ast season, the Memphis Grizzlies surpassed everyone's expectations, despite how their season ended. It was a surprising leap in their development, a leap that was a couple years early, but it was a pleasant spectacle to watch as their prized player, Ja Morant, led the team to hold on to that 8th seed in the Western Conference prior to last season's 4 month stoppage due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NBA bubble was a disappointment for the Grizzlies, where they went 2-6, and they lost the play in game to the Portland Trailblazers. However, no one expected them to be in this position in the first place, with a transcending talent in Morant, a plethora of young pieces that are hungry to prove everyone wrong, and a young coach now entering his second season in Taylor Jenkins.
The Rise of Ja Morant
Last season's rookie of the year embellishes the fact that the Grizzlies are once again under the radar, with other young players like Zion Williamson under the spotlight, and despite the momentum they want to ride from last season's success, the team finds themselves against a stronger Western Conference.
It doesn't bother Ja Morant, however:
"Attacking the season and proving everyone wrong is my number 1 goal".
When the Grizzlies got the number 2 pick in the 2019 NBA draft, Memphis knew they had their man. The speed of his development is exciting, and the overwhelming grind which normally befalls young players during their sophomore season is something one shouldn't anticipate for Morant. His passing, drives to the basket, floaters, and killer intangibles are all elite. What is also deadly is his transition game, where his speed, athletic ability, and vision allow him to see plays before everyone else. He ranks 17th among 40 players who have averaged at least three transition possessions per game in fast break scoring.
Morant's shooting is something he does need to work on, however. Jenkins' offense emphasizes on spacing, which means mid range jumpers for Morant come few and far between. Last season, he shot 42% off the catch from long range, but shot in the low 30 percentile when off the dribble from 3 point range. It will be a point of emphasis for Jenkins and the rest of the Grizzlies coaching staff, as this is indeed the next component of his development which needs to grow.
Morant can definitely take the next step and be an all-star caliber player this year, but due to the saturation of players that play his position, it will be a tall task to make the all-star team. The combination of everything he brings to the table plus his excellent work ethic will make him among the face of the NBA in the not so distant future. He embraced the Grizzlies' culture of betting on themselves and being under the radar, and the city loves him back.
The Young Core
The Grizzlies have an excellent group of young players, who are all very versatile and can play multiple positions.
De'Anthony Melton in particular, has excellent versatility on the wing, as he provides a 3-and-D presence and also has secondary playmaking skills which tailors to Jenkins' pace & space offense. More importantly, whenever the team goes small, Melton's elite rebounding for a guard his size increases the chances for the Grizzlies to do what they do best: Score on the fast break.
Dillon Brooks often guards the best forward on the opposing side, and is a pretty good defender to boot. His fouling rate needs to slow down considerably, and his shot selection is sometimes questionable, but he does provide versatility as he can play the 2, 3, and 4 spots. His size allows him to guard 4s, and his good mobility allows him to keep up with quicker guards.
Grayson Allen, who had an excellent performance in the NBA bubble a few months ago, provides excellent shooting and hustle play. Brandon Clarke has been a relevation, with his athletic ability and marvelous finishing ability, Tyus Jones is one of the better spot up shooters in the league last season, Kyle Anderson's playmaking at his size opens the floor for others, and Gorgui Dieng spaces the floor with his ability to knock down open shots.
What's even more impressive is that arguably the most versatile players on the roster in Jaren Jackson Jr and Justice Winslow are both out with injuries for the foreseeable future. Jackson Jr. is the NBA's textbook definition of the unicorn modern big, and Winslow physical defense gives coach Jenkins different options with his lineups.
The Big Man in the Middle
The elder statesman on the team, Jonas Valanciunas, is entering his 9th year in the league at age 28, and is arguably the most underrated player in the NBA. Far too many people focus on what he can't do well which is pick and roll defense, instead of the absolutely impactful things he does do well. The big man from Lithuania not being listed in ESPN's top 100 list is nothing short of a major snub; there is no conceivable way there is 100 players in the league better than Valanciunas.
Valanciunas is a double double machine; he averaged 14.9 points and 11.3 rebounds last season, and while Jaren Jackson Jr. was out with an injury, Valanciunas averaged 16 points and 13.5 rebounds. He is 17th in the entire NBA in player efficiency rating, 20th in the NBA in win shares, and was just one of the four players in the NBA who last season who out of 200 attempts, shot 70% in the restricted area and over 50% on at least 100 attempts elsewhere in the paint.
What's even more critical about the value Valanciunas brings is his rebounding. He's one of the best defensive rebounders in the league, finishing defensive plays by securing a rebound and allowing Morant to ignite that deadly fast break. His rebounding percentage ranks 4th in the league, and when you couple this with his 3 point shot developing since he shot 36.7% from three last season with 1.5 attempts per game, it makes him that much more valuable.
Unfortunately, against smaller lineups, Valanciunas won't get the full minutes per game due to matchups, but there is no denying what he can bring. He's been underrated his whole career, so this is nothing new for him.
The Western Conference is truly stacked, and it will be difficult for the Grizzlies to make the post season. However, it is possible, since many of the players are returning, and team chemistry is a powerful thing. If Morant can make a similar leap that Luka Doncic made from his rookie year to his sophomore season, and if Jaren Jackson Jr. can stay healthy, they definitely can surprise the league.
I expect them to be in the hunt for the playoffs, and the next step for this young team is to experience what it is like, so that they can understand for themselves what it takes to win instead of only being preached about it.