No one wanted to see JaMychal Green go down in the first four minutes of the Memphis Grizzlies’ season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans. Green had just ended an offseason stalemate with the Grizzlies regarding his contract, signing a two-year $17 million deal in late September that came as a relief to fans and the organization both. Green, the team’s starting power forward, showed last season (a career year) that he is one of the team’s most important, most versatile pieces.
Which is why it was a bittersweet moment when the Grizzlies walked off the floor without Green last Wednesday night with a 103-91 victory. The next day Shams Charania and David Aldridge separately reported that Green suffered a high ankle sprain and would be out three to four weeks.
Without Green and with Zach Randolph no longer around, the Grizzlies’ previously deep frontcourt looks as flimsy as it has since the beginning of the Grit N’ Grind era. Marc Gasol and Brandan Wright both still look to be major players, but it’s unclear who will soak up the rest of Green’s minutes for the next month. It could be Chandler Parsons or James Ennis as small ball fours, but it seems more likely that it will be Jarell Martin.
Martin, a third year player out of LSU, started the second half against the Pelicans in Green’s stead, playing more than 19 minutes and showing mixed results. On the one hand, he was aggressive and confident, grabbing five rebounds and posting a +4 for the game. On the other, he went one for six from the field (zero for three from distance on some open looks), turned the ball over four times, and committed five fouls.
The Green injury, though obviously less than ideal, has a silver lining in that it opens the door for Memphis’ young, unproven frontcourt pieces to prove themselves. But not even accounting for Green’s injury, Martin, and even potentially Deyonta Davis and Ivan Rabb, were already set up much better than last year, when the frontcourt rotation was—and had been for years—firmly set. The absence of Randolph looms large in many ways in Memphis, but it is most forcefully obvious in the lack of depth in the frontcourt rotation.
In that sense, the tables have turned for the young bigs. For the Grizzlies’ young guards, however, the situation has become even more topsy-turvy.
Last season the Grizzlies tried to plug Wade Baldwin IV and Andrew Harrison into the backup point guard position and only the latter was ably to barely competently fill the role (and even then, some of the secondary ball-handling duties went to 40-year-old Vince Carter). But each had ample opportunity as there were no other point guards on the roster. Wayne Selden Jr. also had his chances as he joined the team late in the season, eventually cracking the starting rotation come playoff time thanks, in part, to some injuries.
Look at this year, and what’s changed is there’s a glut of ball-handling guards at Fizdale’s disposal. Outside of Mike Conley at the point guard position, there’s Mario Chalmers and Tyreke Evans, both of whom very easily could be the team’s backup point(s).
Not only are Chalmers and Evans in line for more minutes, but so too will be Selden and Ben McLemore when they come back from injury. Factor in the other wings like Parsons and the (for now) electric rookie Dillon Brooks, and you can see why the Grizzlies decided they no longer needed Baldwin’s services (I am aware that there are other reasons the Grizzlies cut Baldwin, but positional depth was certainly a factor).
Harrison still gets run—he has been, in fact starter at the two the first three games. And it should be noted that he looked like a different player, in a good way, in the team’s first game. But he has struggled since, and Chalmers seems to have sewn up that backup point guard spot with an excellent preseason and start to the season. And when Selden and McLemore come back, it may be hard to justify seeing Harrison getting 20 minutes per night even if he continues performing average or better.
The minutes may just not be there for Harrison once the roster is healthy.
By my count there are six regular NBA guys at the “guard” spot, not including Harrison, and only three at the “big” spot not including Martin/Davis/Rabb (Martin could ~probably~ play on the wing, but we’ve really only ever seen him play the four or five, so until we see otherwise, I’m counting him as a big). That’s half as many potential roadblocks to overcome for the taller fellows than Harrison.
Which, to bring everything back around, makes Green’s injury all the more important for youth development. It is a chance for Martin especially to prove he belongs on this roster for more reasons than “I got picked by this team.”
Though both Harrison and the young bigs have already benefitted from injury extremely early in this season, roster depth, which changed seismically over the summer, affects how much each will play this year. The Grizzlies went from being a big-heavy, guard-deficient team to having almost too many guards and less proven talent in the frontcourt. It’s a big switch, and one that Martin in particular stands to gain from most, but one that will hopefully strike a balance between winning now and developing talent that the front office has so desperately sought after.