The New Orleans Pelicans won the draft lottery literally and figuratively, but the Memphis Grizzlies were winners, too. After going 33-49 this season, Memphis entered Tuesday night’s proceedings with a 19 percent chance of earning a top-three selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. When the drawing was finished, the Grizzlies found themselves holding the No. 2 overall pick, like New Orleans the biggest benefactors of lottery reform.
Zion Williamson obviously would have jump-started Memphis’ rebuild far more quickly than any other prospect. He’s a generational player who’s come along at the perfect time given the league’s increasing reliance on two-way versatility, and is the ideal frontcourt partner for last year’s No. 4 overall pick, Jaren Jackson. But don’t expect the Grizzlies’ rebuilt front office to worry about who they don’t have the opportunity to draft. In Murray State point guard Ja Morant and Duke wing R.J. Barrett, Memphis has a pair of options with the second overall pick who could go a long way toward helping this organization vault back to contention sooner than most anticipated before Tuesday.
Coming into the 2018-19 college basketball season, Barrett was considered something close to the consensus top prospect in this draft class. Nothing he did with the Blue Devils knocked him from that perch, either; Williamson is just that rare of a talent. Indeed, Barrett averaged 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game as a freshman while shooting 45.4 percent from the field. He shouldered more ball-handling responsibilities as the season wore on, too, emerging as Duke’s de facto point guard due to his imminent ability to break down the defense and make advanced passing reads.
One problem: Barrett, billed as a streaky shooter coming into the year, was even worse than advertised. He shot just 30.8 percent from deep and 66.5 percent from the free throw line, beset by a slow, inconsistent release. The Canadian also struggles to set his feet when pulling up for jumpers, leading to some ugly misses. He must prioritize getting more comfortable with his non-dominant right hand, and there are questions about just how impactful a defender he can be at the next level.
Barrett, with his length, athleticism, and ability to create off the bounce, has the rough outline of a superstar playmaker. But there’s tons of improvement involved in that projection, and it’s unclear what role he will best settle into in the NBA should he fail to reach or scrape his ceiling.
Morant isn’t a surefire All-Star, either, and at first glance seems a worse fit with the Grizzlies given his positional redundancy with Mike Conley. But teams drafting in the top-10 don’t have the luxury of prioritizing need over talent in the evaluation process. Conley should have been traded last season, thrusting Memphis into full-blown rebuilding mode without the worry of placating a franchise icon. He wasn’t, and the Grizzlies are probably poised to receive less enticing offers from interested teams as a result of them waiting.
None of that should matter. Morant is the rare point guard prospect who combines elite-level vision and passing flair with tremendous athleticism, positional length, and a developing off-dribble jumper. He didn’t consistently engage defensively in college despite gaudy steal numbers, and his sky-high turnover rate is cause for concern. For a player who who gets wherever he wants with the ball in his hands, Morant is a surprisingly average finisher at the rim and from floater range, too.
But all of Morant’s weaknesses come with the caveat of the incredible improvement he showed not just in 2018-19, but over the past two years when he went from unranked high-school recruit to the odds-on favorite to be the draft’s second overall pick. Still just 19 despite playing two seasons at Murray State, there’s no reason to think Morant’s game won’t continue evolving at such a rapid pace, something that can’t be said for Barrett despite the fact that he’s six months younger.
Jackson factors in here, too. Unlocking his potential as a rim-protecting, three-point shooting, switching, two-dribble driving big man is still of utmost importance for Memphis, and pairing him with a pass-first ball handler who pushes the pace like Morant is the surest means of doing so, especially because he profiles as a better shooter than Barrett both now and going forward.
It’s not a no-brainer. The pre-draft process should and will play a big part in deciding where the Grizzlies decide to go at No. 2. But given his ample room for continued growth and questions about Barrett’s scaleability, Morant makes the most sense for Memphis.