In the Land of Make Believe

I’ve been leaning towards this conclusion for most of the summer, but the Darko signing on Wednesday made it official: Memphis will be the most exciting basketball city in the country next year. With Marc Iavaroni running Suns Southeast for the Grizz and Calipari assembling far and away the most athletic team (including a potential gamebreaker freshman in Derrick Rose) in college, Memphis will house two of the most watchable teams at any level. The college outfit will almost certainly have more success than the pro club next season, both squads have their own merits. Combined, though, no combination of college/pro teams in the same metro can approach the Memphises in terms of pure enjoyment derived from the viewing experience, and for someone who follows the NBA and NCAA with nearly equal interest it’s really not very close.

The Grizz are a somewhat surprising member of that tandem, if only because they were so egregiously awful for most of last year. But with those awful games, a few things became clear. Most importantly, they have some guys that can run a little, especially Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick, two athletic forwards that can finish pretty much anything around the rim. Mike Miller still has one of the prettiest jumpers in the league, and Pau Gasol, though hurt for much of last season, remains an All-Star caliber big man.

The hiring of Iavaroni continued to push this team in the right direction; not only was he one of the best assistants in the league, but his offensive interests suit the talent already in Memphis quite well. Of course, to run a Phoenix offense you need a pretty damn good point guard, which the front office tried to address by picking up Mike Conley in the draft. At the time, I said he’ll be “perfect for this team, although it [whatever vaguely defined thing I decided "it" was at the time] won’t happen for a year or two,” and I stick by that point. Conley will be a very good player at some point in his career, but he’s still a freshman point guard -- and when was the last time a freshman point guard did extremely well his first season? -- playing for a team that had the worst record in the NBA.

Conley will do his best to beat out Kyle Lowry, one of my favorite college players of the last few years, for the starting point spot. Lowry only played in ten games as a rookie due to a broken wrist, but reports suggest that he’s ready to show off the unique game that made him such a terror at Villanova. Playing in a four-guard lineup for the Wildcats, Lowry regularly grabbed rebounds over power forwards in the Big East, the toughest (as in “having the most toughness,” although it was also probably the best that year) conference in the country that season. He’s also an astonishingly fearless driver; there’s no one he won’t try to beat. His tenacity will make the Grizz watchable in even the worst blowouts, although that might be the best time to watch Lowry next year.

Memphis was going to be plenty exciting before they signed Darko, but this deal makes them even more of a reason to order League Pass. While Darko certainly has a lot of work to do, his abilities to defend the post, hit 18-footers, and, most crucially, run make him a great fit for Iavaroni’s system. If Gasol stays in town, they will have a legitimate frontcourt in a conference loaded with legitimate frontcourts, and if Gasol leaves the Grizzlies will still have a young post player to build off while also acquiring players to match their style (for the love of god, get them Tyrus Thomas!). Either way, Iavaroni will give Darko the chance to show what he can do in a system that suits his game; we should know if the “bust” tag is anything close to appropriate within two months (if that).

Ultimately, this will probably be a transitional year for the team, but the feeling of forward momentum makes this operation more than just a fast-paced novelty act. Yesterday on TrueHoop, Kelly Dwyer said that he's "not convinced that [Iavaroni]'ll approximate D'Antoni's out and out offensive blitzkrieg," which is probably true in terms of its precision engineering and beauty, but the Grizzlies are a much rawer entity, and over time their attack could become Sunsian. Phoenix became what they are extremely quickly; Nash turned them into a fastbreak machine right when he signed his contract. Memphis, then, will give us an opportunity to see that sort of team grow together, and the process of watching a young team slowly find their own identity as a running team could end up more interesting.

As excited as I am about the NBA team in Memphis, I’m giddy over the prospect of watching my first Memphis Tigers game of the year. One of the frontrunners for the national championship, the Tigers return almost everyone from their Elite Eight roster from last season and add one of the two most exciting recruits in the country in point guard Derrick Rose. Memphis has stood well above every other C-USA program since the Big East’s rape and pillage of the conference a few years ago, but this year’s Memphis games will resemble Viking strikes of their own; it’s entirely possible they won’t lose a conference game by fewer than 30 points.

For the last two years under John Calipari, Memphis has been an athletic bulldozer, beating teams on insane athleticism at the college level and enough skill to turn the athleticism advantage into regular blowouts. Still, they haven’t made it to a Final Four, usually because they run into a team that came close to matching Memphis’s athleticism while holding edges in offensive execution and defense. The Tigers had an extremely exciting team the last two years; to name just two players, Chris Douglas-Roberts is one of the best scoring guards in the nation and frontline beast Joey Dorsey could probably play tight end for a long time in the NFL if he wanted to. There have been several high profile games during which Memphis has made some really, really good college players seem hopelessly unathletic and doomed to careers in Europe or the D-League, even though common wisdom at the time suggested that these college stars would stick in the NBA. I'll never forget what they did to Nick Fazekas in last year's tournament.

Despite all that success, though, Memphis has the chance to move up to a new level of awesomeness in 07-08 when point guard Derrick Rose comes to school. Along with OJ Mayo, Rose is one of the two best guard prospects in the class, with nbadraft.net listing him as the best overall player for the 2008 Draft. I confess to never having seen Rose outside of YouTubes and the McDonald’s All-American game, but everything I’ve seen there and heard from scouting reports suggests that he’ll soon be one of my favorite players.

Nbadraft lists his player comparisons as Dwyane and Gary Payton due to his amazing finishing ability and lockdown defender skills, but Rose has an unchained, freelance feel to his offensive game that Wade will probably never have as long as he depends on his assembly-line (Jumpman brand, of course) circus shots. To make a mildly obscure comparison, Rose reminds me of Baron Davis before his first ACL injury, which happened in the last game of his freshman year at UCLA (a 2nd round tournament game against Michigan). Before that injury, Baron consistenly assaulted opponents with his unreal leaping and speed, with all of it seeming spontaneous and necessary, like his current self but several times more vicious. I can only pray that Rose does not have a lifetime of nagging and serious injuries like Baron has, because he has the chance to become an even more special player with some seasoning and continued improvement in his point guard skills.

Rose is perfect for Calipari’s style, and his talents exemplify all that will be great about the Grizzlies and Tigers next year: youth, athleticism, depth, and the overpowering feeling that much better things lie ahead.

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