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VOL. 133 | NO. 130 | Friday, June 29, 2018

Back to the Future

Draft picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter part of Grizzlies’ pledge to again be a tough defensive team secure in its own identity

By Don Wade

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The Memphis Grizzlies’ decision to move on from Zach Randolph and Tony Allen before last season was, if not on time, definitely not made too early. That said, the Grizzlies’ team-defense rating ranked 24th out of 30 teams in a 22-60 season. Of such tepid resistance the slogan Grit & Grind was not made.

Yes, the Grizzlies tried to engage in the so-called graceful tank to preserve a top-five slot in the NBA Draft and it worked; they had the league’s second-worst record and the lottery gave them the fourth overall pick.

But their less-than-aggressive posture toward winning – leading scorer Tyreke Evans played only three games after Feb. 23 – was not the only reason they lost so much. They also lost games because they lost the identity that guided them through seven straight playoff appearances.

Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (2), the Memphis Grizzlies’ No. 4 overall draft pick, set a single-season school record for blocked shots and was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Allen used to say the team had to “hang our hat on the defensive end.” Last season, the Grizzlies often tossed the hat out. Opponents went unchallenged on straight-line drives. They found a patch of open floor space beyond the 3-point line, measured their shot, and made it with no Grizzlies player within three feet.

This happened over and over. One possession at a time. Or for whole quarters. Or for entire halves. And at the lowest point of the season, during a historically embarrassing 140-79 loss at Charlotte.

The plan, of course, was for the Grizzlies to accept that the time had come to fully embrace changing their style of play. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley had both improved their offensive games in the first year under coach David Fizdale. If free agent Chandler Parsons could get healthy and play significant minutes, well, who knows? The Grizzlies might look something like a modern-day NBA offense and perhaps be in position for a deeper postseason run.

Instead, the Grizzlies failed to make the needed offensive jump – they were 27th in offensive rating – and the defense declined. Conley being injured most of the season played a part, but as the season started to get away, the Grizzlies’ lack of awareness and, let’s be honest, want-to, became more obvious.

So fast-forward to the recent NBA Draft. When the Grizzlies’ No. 4 selection came up they chose a clear defensive-first option when they selected Michigan State freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. By all accounts Jackson, who will be just 19 when the season opens, figures to be something of an offensive project. He averaged 10.9 points per game for the Spartans, though he did shoot 39.6 percent from 3-point range.

West Virginia senior guard Jevon Carter, drafted with the Grizzlies’ No. 32 overall pick, was the 2018 Naismith Defensive Player of the year and ranked second in the nation with 3.03 steals per game. (Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

Not in question is his defensive prowess. At 6-11, he set a single-season school record with 106 blocked shots and was the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year.

With the second pick in the second round (32nd overall), the Grizzlies snatched up West Virginia senior guard Jevon Carter, who was the 2018 Naismith Defensive Player of the year and ranked second in the nation with 3.03 steals per game. He averaged a career-best 17.3 points, handed out 6.6 assists per game and shot 39.3 percent from long range, but the 6-2 Carter is known as a defensive stopper.

“This team has great tradition, great history and these two guys fit that mold,” said coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who took over for the fired Fizdale on an interim basis last November and was given the job full-time after the season.

“There is the grit. There is the grind,” said Bickerstaff. “That’s who we are. That’s who we’ll be moving forward.”

Because Carter and Jackson are such different players, they will make an impact in different places – Jackson often above the rim and near the basket, and Carter from a down-and-dirty defensive stance and sometimes all the way at the other end of the court. He enjoys pressing.

“You look at both our games, and it’s definitely a defense-first mentality,” Jackson said, and then looking toward Carter: “He’s pick-pocketing everybody in the country.”

Said Carter: “I’m just coming in here to be tough, tough-minded.”

Somewhere along the way, the Grizzlies got away from toughness. Eventually, they failed to even recognize what Grit & Grind looked like.

So listen to Carter talk about his attitude toward defense, the mindset required. He sounds like one-part Tony Allen and one-part Shane Battier. The TA part: “You lock a guy up, it’s more personal, going out there and guarding a guy and stopping him from looking good.”

Kobe Bryant famously said that Allen was his toughest defender, fearless in his efforts to guard him. Battier, in the franchise’s formative years, also had the task of guarding the other team’s best perimeter scorer. He was neither as quick nor as athletic as Allen, but Battier did bring his own brand of fearlessness. And you can hear that in Carter’s words, too, when he says a great defender can’t fret over making “SportsCenter” as part of somebody else’s highlight.

“You can’t worry about, `Oh, this guy might make me fall or he might dunk on me or he might embarrass me.’ Because if you worry about that, it’s just gonna make it worse,” Carter told The Daily News. “Like if it happens, it happens. So what? Who cares? Just go out there and play. If you play enough basketball, all that stuff gonna happen eventually.”

So there you have it. This draft signals a clear devotion to recapture some of the past and, no small point, face the reality that the NBA isn’t a costume party. You can pretend you have an offense that includes Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and friends, or James Harden and Chris Paul & Co., but if you don’t you’re just playing schematic dress-up.

“Why try to copycat and be like everybody else?” Bickerstaff said. “I think that’s the mentality we have right now. Everywhere you look around the league, people are chasing the Golden States, they’re chasing the Houstons.”

The Grizzlies? They will chase no more, the coach says. Yes, they will try to make the 3-pointer a weapon for them, too, but they won’t look in the mirror and deny the truth.

Rather, they will seek the reflection of that team that once created a different set of problems for the rest of the NBA night after night as the smart, scrappy, “physical” team that no one wanted to play.

“Why can’t we be different?” Bickerstaff said. “Why can’t we be unique? Why can’t we be so good at what we do that teams have a hard time when they come and see us?”

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