They wanted a shot blocker in 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet of Connecticut, and nothing they heard could sway them from taking the player they need so dearly to improve their defense. So Memphis ignored offers for the No. 2 pick overall and selected the native of Tanzania.
The Grizzlies also drafted forward DeMarre Carroll out of Missouri with the 27th pick overall and Pittsburgh forward Sam Young at No. 36. They traded center Darko Milicic to the Knicks for Quentin Richardson and cash, wrapping up this draft much earlier than a year ago, when fans learned of a swap of Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo in a multiplayer deal the morning after.
"Hope we didn't keep you up as late as last year," general manager Chris Wallace said. "We got these deals done a little earlier."
Memphis heard offers for Thabeet until almost the last minute, but Wallace said the Grizzlies decided to take the center an hour before the draft started.
"Hasheem Thabeet is the best defensive center this franchise has had since its inception. We just felt that a player of his size and defensive capability just wasn't going to come waltzing down Beale Street every year, so we had to take him," Wallace said.
Thabeet missed working out in person in Memphis on Sunday because of what was called a shoulder injury. Thabeet said he had to keep an appointment made before Memphis wanted him to work out to update his expired student visa. He couldn't miss it because he didn't want to risk deportation and the chance to be the first player drafted by the NBA from Tanzania.
"To me, it means a lot because I get to inspire a lot of people. Now I go back, a lot of kids want to play sports and everybody believes they can make it through sports," Thabeet said.
Fans attending a draft party at the FedExForum mostly cheered the pick, though a few boos were heard for a team that already had three other centers on the roster before Milicic was traded a couple hours later. The others include 7-1 Marc Gasol, picked up from the Lakers in a February 2008 trade that sent brother, Pau, to Los Angeles, and 7-2 Iranian prospect Hamed Haddadi.
Coach Lionel Hollins said Thabeet and Gasol will be on the court at times together when the Grizzlies go big, but the best man will win the job.
"He has to come in here and earn the right. Marc's going to be heavy competition for him. We are trying to draft a good player to add to our team," Hollins said. "The way it's going to work is that one is going to be the starter, and one is going to come off the bench, and they are going to bring a little something different."
Defense is a big concern for a franchise that went 24-58 -- fifth-worst record in the NBA -- after giving up nearly six points more a game than the Grizzlies scored. They also need help on the boards after ranking last in the NBA in rebounds, and Wallace said the additions of Carroll and Young from the tough Big 12 and Big East will help their bench.
Thabeet was the nation's second-best shot blocker, averaging 4.2 per game for Connecticut last season. He also scored 13.6 points and grabbed 10.8 rebounds per game in earning co-Big East player of the year honors. He knows about Memphis thanks to ex-Huskies teammate Rudy Gay, and Thabeet said Mayo talked to him after the lottery about joining the Grizzlies.
The center can grow up with the rebuilding Grizzlies. The average age of the nine Grizzlies under contract for next season is 24.4, and Memphis has two first-round draft picks again in 2010 thanks to owning the Lakers' pick in 2010 as part of that Gasol trade.
Criticized as being offensively limited, Thabeet said he is driven to improve.
"For someone who played basketball seven years, I think I've been working hard to get where I am, and this is not the end of me. I feel like I've got a ways to go. I'm getting better every day. I'm out to work to get better. I have good footwork from playing soccer," he said.
"I'm looking forward for a long-term career."
The Grizzlies got some good news earlier Thursday when Gay and Mayo, the league's top-scoring rookie, were among those invited to the USA Basketball national team minicamp.
This is the highest the Grizzlies selected in the draft since moving to Memphis in 2001, but the third straight year drafting No. 5 or higher after landing Mike Conley at No. 4 in 2007 and No. 5 in 2008.