parse middling backup plans or explore using their cap space more creatively. There’s a cost that comes with chasing any particular free agent, but the drop between Conley and his positional colleagues is the most precipitous of all.”

Translation: The free agent market is otherwise absent any really good point guard. And the teams expected to pursue Conley hardest are Dallas and San Antonio.

While that’s going on, the Grizzlies have other free agent work to do. Chandler Parsons and Nicolas Batum might represent the upper level of offensive targets for the Grizzlies, with Kent Bazemore and Evan Fournier perhaps more reachable. Allen Crabbe could be in the mix and Luol Deng and even J.R. Smith could be options if other plans don’t work out. 

Until the NBA Finals, Harrison Barnes seemed a desirable choice. Now, he is presumably more question than answer, but a drop in his stock could make him a better price fit, too.

The Grizzlies have declined a $9.4 million team option on guard Lance Stephenson – although they could re-sign him on a new deal for more years and less money per season – and have decisions to make on veterans that include Vince Carter and Matt Barnes. The latter has said in interviews he would like to return to the Warriors. 

So, in the coming weeks, the Grizzlies have many directions to consider. All of them look better with Mike Conley as conductor. Because if the Grizzlies can’t retain their starting point guard, well, cue the violins.

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