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Ja Morant and Grizzlies work on surprisingly quick rebuild

Dan Woike, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- If Grindfather was an elected official in Memphis, Tony Allen would win without opposition.

The heartbeat of the Grizzlies' most successful teams ever, Allen was a defensive-minded, snarling guard who played like he had the city's blue-collar DNA pumping through his veins. He was Grit and Grind -- the slogan his teams lived on the court one wrestling match at a time, hence the nickname "the Grindfather."

Wednesday night during Memphis' final game before the All-Star break, Allen, who hasn't played since 2017, is sitting courtside in a blue suit, his elbows on his knees as he leaned out of his first-row seat. He barked defensive calls, clapped for stops and cheered for scores. He shook hands. He posed for pictures. He got involved.

When Grizzlies rookie point guard Ja Morant, one of the league's most exciting young players, really started to cook in the first half of a 111-104 win against Portland, it was Allen, standing up with his hands cupped around his eyes like an imaginary set of binoculars staring at Morant, who was doing his new assist celebration right back at him, while the crowd roared.

The past was right there in the present, the two working in harmony.

Morant, big man Jaren Jackson Jr. and rookie forward Brandon Clarke will be on the court Friday night for the Rising Stars Challenge to kick off All-Star weekend in Chicago.

 

In Memphis, maybe more than any other NBA city, getting the stamp of approval from a revered figure like Allen matters. Even though he's from Chicago, played at Oklahoma State and won a title in Boston, Memphians view Allen as an extension of themselves -- a player who was willing to get into the muck, willing to revel in the ugly and one capable of succeeding because of it.

"It just shows his heart," Morant said. "You can see when they put him up on the Jumbo, the love everybody still has for him here. ... It's just special."

The Grizzlies weren't supposed to create something special again this quickly. The team ushered out Grit and Grind by dealing center Marc Gasol to Toronto a year ago and Mike Conley to Utah this offseason. Rebuilds in the NBA are usually long and full of losing.

But in the course of just two drafts, Memphis has reloaded, first with Jackson in 2018 and, more importantly with Morant in 2019. The Grizzlies acquired Clarke, who was selected 21st overall by Oklahoma City, with a draft-day trade.

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