It is obvious why much of the conversation since the Memphis Grizzlies 2018 Draft day has revolved around Jaren Jackson Jr. The 6’11 forward/center out of Michigan State is the team’s highest selected player since 2009 and someone who has been touted as possibly the best player in a highly regarded draft.
Bringing in a player of his potential raises some questions for the current roster configuration - namely, what is to become of JaMychal Green, the incumbent starting power forward? This is a question answered deftly by our great site manager Joe Mullinax, and I encourage you to peruse his article thoroughly.
However, I wonder whether we might ask the same question regarding Grizzlies second round pick Jevon Carter in regards to the franchise’s backup point guard rotation? I think it is very safe to assume that if healthy, Mike Conley will be the starting point guard on this team and that Carter would have to do something fairly monumental to affect that hierarchy.
But what about Andrew Harrison? What about Kobi Simmons? Could Carter slide up to the two, affecting minutes across multiple positions? And most importantly, how much would any of this matter? There are less clear answers to these questions, making them all the more intriguing. And the only thing that will keep them interesting will be if Carter shows he is worth the minutes.
So if we assume (somewhat recklessly) Carter shows head coach J.B. Bickerstaff enough to warrant playing him decent-to-steady minutes, let’s start with the question of whether Carter might play up a position. It seems unlikely that he would usurp the starting two spot from Dillon Brooks (and/or Tyreke Evans/a wing signed using the Mid Level Exception) or minutes from a healthy Wayne Selden Jr. (or, sadly, to a lesser extent Chandler Parsons) or an in-form MarShon Brooks.
The caveats healthy and in form are significant in the above sentence because if MarShon regresses to the mean, and/or if Selden (and Parsons) continue to be plagued by injuries, and/or if the Grizzlies strike out in free agency, there would be minutes to spare for Carter to play off the ball with Conley. Or conversely, and perhaps more compellingly, acting as the primary ball handler with Conley playing off ball.
While imagining Conley running around screens for catch and shoot threes is tantalizing, the real meat on this hypothetical bone comes from the defensive end. We are well aware that Conley has theoretically been one of the better defensive point guards in the league over the course of his career (though he has only been named to an NBA All-Defensive Team [2nd Team, 2012-13] once). And if you’re not privy to the hellhound-ish potential Carter posses on the defensive end, know that he is the two time reigning NABC and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and led the nation in steals last year while finishing second in Big 12 history in the category per College Basketball Reference.
Add that tenacious backcourt tandem to a lineup with former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, Jackson Jr.—who has been compared statistically favorably to Anthony Davis on the defensive end—and one of Selden or Parsons (both of whom are underrated defensive players) and you’re looking at a potentially very stout defensive side. The Grizzlies drafted defensively and have since tactfully trumpeted a return of “Grit N Grind”. This may be some of what they have in mind.
Even if Carter plays alongside Conley at the two, it would mean the Grizzlies preferred that pairing to a Conley-Harrison duo (unless they wanted to go small and play all three simultaneously). This might make sense as Harrison was the worst pairing with Conley in the former Ohio State guard’s 2017-18 campaign.
Obviously there’s some noise around those numbers considering Conley’s most frequent pairing (with Gasol) logged a total of 324 minutes (also its laughable to suggest that a Conley-Chalmers tandem was 13 points better than Conley-Dillon Brooks). But what I believe is more significant than how many minutes the two shared together is when those minutes were played because Harrison, more than any other Grizzly last year, improved the most from the beginning to the end of the season.
In October and November, Harrison played his worst, only playing in 14 games during that time. Conley played in a dozen games before his injury sidelined him in mid-November. In December, January, and February, Harrison’s play was significantly better, especially in the latter two months. He began scoring, assisting, and rebounding at higher rates. His percentages from the floor and three increased to borderline respectable marks. His offensive rating climbed and actually canceled out his defensive rating in the month of February (113 ORtg - 113 DRtg = 0).
That is to say that the above statistical pairing of Conley-Harrison does not tell the full story. This is why sample size is so important, folks.
That’s all to say that though Harrison has taken a lot of heat from Grizzlies fans, he has been progressing into a more refined player, someone in whom you might have more confidence than a fresh rookie. He’s a year older than Carter and registered 128 regular season and six more playoff games of NBA basketball than Carter.
That is significant, especially at point guard where it takes the most time to grow and learn how to play the position. Carter’s four year college experience makes up for some of that discrepancy. His muscular build and high motor may also make up for some of that. But he will have to show more than that to knock Harrison out of the backup point guard spot.
There is something to be said, though, for letting Carter outplay in order to get real time reps. This is a large part, it seems from the outside, of why Harrison was able to improve so much last season. Without the safety net of Conley, he was able to make mistakes and learn from them both in the game and on film. Obviously it would behoove Carter to do the same.
The last component to consider is where Carter stacks up against Grizzlies two-way contracted guard Kobi Simmons. It is my assumption that Simmons will probably be spending large amounts of time again with the Memphis Hustle, the Grizzlies’ G-League affiliate in Southaven, Mississippi. If that is the case, then you would expect that Carter should slot in as the third point guard on the depth chart. But I would not be at all surprised if Carter found himself in Southaven as well for portions of this season. With Carter possibly out of the rotation, it would make sense for Bickerstaff to send Carter to get game reps.
Of course none of this postulating matters if Carter shows up and stinks. He’ll be cast to the wayside like so many former young guards before him (Wade Baldwin, Jamaal Franklin, Josh Selby, etc.). But if Carter catches a lucky break in the form of an injury (to clarify: lucky for him, not for the Grizzlies [counterpoint: the Golden State Warriors almost certainly did not think at the time that replacing an injured David Lee with Draymond Green was lucky]), he’ll have a better chance than most to show why he deserves to be in the NBA.