LAS VEGAS – The waiting was excruciating.
Just imagine unwrapping a gift, but then being prevented from opening it, embracing it and enjoying it for more than two weeks. Having to juggle that anticipation, that angst and that nervous energy for that long was essentially unbearable for Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen.
“It’s been tough – it sucks,” Clarke said of coping with the delay. “I haven’t been able to practice. I’ve been doing individual work. Now, all of that is done and I’m just glad I can be a full part of the team.”
Allen shared those sentiments.
“The last two weeks, maybe more, has been the waiting game and I’ve been waiting for it to become official,” Allen explained. “It feels good to put on that jersey and it feels like things are starting to get going for next season. My energy level started to build and I got excited. I’m looking forward to it now.”
Those were the emotions Clarke and Allen carried into their first official appearance with the Grizzlies, when finally freed to unleash all of their pent-up energy to combine for 34 points, six rebounds, four assists and two blocks in Sunday’s victory over the Clippers in the Las Vegas Summer League.
It feels good to put on that jersey and it feels like things are starting to get going for next season. My energy level started to build and I got excited. I’m looking forward to it now.Grayson Allen
And it’s that same vibe that will push them to build on that debut when the Grizzlies return to action in Tuesday’s game against the Suns. Clarke and Allen were acquired by the Grizzlies as part of the June 19 agreement between the Grizzlies and Jazz that sent Mike Conley to Utah in exchange for three players and two first-round draft picks.
Grayson Allen #3 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbles up court against the LA Clippers during Day 3 of the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League on July 7, 2019 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Garrett Ellwood via Getty Images.
A day later, the Grizzlies moved two spots up in the June 20 draft from No. 23 to No. 21 by trading the first of those two picks from Utah to Oklahoma City to select the uber-athletic Clarke out of Gonzaga. Because of salary-cap implications and the complexity of those deals, the trades could not be completed until the NBA’s annual moratorium was lifted on Saturday.
In essence, that meant Clarke and Allen had to sit idle for 19 days before they could join the Grizzlies. No wonder they exploded the way they did at the first opportunity to join the summer movement in Memphis. In the 6-foot-8 Clarke, the Grizzlies landed one of the draft’s most athletically gifted forwards to pair in with 19-year-old, All-NBA rookie team pick Jaren Jackson Jr. in a potentially dynamic frontcourt.
The 6-foot-5 Allen, a 2018 first-round pick who played 38 games last season for the Jazz, joins a backcourt rotation anchored by point guard Ja Morant, who the Grizzlies selected with the No. 2 overall pick in last month’s draft. Although both Jackson and Morant are sitting out of summer league play, both have been with the team in Las Vegas and were animated on the bench each time Clarke or Allen made a highlight-level play in that first outing.
Considering Clarke and Allen combined for nine of the team’s first 11 points in that game, it meant Jackson and Morant were every bit as active on the sidelines as their new teammates were on the court. The remaining summer league games, practice sessions and meetings are opportunities to get Clarke and Allen acclimated to new coach Taylor Jenkins’ up-tempo, free-flowing offensive system. The Grizzlies are 4-1 overall, counting both the Salt Lake City and Vegas summer leagues, and have won all four games by double-figure margins with one of the most prolific offenses in the field.
Playing here is something I’ve been working toward forever, and to finally be here and get off to a great start, I’m just looking forward to more of those moments.Brandon Clarke
Based on initial impressions, the Grizzlies added two seamless fits.
“Fun is the word,” Jenkins said in describing how it feels to finally get to work Clarke and Allen into the system he’s developing. “Coaching basketball, I’m blessed to be where I am and to be able to put a young team together with our group. Summer league is a short amount of time, with guys coming in early, coming in late, it doesn’t matter. They’re hungry, a hungry group that wants to play together and get better. And that’s exciting to me as a coach.”
Clarke insists he had a “rusty” performance in his first summer game. That rust included the combo forward knocking down his first four shots – three dunks and a three-pointer – and pumping in 17 points in 17 minutes, with Memphis outscoring its opponent by 23 when Clarke was on the floor.
Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives to the basket against the LA Clippers during Day 3 of the 2019 Las Vegas Summer League on July 7, 2019 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Garrett Ellwood via Getty Images.
“There are still a lot of things I’d like to show, but it’s a very long journey that I have, so I’m definitely looking forward to it,” said Clarke, who led the nation in both field-goal percentage (68.7%) and blocks (117) as a junior last season at Gonzaga. “Playing here is something I’ve been working toward forever, and to finally be here and get off to a great start, I’m just looking forward to more of those moments.”
Clarke’s connection with the Grizzlies goes back well before the team targeted him in the draft. Born in western Canada, the first NBA game Clarke ever attended was when his family took him as a toddler to see the then-Vancouver Grizzlies 20 years ago. Clarke’s family relocated to Arizona, where he grew up trying to pattern his game after his favorite players, including former Suns forward Amar’e Stoudemire.
While waiting on his trade to Memphis to become official, Clarke worked on his conditioning and three-point range, determined to improve on a shot he rarely took in college. Clarke shot just 4-for-15 from beyond the arc in 37 games last season. So despite Clarke’s handful of vicious dunks the other night, the plays that drew the most satisfaction from Jenkins were Clarke’s chase-down blocked shot in transition and then seeing him confidently step behind the line early to drain his only three-point look.
“Obviously the athletic ability – the rolls defensively and offensively around the rim – is incredible,” Jenkins said of Clarke. “He’s a competitor at heart, and that jumps out even beyond him dunking and making threes. It’s great when you’ve got that in your arsenal. He made his first NBA three. I know he’s been working really hard on that in his game, and that’s where we’re going to challenge him.”
Clarke accepts that challenge, largely because he knows it’ll make him a more compatible threat on the floor alongside the 6-11 Jackson, who’s already a versatile scorer from the post to the three-point line. Ultimately, the Grizzlies see Jackson and Clarke ideally developing as an interchangeable tandem at the forward spots. Clarke said he experienced a similar chemistry dynamic at Gonzaga where he played with rookie lottery pick Rui Hachimura, a 6-8 forward selected ninth overall by the Wizards last month.
He’s a competitor at heart, and that jumps out even beyond him dunking and making threes. It’s great when you’ve got that in your arsenal. He made his first NBA three. I know he’s been working really hard on that in his game, and that’s where we’re going to challenge him.Taylor Jenkins
“I think it can be a great fit,” Clarke said of meshing with Jackson and being another target for Morant. “I’m a player that (makes aggressive) plays like that always. Jaren is obviously a really great talent and Ja is, too. Ja is a great passer, so I play really well with guys like that and can help with their games. Playing with Rui last year, I’m used to playing with another active big. So I feel like I’ll pair up well with Jaren.”
Grayson Allen #24 and Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Utah Jazz practice at FedExForum in Memphis on March 08, 2019 in Memphis, TN. Photo by Melissa Majchrzak via Getty Images.
Meanwhile, Allen hopes to earn a bigger role in Memphis than he had in Utah, where playing time on the wing was sparse behind Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum, Kyle Korver and Royce O’Neale. The Grizzlies are operating with a clean slate, having already traded all five starters from last year’s season opener and having moved on from nine of the 12 players on the active list for April’s regular season finale.
Memphis has executed nearly 10 trades since February, including a flurry the past few weeks to reshape the roster and stockpile future assets under a restructured basketball front office headed by executive vice president Zach Kleiman. The team is prioritizing a younger core, which underscores the importance of what the Grizzlies are building on the court through summer league play.
Jenkins isn’t simply searching for prospects to add to the franchise’s developmental pipeline. There are key rotation spots up for grabs heading into next season, with first steps taken right now. So, there’s no longer time to waste for those who got caught in the waiting game for transactions to officially clear.
That’s why Allen has quickly traded his angst for fresh opportunity.
“There’s always that initial day of being in shock – I was in Utah for our first day of (summer) workouts when it happened,” Allen said of how he handled the trade-and-wait process. “Then I had to bounce. Then after that, you start looking forward to things with Memphis, like, ‘Who are we going to draft? Who are we going to get? What’s next?’”
Many of those exciting answers are starting to arrive.
For Clarke and Allen, especially, the wait is over.
And the fun’s just beginning.
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