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Kyle Anderson and the counterculture of the Memphis Grizzlies

The attempted signing isn’t sexy. But it does grit. And it does grind.

San Antonio Spurs v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

“Why try to be the same?”

So said new Memphis Grizzlies Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff at the press conference for his two newest players, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter, about the “new” direction of the team under his leadership. The decision had been made to return back to what made the Grizzlies one of the most beloved casts of misfits in NBA history - an identity built around true grit and the desire to grind out wins through hard-nosed defense and an aggressive style. The style of the modern NBA, while defense is still a priority for the truly great teams, emphasizes offensive juggernauts - teams that launch threes at historic levels and emphasize pace and space, not slow it down defensive showdowns.

The city of Memphis’ NBA team tried, for a time, to be this type of team. It wasn’t a fit, for a variety of reasons. Now the organization is moving on by stepping back to be more like the place they call home - a little bit different...but in a good way.

Jackson Jr. and Carter were both strong defensive players in college. The reported signing of Omri Casspi to a veteran’s minimum contract emphasizes basketball IQ, an intelligence about the game that can make up for a half-step slow movement on the perimeter. Now, with the reported signing of restricted free agent Kyle Anderson of the San Antonio Spurs, the Grizzlies literally go all-in (this was the biggest offer they could have made any player - 4 years, $37.2 million) on a 24-year-old wing that doesn’t shoot many threes, is not a “sexy” signing, and is literally nicknamed “SLOWMO” due to his lack of speed.

He fits Memphis perfectly.

Where the NBA zigs, the Grizzlies have decided to zag. Anderson backs that up.

“But you need athleticism to produce in the NBA...”

“Slowmo” disagrees.

There are numerous examples of this from Anderson - his awareness of where he, and defenders, are on the floor is very good to exceptional. His footwork is sound in that he is able to physically get to where he needs to go, but he allows for his vision to both create and close space when necessary. He knows when a trailing defender is too far behind to make a play and is able to take advantage, and this vision enables him to create for others as well as himself off the dribble despite his lack of foot speed.

He also uses this innate grasp of positioning defensively, posting remarkably sound defensive advanced metrics considering he isn’t an elite athlete. On this end, however, he does have an advantage in terms of his physical gifts with his length.

His 7’3” wingspan makes for a tough match-up for almost any offensive player, and it allows for Anderson to not gamble, as stated above, but also to be an elite team defender when it comes to muddying up passing lanes. The Grizzlies are emphasizing this type of size in their wing players, and Anderson has it in spades. Combine that with his understanding and ability to see the offensive set on the floor, and you have a wing with the 2nd best defensive plus-minus in the entire NBA last season among small forwards and the #16 overall DPM in the Association.

He does these things with that explosive first step, that elite leaping or sprinting ability that so many crave. What he does possess, however, is very valuable to a team like Memphis that is trying to slow down games and defend.

“You have to shoot threes to be offensively efficient...”

Kyle Anderson doesn’t shoot threes.

It’s not that he is miserable at shooting them - 33.8% career shooting is not good, but there have certainly been worse players to shoot for the Grizzlies from beyond the arc. He actually simply does not shoot threes. He has attempted 145 threes in his entire four-year career. For comparison’s sake, Dillon Brooks shot more than that number in his first 52 games of his rookie campaign. It simply isn’t a focus of Kyle’s game...

That’s OK for Memphis. During peak Grit and Grind it wasn’t part of their focus either.

What Anderson lacks in perimeter shooting he more than makes up for in ball movement and ability to handle the basketball. In many ways, Kyle can be another facilitator on the floor, especially when swinging the ball on the perimeter and in pick and roll/pick and pop situations. Anderson’s assist percentage has shown growth since his rookie campaign, and whether it is to Mike Conley or Dillon Brooks coming off screens (Mike would surely welcome another ball handler in Memphis) or to Marc Gasol or Jaren Jackson Jr. in the two-man game, Kyle can use his versatility to press defenses in to tough choices in terms of what to take away from the Grizzlies.

He also can bring with him a unique skill that the Grizzlies do not utilize as much but can be sound given what their bigs can do - play with his back to the basket in the post.

Marc Gasol is capable of this of course, but as he has aged so has him game in terms of being more perimeter-based. Jaren Jackson Jr. and JaMychal Green are more suited for rim-running and cutting to the rim than playing in the post. Anderson will often be able to have mismatches where he can take smaller players that aren’t as used to defending on the block and use his size and length to get efficient shot opportunities.

He presents an opportunity to get easier buckets for an offense that will need them. He shoots 68.8% at and around the rim, and that finishing ability in multiple ways, from the perimeter in dribble drives and in to the paint, will create more shots for those who do rely on three-point shooting to make the most impact.

Considering the Kawhi Leonard situation in San Antonio it is possible the Spurs match this offer to Anderson. They have increased Kyle’s role every season, even making him a starter for 67 of his 74 contests in the regular season. Yet come the playoffs, Anderson’s lack of scoring compared to Rudy Gay, overall speed, and athleticism was taken advantage of by the Golden State Warriors, resulting in far fewer minutes and opportunities for him when his team most needed him. This, and the structure of the deal (the full Mid-Level Exception, the 15% trade kicker), may very well lead to Memphis signing someone that is slow and does not shoot threes.

That suits the Grizzlies fine.

It is possible that Memphis strikes out again if Anderson does indeed become a Grizzly, that he’s another failed free agency experiment. But this time, the organization is betting on basketball intelligence and basketball skill sets over raw physical potential. They are choosing defensive prowess and length over the flashy, high-powered launcher of three point shots. They are looking to build upon a tried and true culture rather than be something that, due to current roster construction, they cannot be.

Memphis is a different kind of town. The Grizzlies are a different type of team. They’re fully back to being what they once were, what they as of now are meant to be. Kyle Anderson is another step toward what was, and what now is, the Grit and Grind Grizzlies.

What is the same in Memphis is different everywhere else. That’s just the way Bickerstaff and company want it to be.

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