Future is bright for Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies, but what happens next up for debate




MEMPHIS - The timing of what Danny Green said and what Ja Morant did was almost impeccable.

Green was up on the podium, using his first press conference in a Memphis Grizzlies uniform to express some constructive criticism. So he talked a lot about maturity. About how a little more of it could go a long way for a group that broke through and became championship contenders last season. About how he plans to help with that.

"A lot of guys, they love to do social media, the TikToks, the tweets," Green finally said during the team's media day. "If we can try to limit that a little bit, and focus on just staying locked into the game and just treating the game the right way. We love to have fun, but the basketball gods will turn on you if you celebrate too early. ... Regardless of how many games we won in the regular season, we haven't won a championship. There's nothing to really celebrate."

No more than 30 seconds later did Morant appear in the doorway of the room, distracting Green with a camera he had somehow corralled and flashing a smile worth more than a picture - literally.

He was wearing a shiny grill full of diamonds over his teeth.

"I lose some money for doing this," Morant admitted, "But it's OK."

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Whether Morant's jewelry and Green's comments are actually related is perhaps what this fascinating Grizzlies season will show us.

They were one of the NBA's best teams a year ago and lost to the Golden State Warriors, the eventual champions, in a hard-fought series that will forever be clouded by Morant's absence when it ended. Their future, given Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane presumably aren't even in their prime yet, is indisputably bright. Probably brighter than any Grizzlies team ever.

But what happens next?

What happens now that the Western Conference looks tougher, and Jackson is likely to miss the beginning of the season?

What happens now that the Grizzlies appear (thus far) to have largely elected to stand pat and bank on improving through the continued development of their core and the infusion of a larger-than-expected rookie class?

What happens now that the rest of the NBA knows what they just did?

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The compelling dynamic at play here is that Memphis accomplished so much last season, and did it so much faster than anybody anticipated, there aren't all that many thresholds to cross anymore. For the first time in the Morant era, there are real expectations to be met.

Finishing outside the top-six in the West will feel like a disappointment. Not advancing in the postseason will, too. The only tangible progress to be made is reaching the conference finals or NBA Finals.

Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (12) speaks during media day for the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Sept.
Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (12) speaks during media day for the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Sept.  

So they have to "do what we did, but do it better," Bane acknowledged.

"We know we're going to be hunted," Jackson said.

"I think we deserve it," Dillon Brooks added. "We've been beating on teams, talking (crap), being the aggressors every single night and somehow we have to keep it going. Keep it fun. Keep it new. I guess find a way to keep us motivated every single game."

That's the fine line Green kept bringing up.

The Grizzlies' spirit, their joy, their refusal to back down, and their outright defiance at times, drove them to places few predicted. To just get rid of that would be counterproductive and fundamentally change what makes this group great.

But in the same vein, refining and evolving what that means feels paramount for this group to keep growing, to go where no Grizzlies team has gone before.

Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (12) takes a photo with a camera during media day for the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Sept.
Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (12) takes a photo with a camera during media day for the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Sept.  

There were flaws exposed by Minnesota and Golden State in last year's playoffs, general manager Zach Kleiman acknowledged. It remains to be seen if they've been adequately addressed, but the whole organization is carrying itself in a different manner compared to previous years.

There's an unmistakable and entrenched swagger from how last season went.

"We're confident in our way of team building," Kleiman said.

They should be, too.

It's why Green's presence is particularly interesting. He suffered a serious knee injury with Philadelphia in last year's playoffs and likely won't be able to play for the Grizzlies until after the NBA All-Star break. The thought was the Grizzlies only took him back in the draft night trade that sent De'Anthony Melton to the 76ers because his contract could be used as a trade asset.

It may well still be, but Green said Kleiman told him this: "You're exactly what we need."

Morant, to his credit, said the same thing. He welcomed and agreed with Green's perspective.

So, he was then asked: Why should these Grizzlies be considered championship contenders again?

"Stay tuned," Morant said, as his mouth sparkled under the lights. "I don't speak on it too much."

It was, some might say, the mature way to answer such a question on the first day of a new season.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies have bright future, what's next matters

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