There was a time, not long ago, when a Warriors-Grizzlies game was hand-to-hand combat, with the Grizz dropping malevolent forearms and elbows, all while grabbing whatever fabric they could in hopes of limiting Warriors from dashing and darting circles around them.
Grind City vs. Team Joy often came with postseason implications -- and the only playoff series between the teams, in 2015, was the Warriors’ first real moment of truth during their march into the NBA elite.
On Tuesday night in Memphis, however, Warriors-Grizzlies will be of relatively small consequence, a low-profile midweek game featuring two sub-.500 squads that will struggle to reach 30 wins -- except for one element.
The two hottest rookies in the league.
“It’s going to be fun,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters at shootaround Tuesday morning, “watching their rookie and our rookies.”
The Grizzlies’ rookie is point guard Ja Morant, the No. 2 overall pick ushered into Tennessee and its only NBA franchise by a choir of angels singing hymns of glory and salvation. Though only 20 and coming from mid-major (Murray State), he was a starter from opening night.
The Warriors have three rookies but only one, muscular forward Eric Paschall, is generating considerable positive buzz around the league. The last of the team’s three 2019 draft picks, the Villanova product has in less than four weeks evolved from “who” to “wow.”
The spotlight will find them, and it should. Paschall and Morant are setting such a sizzling pace in the race for the Rookie of the Year award that the preseason favorite, Pelicans forward Zion Williamson, might never catch up.
Paschall is the only rookie with multiple 30-point games, and Morant is the only other rookie with even one 30-point game. They are the only two rookies with 17-point quarters, Paschall in the first on Nov. 4 against the Trail Blazers and Morant in the fourth on Oct. 27 at Brooklyn.
Morant leads all rookies in blocking potential game-saving shots by Kyrie Irving (one, at Brooklyn) and game-winning shots (one, last week against the Hornets).
Paschall leads all rookies – and veterans – this season in hubris required to go directly at LeBron James, taking him to the cup and getting a bucket.
All this in the first month of the season.
“He came in and didn’t look like a rookie at all from the first day of practice,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Paschall, who played four years of college ball, the last three at Villanova. “He looked like somebody who’s been really well prepared for this.
“He’s just playing with great confidence. He’s out there believing he can do it every play.”
First-year Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins has already accepted the Morant is the man his team will follow.
“He’s got that ultra-confidence and it permeates throughout the team when he gets going,” Jenkins told The Athletic last week.
Morant is averaging 18.4 points per game to lead all rookie scorers, while Paschall’s 16.7 points per game is third, behind Miami’s Kendrick Nunn (17.8). In Paschall’s seven starts, he averaged 22.3 points per game.
Morant leads all rookies in assists (6.0) and game-winning shots (one), while Paschall leads all rookies and veterans in taking LeBron James to the cup and getting a bucket. Paschall is second in minutes per game (31.1), while Morant is ninth (27.2). Morant is second in free throws per game (4.8), Paschall third (4.4).
Morant’s play has been a mild surprise mostly because of his youth and the questions that accompany most prospects from mid-major schools. As a sophomore, he played his way into the lottery and then into a top-three pick. He’s a spectacular athlete, a superb shooter and has a preternatural feel for the game.
FedEx Forum, formerly known as “the Grindhouse,” a nod to the team’s grit and toughness, is quickly becoming the House of Ja.
Paschall, however, has stunned most observers because he was a second-round pick, No. 41 overall, and averaged 11.4 points in 110 games with the Wildcats. Not once did he reach the 30-point mark.
With All-Stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and D’Angelo Russell sidelined, Paschall has emerged as the team’s most dependable go-to scorer.
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The two rookies aren’t natural matchups, but each will keep an eye on the other. It’s natural.
What’s not so natural, but likely will be true on Tuesday night, is that this is a game in which their performances will dictate the fate of their teams.