Inside the mystery of why top NBA draft prospects don’t want to play for a recently successful franchise

The barbecue is so good, it can make you weep. The history is so rich and tortured, it’ll stir even the most disinterested. You’d be hard-pressed to find better music, from blues and jazz straight through to hip-hop.

And of course, you’ve lived a poorer life if you never saw the sun set as you gaze over the Mississippi, or rise as you stumble down Beale Street.

It’s a heck of a place, and it’s even better if you happen to play for the Memphis Grizzlies.

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So why doesn’t anyone want to play for the Grizzlies?

OK, it’s not that “no one” wants to play for the Grizzlies, it’s just as Memphis sits on the fourth pick of Thursday’s NBA draft, there aren’t any top prospects begging to get selected by the franchise. If anything, they are doing what they can to not get picked.

The Grizzlies should have a healthy Mike Conley Jr. next season. (AP)
The Grizzlies should have a healthy Mike Conley Jr. next season. (AP)

ESPN’s reported that Mo Bamba, the big man out of the University of Texas, is the latest to give the Grizzlies the cold shoulder, refusing to work out for the team or turn over medical records, and even telling “them openly he would prefer not to be in Memphis.” Previously ESPN reported that Jaren Jackson Jr., the versatile 6-foot-11 Michigan State Spartan, has done the same — no pre-draft workout, no medical info.

There are undoubtedly others, maybe even all of the top players in this draft. The Grizzlies have held just a handful of pre-draft workouts and the publicly invited players have nearly all been candidates for their second-round pick, No. 32 overall. It’s believed the only top-10 prospect who came to town was Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr.

Meanwhile, everyone, or just about everyone, is willing to go to Phoenix (No. 1) or Sacramento (No. 2) or Atlanta (No. 3) or Dallas (No. 5). Memphis? Nah. No Bamba or Jackson. No Collin Sexton. No Trae Young. Not even to tour the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, check out Graceland, or blow the training diet at Gus’s Fried Chicken?

In the end, this is a draft, not a recruiting decision, so the pick will arrive. That’s how it works. General manager Chris Wallace will take whom he wants, perhaps even moving back and adding an asset while grabbing Carter, who could be available in the Nos. 8-10 range. The Grizzlies, like every other team, have scouted players in college and international basketball.

Still, every team likes to have a pre-draft workout, if only to have their medical staff examine the prospect. In the NBA, information isn’t collected by the league, the way it is in the NFL.

Refusing to work out for a team isn’t new. Agents, players and parents have tried to rig the draft for decades. Just a year ago, Lonzo Ball refused to visit Boston despite the Celtics having a loaded young roster, an unsurpassed history and the No. 1 overall pick (before trading it to Philadelphia for more assets). Lonzo wanted to stay in his hometown of Los Angeles and go second to the Lakers. It worked.

Still, the opposition to Memphis is a bit peculiar, and not just because the city is so great. Every city is great when you play in the NBA. They can put a team in Moose Jaw, and it wouldn’t be so bad.

Yes, Memphis is a small market in the league, but Russell Westbrook is a star in Oklahoma City, Anthony Davis in New Orleans, LeBron James in Cleveland. Does market size still matter?

Yes, Memphis has never won an NBA championship or even been to the NBA Finals. The Grizzlies did however make seven consecutive playoff appearances from 2011-17. Then injuries and age caused the bottom to fall out. They won 22 games last season. Highly regarded coach David Fizdale was fired. Gasol began looking his age at 33. The Chandler Parsons signing began looking like an albatross.

It was a bad season, exacerbated by a willingness to lose and get the best draft pick available. It was also one season.

There are pieces in place — notably Mike Conley Jr. and, indeed, Gasol for the time being. Dillon Brooks looks like a second-round steal from a year ago, a youthful figure for the franchise. Add a young star with this pick, and who knows what next season can bring? Majority owner Robert Pera said he expects 50 wins. That may be a stretch. Contending for the playoffs isn’t though. If nothing else, a guy can come here, be a starter and win some games. He isn’t going to a full reboot.

Yet … nothing.

If this is a lifestyle thing, then the prospects aren’t looking beyond the population numbers. Sure, the metro regions of Atlanta and Dallas are bigger, but each of those places would struggle to match the soul of Memphis. It’s not like the weather is bad in the mid-South. And none of those NBA franchises dominates their city’s consciousness the way the Grizzlies do.

In the end, it probably won’t matter. No pre-draft workouts, no medical records, no one eager to arrive won’t stop Wallace from making his move. He’ll do it with as much information as he can gather.

And someone will come to Memphis and quickly realize he should have visited the first time he was asked.

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