#IMHO: Ja, Zion, and the MLK Celebration Game

Grind City Media’s Lang Whitaker and Michael Wallace have been covering the NBA since shorts were short and socks were long, but their opinions about the League don’t always mesh. #IMHO is their weekly chance to weigh in on the most pertinent news from around the NBA. What’s lit? What’s lame? Find out each week right here.

 

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Tuesday, January 14, 2020 at 9:13 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

Mike:

Let’s start this week’s column close to home, actually right here in Memphis. The Grizz are rolling of late, having won five in a row (as I type this), including 7 of their last 8 at home. Since Ja Morant returned from his back injury, the Grizzlies are 12-6, and over that 18-game span they have the number one (!) rated offense in the entire NBA. This franchise that has for so long been all about defense has suddenly been flip-turned upside down, and now we are somehow routinely putting up 120 points per night.

From where I sit, it’s as much about the headliners (Ja and Jaren) as it is about this group being the sum of its parts. On any given night, you could get 30 in the paint from Jonas, or 20-plus from Dillon, or a couple of big threes from Solomon Hill, or Jae Crowder finding someone on the backdoor cut. Offensively, right now everything and everyone is clicking, and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

So while we revel in the buckets, let me also sound a note of caution and wonder, Should we be worried about this team’s defense, or lack thereof? Are all the points masking that the Grizz are also giving up 100 points per night? That the Grizz are bottom 10 in defensive rating? That the Grizz have given up over 100 points in every game this season but one?

Defense still wins championships, right? Or am I stuck in the old NBA way of thinking?

 


From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 10:19 AM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

I’m not as concerned about the ratings as I am about how the Grizzlies are playing within the past six weeks. The offense is clicking right now, and has been for some time. They also play at one of the top-three fastest paces in the NBA. That means the action and possessions are piling up both ways, with opponents often getting as many looks as the Grizzlies. I do like how Memphis has found a level of balance to make sure that there are always live weapons and extensive ball-movement on the floor.

I also like that I’m seeing the Grizzlies get to the free-throw line more at the end of games, which is a sign that they’re attacking the basket and getting some level of respect for their top players. Listen, all is not fixed. This team is still a few games below .500, not the other way around. There’s still a lot of growth needed and there will continue to be some ups and downs. The Grizzlies have three things going for them right now – pretty consistent health, the schedule easing up with sub.-500 teams lining up, and the longest homestand they’ve played in four years. So things were ripe for a bit of a turnaround.

Lang, we’re closing in on the big MLK Celebration Game showdown between the Grizzlies and Pelicans on Monday at FedExForum. This was slated as a national TV network game for many reasons, on and off the floor. But it also presented the first opportunity for No. 1 pick Zion Williamson to face No. 2 pick Ja Morant, although Zion will reportedly make his return from knee surgery in the following game on Tuesday against the Spurs. At this point in the season, which is halfway over, there’s a school of thought that Zion should simply shut it down and wait for next season to make his redshirt rookie debut (like Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons once did). I’m in the opposite school of thought. If the big fella is good to go, why waste essentially a half a season of development opportunities.

So my question is this; in your opinion, what should realistic expectations be for Zion when he makes his return? How low or high is the bar set in terms of determining what’s a successful season for him at this point?

 

Zion Williamson warmup

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 3:56 PM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

If it was me, I’d let Zion sit out now and come back stronger and better prepared next season. Playing a 38-game rookie season isn’t ideal, but in some ways it might be a great adjustment from a college season to an NBA season. So instead of getting throw right into an 82-game schedule, Zion can ease his way back and, maybe most importantly, play without the burden of expectations. Because at this point, nobody’s expecting much from Zion, at least until he gets a chance to showcase a full season of what he can do.

Mike, I was going to throw this around to a different topic from the NBA, but last night here in Memphis, the Grizz won their sixth straight game, this time beat the Rockets and James Harden by 11 points. The Grizzlies are rolling right now, and it’s all revolving around the second guy picked, Ja Morant. Last time the Grizz played the Rockets here in Memphis, Ja got dumped trying to dunk over the entire team. These days he’s playing with more patience, and last night he turned in an entire highlight reel worth of plays without getting decked by the opponents. He was hitting step-back threes over Harden, setting up teammates for dunks, and making perfect reads in the halfcourt offense.

So Mike, my question is this: Should Ja Morant be on the Western Conference All-Star team this season?

 

Ja Morant celebration

From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Wednesday, January 15, 2020 at 4:25 PM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

Here’s the thing, Lang: If the Grizzlies hold that eighth spot in the West standings and are in playoff position by the time the coaches vote on reserves, someone from Memphis would certainly be deserving of a reserve spot on the All-Star roster. It’s clear that Ja has the biggest “star” power and would put on a dazzling show when he gets into the game. But would Jaren Jackson get more consideration from opposing coaches who vote if they are inclined to put a Grizzlies player on the team? So that’s one question.

Another question is this: Would the voting coaches do what they did with Luka Doncic last year despite a showstopping rookie season and render Ja to the Rising Stars Challenge? Going that route would allow the coaches to give the nod to more established veterans, such as Chris Paul, Andrew Wiggins, DeMar DeRozan or Dame Lillard, who would all be top reserve options with seniority over Morant. No rookie has played in the NBA All-Star Game since Blake Griffin did it in 2011, during what was essentially his redshirt rookie season after sitting out his first NBA season following knee surgery. If the Grizzlies keep playing like this, it’s certainly going to be an interesting decision-making process once the ballots are due.

Lang, we’ll keep it local and wrap up on this: The Grizzlies and NBA will honor Robert Parish, Sheryl Swoopes, Caron Butler and Doug Williams with this year’s Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy awards during Monday’s MLK Celebration Game. It’s certainly a distinguished list. I’ve written about my connection with Doug Williams, the NFL’s first black quarterback to win Super Bowl MVP, in this space for Grind City Media. In what way do you feel this group, individually or collectively, has had an impact as we prepare to honor them for their contributions on and off the field of play?

 

Caron Butler

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Thursday, January 16, 2020 at 10:19 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

I wouldn’t be shocked if Ja gets stuck in the Rising Stars game, only because, as you detailed, it’s so tough for a guard in the Western Conference to make it with the logjam at the top.

As for the honorees next week, each of them have done incredible things. I’m most familiar with the story of Caron Butler, because I profiled him in SLAM magazine early in his NBA career. As a kid in Racine, Wisconsin, Butler was often in trouble, arrested 15 times before he was 16 years old. He spent time in and out of juvenile detention, and then decided he wanted to transform his life. He went on to have a great college career and NBA career, and now we see him working alongside us in the NBA media.

He’s a terrific example of the power of purpose, and how anyone can change their life if they really want to dig in and make that change. I look forward to hearing from each of the honorees next week at the annual MLK Celebration Game.

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