MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Grizzlies, looking to replace Mike Conley at point guard, took Murray State sophomore Ja Morant with the second overall pick in Thursday night's NBA draft.
Morant appeared to be the Grizzlies target almost as soon as the franchise got the second pick in the lottery. The predictions became more certain Wednesday when Memphis traded Conley to the Utah Jazz for a trio of players, clearing a spot for Morant with the Grizzlies firmly in rebuilding mode.
The 6-foot-3 Morant was the spark plug for Murray State as the Racers won the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in March. The point guard drew little attention out of high school in South Carolina.
His draft stock skyrocketed as Morant averaged 24.5 points last season — seventh in Division I — while also handing out 10 assists and grabbing 5.7 rebounds. He became the first person to average 20 points and 10 assists since the NCAA began tracking assists in 1983-84.
Morant, 19, had three triple-doubles last season, including one against Marquette in the Racers' opening victory of the NCAA Tournament.
Dressed in a lavender suit with white stripes and a chain with "12" on it around his neck, Morant became slightly emotional as he talked about reaching this level of his basketball career with the help of his father.
"It feels good to be able to accomplish my dream," Morant said. "How I got here, it's crazy. It probably give a lot people more confidence, and I'm just very excited."
Memphis got a glimpse of life without Conley at the end of last season, when the veteran sat out the final six games with left ankle soreness. Conley's absence in those final games allowed the Grizzlies to look at Delon Wright, obtained in a trade deadline move, as their starting point guard. Wright closed the season with three triple-doubles in the final four games.
Still, point guard seemed Memphis' focus well before Wednesday's trade of Conley and Morant was the target.
"It started with me," Morant said. "I feel like if you don't believe in yourself then who will? I had the right people around me, my family, coaches always lift me up and push me to work harder and be the best I can be."
Memphis finished last season 33-49, 24 games behind Western Conference champ Golden State Warriors and 15 games out of the conference's final playoff spot. The Grizzlies needed a coin toss and luck moving up in the draft lottery to the franchise's highest selection since 2009 when this franchise took Hasheem Thabeet. Memphis missed out on James Harden and Steph Curry that draft.
This season marked the final breath of the grit-and-grind character that carried Memphis to a franchise-record seven straight playoff appearances. As the February trade deadline approached, the team announced that cornerstones Conley and center Marc Gasol were available for trades. The Grizzlies couldn't find the proper trade partner for Conley but sent Gasol to Toronto where he helped the Raptors win the franchise's first NBA championship.
Trading Conley was only a matter of time. On the eve of this draft, Memphis sent the veteran point guard to Utah for three players and two draft picks, including Utah's No. 23 overall pick in Thursday's draft in a deal that cannot be official until the new league year starts on July 6.
Morant has the reputation as a smooth, but explosive point guard with excellent floor vision evidenced by his 10 assists a game last season. Questions about his defense may be attributed to the Racers' dependence on his offense and floor leadership, coupled with his extended minutes. Arthroscopic surgery earlier this month to clean up his right knee also did not deter the Grizzlies.
Now the Grizzlies can team Morant with Jaren Jackson Jr., last year's No. 4 overall pick, as the starting blocks for Memphis' rebuild. Grizzlies controlling owner Robert Pera fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff the day after the season ended, and a revamped front office hired 34-year-old Milwaukee Bucks assistant Taylor Jenkins last week to oversee this new, younger roster.