One of the best surprises of the season has been the play of the Memphis Grizzlies, as they’ve managed to claw their way to 20-22 halfway through the season, good enough for the eighth spot in the Western Conference. For a team with low expectations given how many young players are on the roster, it’s been an impressive run, spurred on by the play of the near-unanimous midseason Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant.
Around Morant is a mixture of fellow youngsters and some journeyman veterans that seem to have found a comfortable playing home in Memphis. Among those vets is Solomon Hill, who is in his first season with the Grizzlies. Hill is enjoying one of his best shooting seasons of his career, finding a comfortable role spacing the floor around Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and the rest of Memphis’ young, budding core.
He’s also embracing Memphis as his home off the floor, and ahead of the Grizzlies home game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hill hosted a screening of Just Mercy for 300 mentor-mentee pairs in the city, followed by a roundtable discussion on the problems with the criminal justice system. Dime spoke with Hill over the weekend about that experience and why he felt it was important, as well as some discussion of the Grizzlies recent hot streak and Morant’s impressive play as a rookie point guard.
What’s this first half of the season been like in seeing this young team come together and start playing really good basketball of late to get into position to battle for a playoff spot?
Yeah, you’ve got to give a lot of credit for the turnaround to the front office and the coaching staff. It’s one thing to put a team together that possibly looks good on paper and have high expectations for that team, and they don’t live up to expectations everyone around them has. It’s another thing for them to bring in the next generation of young players and then also being able to put a couple key pieces of veterans around them without going crazy over the salary cap.
And then it’s on us to go out there every night and compete for one another, I think one thing that really adds to our team is that we don’t have that one guy scoring-wise that just goes out every night and puts up 20-30 points. If you look at our scoreboard every night, it could be a number of guys that can get it going, with Ja at the helm feeding everybody and getting everybody going. I think with him, playing our point guard position, everyone feels like the sky is the limit. As long as we compete on the defensive end together, it’s fun out there.
I wanted to ask about Ja [Morant], because rookie point guards tend to have a steep learning curve both from adjusting your game to the speed of the NBA and learning to lead a team. What’s impressed you the most about his transition to the NBA and the apparent calm he has on the floor?
I think that’s it. That calm. He’s not overly trying to compensate or trying to show doubters. He’s not going out there every night to try and make a name for himself. He goes out there and he just plays the game how he knows how to play. I think that sense of calm that we get from him, it radiates through the locker room, cause we’re all out there for him. The plays that he’s making, you know, everyone just gravitates to him and we’re ready to ride with him. And that’s tough because the point guard position is probably one of the most competitive positions in the league. Especially with how the game has changed with how you have more scoring guards in today’s game than anything, but he has that dog in him. He wants to go out and compete with the best of them and he brings it every single night.
What’d you think of that pass on Friday night he made behind the back in the air? I’ve never seen anything quite like that.
Yeah, I’ve never seen anyone pass the ball with their head at the rim, but that’s how he plays. He’s explosive. One of the things everyone’s harping on is worrying about his landing and his landing techniques, and I think that’s going to grow. I think he’ll be a little bit less explosive with that play-making once he starts getting the fouls. It’s really hard for bigs to step up and for them to get a hand on him, so it’s hard for them to make the calls right now. But he’s going to start getting those calls and then he’ll be able to dictate when he wants to be explosive and when he doesn’t. It’s pretty crazy seeing it. It’s one thing to see it on TV, but it’s another to be right there and see it from the top of the key.
Y’all will host the Pelicans on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. What does it mean to you to have the chance to play on MLK Day in Memphis?
You know what, it’s really crazy I had the opportunity to play here the year before with the Pelicans here, and it’s a special day. When you fill the arena, and not just for that game, but when you look around the arena and everyone that works within the staff for both teams and the people that work within that arena and the people that come to the games, it shows you how far we’ve come since he made a stand. Since he fought for what was right, and ultimately gave his life for something bigger than himself.
You recently hosted a screening of Just Mercy for mentor-mentee pairs in Memphis. Why was it important to you to put on that event and what did you take away from that?
I feel like a lot of things get lost in translation. The good, the bad, the ugly can easily be swept under the rug and forgotten, but that’s not what makes me appreciate where we are now. Just like we talked about with MLK Day, you celebrate the things he stood and now we’re getting to this place where some of the things he fought for are coming to fruition, but we can’t forget when he said he had a dream and the things he went through when he came up with that speech. That’s the same thing we have to think about with certain things and aspects that go on in America today.
The criminal justice system is a broken system. Point blank, period. To have people that are citizens — hard working citizens, taxpayers — in America that helped build the country into what it is, and then to neglect them because of, in this case it could be because they don’t have enough money to fight for themselves. Or because the justice system will easily spend more money on wrongfully convicting somebody than trying to give them justice. One of the quotes was like, ‘the opposite of poverty is justice.’ We see a lot of people with money able to get off because they have money or be able to settle out of court and all these things disappear because they have money. But when we look at the numbers, there’s a lot of people out here that don’t have those same means as the one percent.
You hosted a roundtable discussion after. What were the conversations like and how powerful was being in that room and having young people involved in talking about something as important as criminal justice reform?
It’s huge, because it shows you why (Bryan) Stevenson being who he was and fighting for the rights of people today, it has an effect on the next generation. So maybe there’s a person inspired by this movie and is able to do some of the amazing things that he did. We had an attorney there that fights in Memphis for the same reasons, and it kind of brings attention to the younger generation. We had college students and high school students, and we’re bringing awareness to them because those are the next voters. Those are the next elected officials. Those are the next in line to take up the responsibility of what’s been laid before them, and anytime you want to create change you have to start with the youth.