Movin’ on up: Grizzlies jump to No. 2 in NBA draft lottery

Murray State's Ja Morant and Duke's R.J. Barrett most likely picks

By Updated: May 14, 2019 10:52 PM CT | Published: May 14, 2019 7:55 PM CT

The Grizzlies missed out on the big prize but inherited the NBA draft’s biggest decision in Wednesday night’s NBA draft lottery, where they jumped from No. 8 to get the No. 2 overall pick.

The New Orleans Pelicans received the top pick, which they will almost certainly use on Zion Williamson, the Duke forward considered a likely NBA star and surefire sensation, and who would have been a franchise-changer for any organization lucky to get him. The Grizzlies entered the lottery with a 6% chance at the top pick.

“It’s a great outcome for the organization,” said Grizzlies team president Jason Wexler about moving up in the lottery for only the third time since the franchise moved to Memphis. “We’re super excited. In the bigger picture, that plays out over time. But in the moment it’s a terrific piece of information for us. It’s a great (asset) to be able to work with.”

At No. 2, the Grizzlies will likely choose between two highly regarded prospects: There’s Murray State point guard Ja Morant, an electric playmaker who erupted on the college scene and rocketed up NBA draft boards during a sensational sophomore season. And there’s Duke freshman guard/wing and Canadian National Team member R.J. Barrett, who was considered the top prospect in his class before college teammate Williamson’s emergence last season.

Morant, at 6-foot-3, averaged 25 points, six rebounds, and 10 assists as a 19-year-old at Murray State. Barrett, at 6-foot-7, averaged 23 points, eight rebounds, and four assists as an 18-year-old at Duke.

With either pick, the Grizzlies would add a young perimeter playmaker to grow alongside last season’s pick, forward/center Jaren Jackson Jr.

The Grizzlies had a 19% chance of jumping into the Top 3 and a 6.3% chance of landing the second pick. This marks the third time in since the franchise’s relocation to Memphis that the Grizzlies have moved up in a draft lottery. They were joined by the Pelicans, New York Knicks (third) and Los Angeles Lakers (fourth) in the Top 4.

The second pick is, at the moment, the only one the Grizzlies hold in the June 20 draft. The Grizzlies’ second-round pick at No. 38 is now owned by the Chicago Bulls as a result of January’s trade for wing Justin Holiday.

With the lottery behind them and draft prep ahead, the Grizzlies are likely to hire a head coach in the coming weeks. They will also need to decide whether to try to entice center Jonas Valanciunas – whose option date on his $17.6 million for next season is June 13 – with a multiyear offer. And, biggest of all, they will need to decide whether to trade franchise stalwart Mike Conley, and then to execute a deal if that decision is in the affirmative.

The looming Conley question makes this biggest decision in the draft a potential double one for the Grizzlies: Does the draft decision impact the Conley decision, or vice versa? If the Grizzlies think Morant is the best prospect on the board, does that make them more likely to trade Conley? Or does the presence of Conley make them more likely to draft Barrett?

Conversely, if the Grizzlies think Barrett is the best prospect on the board, does that make them less likely to trade Conley? Or does a sense of needing to trade Conley make Morant the more likely pick anyway?

Or can the team's new leadership treat these as discrete decisions?

Unsurprisingly, the franchise wasn’t interested in bringing much clarity to these questions in the immediate glow of their good fortune.   

“You have to do what’s best for the franchise in the moment and in the long haul. You’re looking at an enormous number of factors that all work together,” said Wexler. “You’ve got a great opportunity in this No. 2 pick and you’ve got an All-NBA caliber point guard on your roster. So you go about trying to figure out what the best near- and long-term outcomes are for your team.”

As for the coaching decision, Wexler said the draft lottery result wouldn’t impact the timing of a hire.

“We’re going to still move at our own pace. This doesn’t force our hand on any timetable,” said Wexler.

The Grizzlies were represented on the lottery broadcast for the second year in a row by minority owner and franchise director of player support Elliot Perry. New executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman represented the team in the closed room where the actual drawing took place, prior to the broadcast.

“I’m super, super elated for our franchise and for our city,” Perry said in an interview scrum after the lottery.

It represents a pretty good first “transaction” for Kleiman in his new role as a lead executive, even if he was helpless in the outcome.

“I’ve always said you have to be smart and you have to be lucky,” said Wexler. “Now we have to go be smart and keep being smart. And maybe some more luck will come along the way too.”

The Grizzlies franchise has a lengthy but rather shaky history with the No. 2 pick. The Grizzlies picked second three times – in succession – in Vancouver. In 1998, they selected point guard Mike Bibby, who had a nice career with the franchise before being traded to Sacramento for Jason Williams on the eve of the franchise’s move to Memphis. In 1999, second pick Steve Francis forced a trade to Houston after being unhappy about being picked by the team. In a historically bad 2000 draft, the team selected Stromile Swift second.

This will be the third time the Grizzlies have moved up to No. 2 during a draft lottery since moving to Memphis, but only the second time they’ve actually gotten the No. 2 pick. In 2003, the Grizzlies moved from No. 6 to No. 2 but had to send the pick to Detroit to satisfy a previous trade. In 2009, the Grizzlies again jumped from No. 6 to No. 2, but picked Hasheem Thabeet, who went on to be a historically bad pick.

In rising from No. 8 to No. 2 under new, flatter lottery rules, the Grizzlies made their biggest lottery jump in franchise history.

Of the 14 teams eligible for the top pick in this year’s draft, the Grizzlies were among five who had never won the top pick since the draft lottery began in 1985, and were one of only two, along with the Miami Heat, who had never picked first in any NBA draft.


Memphis Grizzlies NBA Draft Ja Morant R.J. Barrett Zion Williamson
Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollentine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

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