The 2018-19 season saw the Memphis Grizzlies move themselves into a new era. Many teams find a transition from stars to young players quite easily, with players leaving almost naturally. For the Grizzlies, their transition was the equivalent of falling from the top floor of a skyscraper. They went into the season believing they could contend, buoyed by veteran signings such as Kyle Anderson and the draft selection of Jaren Jackson. Things didn’t turn out that way, and Marc Gasol was traded to the Raptors at the deadline. Mike Conley played most of the year but his play still wasn’t enough to lift the Grizzlies from the basement. His long and successful era in Memphis ended with him being traded to the Utah Jazz.
The Grizzlies weren’t just a bad team, they were a depressing one. JB Bickerstaff came in and preached a ball movement offense that was really based on freelance motion above all else. The set plays were limited, and it showed. Memphis often just moved it side to side in their half-court sets, waiting for the ‘thrust’ that Bickerstaff wanted their offense to play with. Memphis lacked any kind of an identity, and Bickerstaff’s loose offensive sets meant they couldn’t generate any kind of flow in games.
Bickerstaff’s bland offense cost him his job. It is unlikely he ever gets another look at a head coaching gig unless it is on an interim basis. He was replaced by Taylor Jenkins who came over from the Milwaukee Bucks. Jenkins is set to embrace analytics and run a motion-based offense, which is a far cry from anything they ran under JB Bickerstaff. Memphis possesses a young roster that can get out and run and, the presence of three bigs with serviceable jump shots in Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke, means that they might surprise people in terms of how they play. Jenkins will look to maximise this team on that side of the ball at a better rate than the previous staff could.
Their awful season earned them the rights to the second overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, which they used to take Ja Morant out of Murray State. He will replace Mike Conley, and enters the NBA with a high reputation that he earned in college due to carrying his unheralded team most of the time.
Despite what many think, Morant is not entering the NBA as a perfect prospect. The Grizzlies have some pieces who are ready to contribute to a team with playoff aspirations, but Morant might be far away from this. Offensively, he was good on spot-up attempts in his college days. But lead guards are rarely going to find themselves on shot attempts because they will have the ball in their hands a lot which make spot-up attempts impossible. Morant is going to see a lot of drop coverage early because his release is low, and he did not show the ability to be an effective pull-up player in College.
Being a jump shooting guard is not the only path to becoming an elite point guard in the NBA. You can be in the Russell Westbrook or De’Aaron Fox class of being a player who shreds teams on the interior with a mix of speed, athleticism and finishing ability. The worrying thing for Morant is that he can be inconsistent attacking the rim. As Max Carlin of Celtics Life notes, ‘Given space to jump off two feet, Morant is a special leaper. Opportunities to jump off two with ample space come about rarely in the NBA, and when they do (in the open court or in the half court with an open runway to the rim) there’s much more flash value added by prodigious leaping than impact on basketball games. Far more important is the ability to get up off one foot in tight windows.
In this area, Morant is seriously lacking. His lack of strength limits his explosion, and when he’s confronted with contact, he wilts.’
Being an effective transition player is very important, but the great guards will win in half-court settings. For Morant to reach his ceiling, he either needs to improve his pull-up jump shot or become better at utilising his power and athleticism to finish in tight windows. Both would in turn affect the way defences play against him.
Where Morant should thrive from day one is his playmaking. He is a terrific open-court passer who uses screens well and can hit cutters and shooters in stride. The decision making was not always consistent but that will improve with NBA level spacing and NBA level coaches and team-mates guiding him. Memphis are set to hand the reigns over to him. If they are as committed to getting out and running as Taylor Jenkins hinted they were in his pre-season interviews, then Morant could put up incredible box score numbers even if the impact metrics punish him for being a sub-par defender.
Morant will get the keys to the franchise in terms of his usage and the excitement level he will bring to the franchise. The real key for this team, though, is Jaren Jackson. Because Memphis were the worst mix of bad and not interesting, Jackson maybe didn’t get the credit he deserved overall. Per Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 73rd percentile for finishing at the rim, 60th percentile for finishing beyond the arc, and 64th in mid-range. The biggest issue for Jackson was his overall shot profile. 35% of his shots came in mid-range, which puts him in the 77th percentile.
Many players who shoot a lot from these areas do so because they are incapable of showing the mix of power and fluidity needed to get to the rim. For Jackson, I do not feel this was the issue. He was simply playing in a scheme that never really cleared the paint out for him. Things got better when Jonas Valanciunas came over in the Marc Gasol trade, but Jackson was mostly stunted on offense by bland play designs. Jackson played 70% of his minutes at the power forward position. Bickerstaff was quite a traditionalist, so the center would often be hanging in the lane which meant Jackson didn’t always have a clear path to the basket.
Offensively, the Grizzlies would do well to try and mirror how the Atlanta Hawks use John Collins. Collins plays the majority of his minutes with a stretch five and, via the double drag set, he gets clear opportunities to attack downhill. If Collins pops to the perimeter, then he does get the opportunity to size up the opposing four and drive to the basket. Jackson possesses the fluidity to do this, but the spacing has to be there for this to work.
Jackson doesn’t just have an offensive game that projects to cause huge mismatches for the opponent, but his defensive prowess is sensational. Many might think this is an overstatement this early in his career, but he is already a top tier defensive big man and he is barely out of his teenage years. Of players who defended four or more shots inside six feet per game, Jackson ranked fourth best in terms of defensive field goal percentage allowed. Only Hassan Whiteside, Derrick Favors and Jonas Valanciunas fared better.
Jackson has incredible footwork, and gives the illusion you have an open lane before closing it off quickly. He was in the 87th percentile in block percentage and the 83rd percentile in steal percentage. He’s an outstanding building block who opens up a lot of lineup possibilities.
Though I believe size to be pivotally important to team building and also believe it to be making a comeback after everyone went crazy with small-ball, the Grizzlies find themselves in a unique position. One of the reasons I have become almost anti ‘small-ball’ is that teams tried to copy a Warriors system when they didn’t have Draymond Green, who has a legit argument to being the most impactful defender in the history of the sport. Green was undersized but his mix of intelligence and elite ability to play between the margins made the ‘lineups of death’ work for Golden State. Most teams’ version of this style was to run out a skilled power forward and surround them with four shooters. For most teams, they gave up an obscene number of points even if the ball movement did look really good.
Many teams now such as Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans are attempting to build a new roster around size and power. Teams started to stack the back end of their roster with big men when four years ago, they would have likely filled out the roster with skilled shooters and ball handlers. Memphis find themselves in a unique position because Jaren Jackson could be a gamechanging small-ball five. He played the majority of his time at the power forward position last year, but even when he played the five it was clear Bickerstaff’s rigid sets did not have enough motion to maximise a player with the offensive skillset of a four playing at the five. Jenkins’ commitment to more motion and fluidity means Jackson at the five could be legitimate, making Memphis one of a very small number of teams who can actually live up to the expectations most have when a team goes to a small ‘lineup of death’.
Jackson could still provide value at the four though. He is a powerful player who can get to the rim. Wherever Taylor Jenkins tries to play him, Jackson will have value. He is one of the most unique matchup pieces in the NBA, and he is just 20 years old. Memphis should be able to set the tone of the game depending on which front-court spot he unofficially lines up in.
Due to the presence of Jonas Valanciunas, it should be expected that Jackson will be utilised as the power forward for the majority of the meaningful minutes. I expect Jenkins to stagger the minutes so that one of them is on the floor for at least 45 of the 48 minutes, with Jackson there getting his opportunity to shine as a center. Valanciunas was low-key quite a good pickup in Memphis. Bickerstaff’s offense looked a lot better with Jonas running things as he is both a more fluid and decisive player than Marc Gasol. The five-out concepts the loose offense often reverted to worked well for the Lithuanian. He averaged 20 points per game and 11 rebounds while shooting 54% from the field on higher volume than he managed in Toronto. His jump-shot never quite got going, but he punished teams when driving to the basket from the elbows. Memphis surprisingly committed to bringing him back despite being in a position where you’d expect them to rebuild. His market around the trade deadline would be intriguing if the Grizzlies went in that particular direction.
On the whole, Memphis should at least be a fun team next season. The Bickerstaff era was depressing as he cast them into a slow half-court style of basketball with no real player movement. Jenkins will get this team running, and they could surprise people offensively. I feel that Morant’s usage will not necessarily lead to efficiency even though it will lead to highlight plays, which is why I have the Grizzlies finishing anywhere between 15 and 20 games away from the playoff places. Still, they are going in the right direction, and their commitment to analytics will be intriguing if nothing else.