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The promising passing of the Memphis Grizzlies

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The Memphis Grizzlies have slowly become one of the league’s best at generating assists.

Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Brandon Dill/Getty Images

There’s nothing like stellar team ball movement.

I mean, seriously look at this:

C’mon, this is just magical stuff here.

Are you not entertained?

Most great offensive teams rely on heavy, but not excessive, ball movement. It’s a simple basketball practice: find the best shot. It’s beautiful to watch. What if I told you that the Memphis Grizzlies are leaning into this brand of basketball and transforming into one of the league’s passing teams?

It’s honestly something I didn’t anticipate this season. The Grizzlies have an offense where a rookie point guard is surrounded by a bunch of young players looking to prove themselves and a few veterans — all under a rookie head coach. Historically speaking, rookie point guards aren’t supposed to be good, especially ones with the ball in their hands as much as Ja Morant. However, under Taylor Jenkins, Morant and the Grizzlies are averaging 26.5 assists per game, tied for 3rd in the league with the Denver Nuggets — accounting for 64.2% of their field goals.

Who would’ve thought? Not me!

Yes, Morant has been exceptional for a rookie point guard, especially given that his assist-to-turnover ratio is almost at 2:1 — 1.88:1, to be exact. When lining his numbers up to John Wall, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook, and De’Aaron Fox (all guys Morant has been compared to, or will be judged against) in their rookie seasons, Morant’s numbers are favorable.

  • John Wall - 2.18:1, 8.3 assists, 3.8 turnovers
  • Trae Young - 2.13:1, 8.1 assists, 3.8 turnovers
  • Ja Morant - 1.88:1, 6.4 assists, 3.4 turnovers
  • De’Aaron Fox - 1.83:1, 4.4 assists, 2.4 turnovers
  • Russell Westbrook - 1.61:1, 5.3 assists, 3.3 turnovers

Ja Morant has been steadier than expected out of the gates, helping the Grizzlies transform into one of the league’s best passing teams in year one of the rebuild. Furthermore, the rest of his teammates are whipping the ball around as well, as 6 players are averaging 2 or more assists per game. When you lower the bar to 1.5 or more assists per game, that number jumps to 10.

Coach Jenkins has done an excellent job stressing the importance of ball movement, while also deploying lineups where there are multiple playmakers present at all times.

At the forefront of it all is Ja Morant and Tyus Jones, as they’re averaging 6.4 and 4.7 assists, respectively. However, they’ve gotten help from a lot of secondary creators as well.

Kyle Anderson has been a sneaky-good playmaker from the 3-4 spots, and his switch to the 4 has put him into a “point forward” role. Though they’ve gotten the reputation as “chuckers”, Jae Crowder and Dillon Brooks have chipped in and become good steady secondary facilitators as well, as the former is averaging 2.8 assists, and the latter 2.0 — while possessing assist-to-turnover ratios above 1. Brooks, for that matter, has even flashed promise as a secondary playmaker, generating a lot of his assists from downhill drives or out of the pick-and-roll.

The fit with Jonas Valanciunas in this pace-and-space system is coming along. Yes, it perimeter-oriented, but when Valanciunas isn’t attacking down low, Jenkins is using him as a facilitator in the high post. A lot of his assists come from a pick, freeing the ball-handler for an open pull-up 3, or a drive to the rim, like from this play:

On a smaller scale, the Grizzlies are getting nice contributions in this area from De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, and Marko Guduric. This is an area — along with outside shooting — that can help any of these players distinguish themselves and establish themselves as NBA contributors. Also off the bench, Solomon Hill falls into this category, as he’s done a great job facilitating with simple passes within the flow of the offense.

While the Memphis Grizzlies’ passing and ball movement have been superb, what if I told you there was another level they could unlock? The Grizzlies are in the top-5 in assists per game, while hovering the bottom-10 in both field goal and 3-point percentages.

What happens to the offense when players like Marko Guduric, Grayson Allen, or Tyus Jones start progressing towards their means as shooters? Or, if De’Anthony Melton — a positive offensive contributor — receives more burn over players like Guduric, Allen, or Jones? Or, whenever they call up Josh Jackson, whose shooting 50% from the field and 46.5% from 3 on 7.1 attempts per game?

Look beyond this season, and the potential becomes more tantalizing. Just wait for Ja Morant to learn the nuances of a NBA point guard and reduces his mistakes. Or, for high-IQ players like Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. to unlock the next level of their games as solid frontcourt playmakers. Or, for Clarke to become a more potent perimeter player.

If you want to look at roster construction, look no further, because next offseason has a few players that could elevate the Grizzlies’ offense. They could give Morant a playmaking backcourt mate in Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball. A reliable shooter in the form of Joe Harris, Malik Beasley, or Bogdan Bogdanovic — who is also a sneaky secondary playmaker — could be joining the wing core too.

Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The sky is the limit for the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, that’s the limit because of the electrifying wizardry of Ja Morant. However, a lot of kudos needs to be given to Taylor Jenkins for instilling a system predicated around pace, space, and ball movement.

In year one of the rebuild, there have been some growing pains — poor second-half performances and putrid scoring quarters, to name a few. On the other hand, many areas such as Morant’s game, Jaren’s 3-point shooting, the pace, and the bench frontcourt of Anderson and Clarke have generated strong early returns.

However, the tantalizing one is the dedication to moving the basketball. It’s a promising aspect of this system, and maybe one day, there could be YouTube compilations of the Grizzlies’ ball movement.

This could be a good start:

Stats found on basketball-reference and NBA.com/stats.

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