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The layers of risk for meaningless games

Basketball can be lucrative for the elite talents, yet the risks to play with little to play for are dangerous.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an ongoing debate in the game of basketball that is becoming dangerous. You’ve seen it surrounding the myth of a person named Zion Williamson.

Should players play even though there is serious risk of losing future opportunity if an injury takes place?

That’s the fundamental question. I phrase it somewhat vaguely intentionally. I leave it vague because this question is seeping through all levels of basketball, and is not always tied to monetary gain.

In context of the Memphis Grizzlies, there is one significant injury (and another less significant) that is haunting this team both in the present and potentially the future. Jaren Jackson Jr. suffered a right quad injury about a week ago that now has him sidelined for the “foreseeable future.” Look, I’m no doctor and perhaps the injury is more severe than we can see from him bouncing around on the sideline after a made three, but JJJ is being sidelines for precautionary reasons. And rightfully so.

That’s where the pressing question above becomes relevant once again. Zion Williamson revived the age-old debate once again after he hulked through his shoe a couple of weeks ago. But this consideration of sitting players to preserve their greatness is no new phenomenon. The San Antonio Spurs are notorious for resting their players to be fresh for when it matters, so much so that the league made rules to prevent it. Lebron James has chosen when he is and isn’t going play multiple times.

The point is, resting or rehabbing injuries in order to preserve players’ bodies has become the new norm.

Let me take it a step further. I recently went to watch a high school basketball game. On the court were two exceptional high school talents, one signed to go to Villanova next year, the other to Florida. They combined for 50+ and showed why they were signed to two notorious basketball schools. But the thought crossed my mind, “These two guys have already signed to their universities. Why are they still playing?”

The risk is still monumental for them. An injury risks their playing time at their future school, a significant injury could result in them not being the player they are on the trajectory to be. These guys are going to programs that manufacture NBA talent, an injury in a meaningless high school tournament could ruin that forever.

So by the same logic that Zion, the beast that was finally tamed by a freak shoe accident, is being told by media across the country to sit out the rest of his only season at Duke, a decision that many NBA scouts approve of, is creeping into the likes of many young and protected talent.

Jaren Jackson Jr. and his teammate Kyle Anderson both make tons of money to play a game in which their bodies’ peak performance equals more dollar signs. Anderson, on the first year of a four year contract that will get him close to $10 million a year, has his future to consider too while out on injury. Dillon Brooks does too. The Grizzlies suck and will likely keep their first round pick this season regardless of whether these three play. So why risk it? There’s nothing to play for in reality. Winning is frowned upon for franchises seeking the draft lottery, and this team can’t win with healthy players anyway.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Even the opposite is true for Chandler Parsons. Parsons, a max-deal player that has been sidelined for two seasons due to injury, has nothing to lose by playing in meaningless games. These are basically shooting drills with a defense for him. While most of Memphis is ready to be done even mentioning the name of Parsons, he is still holding on to hope of a miraculous return to relevance. These meaningless games where the end results contributes little to any “reward” at the conclusion of the season, gives him a chance to see what he is capable of in the NBA.

The game of basketball is in a pivotal place for players seeking more money or recognition for their talents. Even from the high school level, the risk of playing the game in preface to your ultimate goal can be catastrophic.

If the two high school players I mentioned blow out their knee in a holiday tournament, their scholarship might last for one year, but their hopes of being the same NBA-bound talent could be gone forever. If Zion Williamson comes back too early or suffers a different injury, there is a serious risk of losing the money, prestige, and ability to be a top tier NBA talent. And finally, at the highest level, Jaren Jackson Jr. in his rookie season was already risking his NBA future on a team with little to play for. There is larger contracts and championships to play for if healthy; if injured, much of that goes away.

As the Grizzlies continue to suffer to the finish line of a yet another unfortunate season, expect the front office and players to be cautious regarding return from injury and to hoard rest as much as possible. There are more items at stake than just health for the injured Grizzlies, items that are often overlooked by those not in their situation.