NBA: Grizzlies to start without Morant, Spurs’ Wembanyama set for debut

AP , Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

The Memphis Grizzlies won’t have suspended star Ja Morant for more than a quarter of the season in their pursuit of a third consecutive Southwest Division title.

Luka Doncic
Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic drives during a preseason NBA basketball game between the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023. Photo: AP


Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are running it back in Dallas, this time for a full six months in the regular season instead of two, and the New Orleans Pelicans are hoping oft-injured Zion Williamson’s fifth NBA season will be a so-far-elusive full one.

All of which could pale compared to the much-anticipated debut of No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama in San Antonio.

“I already am,” said Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich when asked if he was annoyed by the constant queries over the young French star, laughing after his quick retort. “It’s OK. It’s OK. Part of the deal.”

Morant is serving a 25-game suspension to start the season over what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called the guard’s “alarming” habit of flashing guns on social media. The suspension came a month after a second video of Morant flashing a handgun was streamed online.

The Grizzlies worked with the NBA to broker a deal where Morant could stay around the team during the ban as long as the two-time All-Star stays on track with his off-court behavior.

“He’s been putting in great work, and I think taking a lot of steps in the right direction and a healthy, positive direction,” general manager Zach Kleiman said. “I would just kind of leave it at that. … You know it when you see it. If he keeps taking steps in the right direction, we all kind of know what that means.”

The Mavs paired All-Star starters for the first time in franchise history with the February blockbuster trade that brought Irving from Brooklyn.

Injuries to both Irving and Doncic interrupted the process of their meshing, and a defensively challenged roster helped keep Dallas out of the playoffs a year after reaching the Western Conference finals.

“If you have the right pieces around them, they’re going to co-exist,” coach Jason Kidd said. “When you talk about two of the best players in the world, they’re going to play at a high level and they’re going to put us in a position to win.”

The top pick in the 2019 draft, Williamson played just 24 games as a rookie because of a torn meniscus in his right knee. He missed all of his third season with a broken foot. Last season, a hamstring injury put him out for the season after he’d played in just 29 games.

New Orleans has made the playoffs just once since drafting Williamson, and it was the one season in which he didn’t play at all.

Now, Williamson is entering the first year of a five-year extension that could pay him more than $200 million if he finally fulfills expectations.

“You either take responsibility for your role in things or you don’t — and Zion is learning how to do that,” Pelicans vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said. “We’ve seen lot of evidence to support Zion growing and maturing.”

Wembanyama is the first No. 1 overall choice for the Spurs since Tim Duncan in 1997, a move that was the catalyst for five championships over the next 17 years.

There will be plenty of comparisons since that was the last time San Antonio won the lottery, although the hype of Duncan coming out of Wake Forest could never match that of the 19-year-old who officially measured at 7 feet, 3 1/2 inches when he reported to the Spurs.

“Of course, there is going to be a lot of attention,” Wembanyama said. “At the end of the day, when everything is done, we are at practice I’m like, yeah, what do we do to get this team better? It’s really stuff we don’t care about. It’s basketball first.”

A look at each team in the Southwest Division in predicted order of finish:

Memphis Grizzlies

The young Grizzlies not only have won the Southwest Division each of the past two seasons, they’ve been the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference as well.

Morant was joined last season at the All-Star Game by Jaren Jackson Jr., who also won the 2023 NBA Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in blocks per game.

They bolstered the NBA’s third-best team in defensive rating by trading for Marcus Smart, the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year.

Dallas Mavericks

The Mavs paid $750,000 after openly tanking in the final games of the regular season to try to hang on to a first-round pick. It worked, and Dallas turned it into two first-rounders in Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper.

Both rookies could end up in the rotation, possibly even start, with Dallas feeling much better about the roster around Doncic and Irving. A trade for Grant Williams boosts the front court, and the return of Seth Curry for a third Mavs stint should help at the 3-point line.

New Orleans Pelicans

Williamson will be joined by high-scoring wing Brandon Ingram and productive guard CJ McCollum. Trey Murphy, a 2021 first-round draft choice, could provide perimeter scoring as a starter or top reserve, but he might miss the beginning of the regular season because of a knee injury.

The Pelicans qualified for the West play-in the past two seasons — largely without Williamson. This season they’d like to avoid the play-in by finishing in the top six.

San Antonio Spurs

Wembanyama doesn’t have nearly the veteran support Duncan enjoyed as a rookie 25 years ago. The season the Spurs finished with the worst record and got Duncan was the only one in a span of 30 that they missed the playoffs.

Now San Antonio is trying to end a four-year run without reaching the postseason. Jeremy Sochan, the No. 9 overall pick last year, will have to take a big step for that to happen. Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell were the top two scorers last season.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets invested in veterans Dillon Brooks and Fred VanVleet to boost their young talent as they look to take a step forward after three seasons as one of the league’s worst teams.

They also drafted Amen Thompson No. 4 overall this year to give them another high pick to play with 2022 No. 3 pick Jabari Smith and Jalen Green, the second pick in 2021.

Though they should be better this season with the addition of Brooks and VanVleet, oddsmakers still expect them to be one of the NBA’s worst teams.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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