Do the Memphis Grizzlies Have the Best Young Core in the NBA?
In the midst of all the news of the recent postponements of games due to COVID and the James Harden trade, there was a small glimmer that shed some good news, Ja Morant would return to action just a mere 18 days after what looked to be a serious ankle injury. While Morant was out for the two and a half weeks, the short-handed Grizzlies held their own, even managing to win three games in a row in the games right before he came back. With Ja back to full health and now riding a five game winning streak, Memphis is just one piece away, Jaren Jackson Jr., from unlocking their full potential.
While playing on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in the best alternate uniforms in the NBA right now, Ja and Brandon Clarke led the Grizz to a big 108–104 win over the Phoenix Suns. While neither of them had huge nights, Morant 17 points 10 assists and Clarke 17 points 5 rebounds, the offense held its own by sharing the wealth with seven of the ten players scoring in double digits. Scoring 108 points is nothing to applaud on its own, but knowing that Ja Morant can basically take over a game anytime he wants, seeing other guys score efficiently is a nice sight to see. What should be applauded though, is being able to hold the Suns to only 104 points, tallying 13 steals and holding Devin Booker to a 5–21 shooting night.
Memphis’s defense this year is looking like a modern day equivalent of the “grit and grind” era of the Grizzlies. No team in today’s NBA, no matter how good their defense is, will match the 2013 Grizzlies insane defensive numbers just because of different the pace of play is. That team only allowed 89 points per game and that is unheard of in 2021. This year’s Memphis’s team is third in defensive efficiency and seventh in opponents points per game and that’s after last year they finished 14th and 21st in those respective categories. There may be no single reason why this jump happened, but it might be because the Grizzlies young core has bought into head coach Taylor Jenkins’ system and Memphis has accumulated a versatile group of players that can switch defensively 1–5.
Individually, the recent emergence of rookie Xavier Tillman has played a huge part in Memphis’ post defense, where he is second in the whole NBA in opponent’s field goal percentage within six feet. This should come as no surprise to anyone that watched Big Ten basketball in the last three years as he bullied some of the country’s best big men. Apparently, very few NBA general managers watch Big Ten games though because Tillman ended up sliding all the way to the second round. Either that or they just did not recognize his intangibles, leadership and basketball IQ, and only focused on his height, 6”8”, which some people thought was undersized for his front court position. Prior to the MLK game against the Suns, he had never finished with a negative plus/minus in any game this season which is a true testament of how valuable he has been so far. After the MLK game, where X got his first start, he did break the streak and ended up finishing with a -7, but to his credit, no starter finished with a positive plus/minus.
With Memphis’s two rookies, Desmond Bane and the aforementioned Tillman, finding good minutes in the rotation, it is pretty safe to say the Grizzlies have nailed the last three drafts, moving up the Grizz’s window for contention up significantly. Bane is providing solid defense off the bench and he’s shooting 49% from three with almost four attempts a game. Tillman got a head start on dad strength (he had two kids before entering the NBA) and his defense will probably be talked about for years to come, but offensively, X has shown true potential as a passer out of the high and low post and he has a good enough looking shooting form to maybe develop a reliable three point shot. A front court consisting of Tillman and his “old” college buddy from Michigan State, Jaren Jackson Jr., could potential cause some nightmares for other teams.
The 2019 draft is where Memphis took Brandon Clarke and the teams crown jewel, reigning Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. BC is a hyper athletic forward who thrives in the pick and roll and was showing promise on the pick and pop until a “revamped” shot gave him a hitch, seemingly ruining those chances for now. That hitch won’t ruin his NBA future because of his motor and upside, but it would be nice if he developed a trusty three point shot and fixed his free throw percentage. Then there’s Ja Morant. Ja is the heart and soul of this Memphis team at only 21 years old and he commands an audience every time he touches the court. In his first game of his sophomore NBA season, he went out and scored 44 points and dished out 9 assists and while the Grizzlies lost the game, there was a sense that Ja had taken the next step to stardom. Morant obviously has all the offensive tools to become the next great point guard in the league, his finishing ability at the rim, explosive athlete, gifted passer, but he’s still a slight liability on the defensive end. But now that the Grizzlies have one of the best defenses in the league, they could put Ja in the right places to succeed in the one area where he has a small weakness.
The team defense may actually get even better too, with the arrival of the 2018 fourth overall pick, Jaren Jackson Jr. JJJ has yet to play a game in the 2020–21 season so far due to meniscus surgery but he still might be the Grizzlies player with the most potential. He is now a true seven footer (according to himself and Dillon Brooks) who shot almost 40% on 6.5 three point attempts per game last year, blocks two shots a game and oh yeah, he’s actually younger than Ja Morant. He has gotten the unicorn label thrown at him numerous times and while his height, length and shooting capabilities say he deserves it, there are still real concerns with Jaren’s game. In his two NBA seasons, he averages 4.6 rebounds per game… that just doesn’t seem to make sense. He did play next to Jonas Valanciunas, who is a great rebounder in his own right, but a guy who was officially measured at 6’11” and plays power forward/center should be able to grab more than five boards a game. His rebounding numbers could also be so low because of his bigger problem, foul trouble. In Jaren’s rookie season, he averaged 3.8 fouls per game, which lead the league. Then in 2020, his fouls per game went up to 4.1, which led the league again. Due to this, in both of his seasons, he averaged less than 30 minutes per game on the court, thus hurting his individual numbers and of course, his team. In games where he stayed out of foul trouble, he’s been able to put up numbers like 43 points in a game in 2019 and games in 2018 and 2020 where he blocked 7 shots. If JJJ can curve his bad habit of fouling, his rebounding numbers will see an uptick, and he could unlock his potential which could look a lot like Anthony Davis, with a better three point percentage.
This Grizzlies’ recent draft classes are a far cry from the draft classes that had the likes of Hasheem Thabeet and Xavier Henry as back to back first round selections. While, yes, the draft can be mostly luck, the Grizzlies have drafted players that fit their culture and it seems to be working out better and faster than most would have anticipated. Memphis has the the second youngest roster in the league and yet they’re sitting above .500 early in the season while playing most of it without Ja and JJJ. The veterans of the team, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas, are going to give this young group some much needed consistency, with the rest of the Grizzlies’ core, made up of mostly just three draft classes, pushing this team to not just look for playoff contention, but championship contention. The Memphis Grizzlies may not be hanging any banners in 2021, but at their current rate, that may be happening sooner rather than later.