If a group of NBA writers were polled and asked which franchise has the least desirable situation in the league for the next five years, the Grizzlies would be a popular - if not the most popular - choice.
The front office appears a rudderless mess and the Grizzlies don’t have the quantity of young assets that fellow bottom dwellers like the Bulls and Suns possess. Most depressingly, the best scenario for the future of the franchise may involve not making a first round selection in this years draft. There appears little if anything to get excited about beyond Jaren Jackson Jr. As we evaluate the early returns from last years draft, the consensus seems to be that the top five players selected were the five best prospects in that class. The order might be different, but those were the best five guys and it’s very possible the 2018 draft was historically great. Most franchises would select Luka Doncic first overall in a hypothetical redraft, but some very smart basketball people still believe Jaren could end up the best player from last years draft and that is a bigger deal than several depressed Grizzlies fans may realize.
Basketball differs from other team sports in the impact one player can have on the outcome of games. The NBA is a league designed for stars. Finals rosters are rarely, if ever, without at least one player that is considered a top five player in the league. It is why we have seen the same Finals matchup the past four years and why parity in the league has become a topic of discussion. A team with two or three superstars and competent pieces around them will overwhelm a team with a really good but not great starting five nearly every time. Look no further than the Grizzlies, who made the playoffs seven straight years but never advanced beyond the Western Conference Finals for example.
This is why the ceiling of Jaren and making sure he hits that ceiling may prove more vital to the franchise than surrounding him with several good but not elite pieces.
There is no guarantee that Jaren reaches his full potential, but the best version of him projects as an elite two way player that can anchor a team’s defense and is skilled enough offensively to be a true number one option. Few rebuilding franchises have a player with that potential. The Suns have several intriguing young players, Devin Booker is spectacular offensively and Deandre Ayton is a walking double double but those players do not contribute to winning the same way an elite two way player such as Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant would. I love Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. but I can’t see them ever becoming an elite superstar on both ends of the floor the way Jaren might.
If the goal of the franchise is to maximize Jaren, the Grizzlies may already have intriguing players on the roster that help them achieve this. Kyle Anderson and Jaren have the second best two man combination on the roster this season outscoring their opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions, second only to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Beyond the stats Jaren and Kyle pass the eye test. Kyle is one of the only teammates that consistently sought to get Jaren involved before the franchise realized that Jaren should be the immediate focus of the team. As they continue to build chemistry, Kyle will hopefully bring out the Alpha in Jaren. Ivan Rabb is another player I want to see play more with Jaren. The early results are mixed but still intriguing, Rabb gets absolutely bullied when he goes against larger bigs but as Jaren gets stronger that may prove less of an issue. Rabb certainly has the athleticism to pair well with Jaren but he will need to develop his jump shot to carve out a consistent role in a modern NBA front court.
The Grizzlies future is uncertain. Fans don’t know whether to root to convey the pick to Boston this year or tank for the best odds at drafting Zion. Jaren’s future is uncertain as well. The likeliest scenario is that Jaren is a very good player who makes a couple All Star teams but will not be an elite superstar. It is also possible that in six years Jaren is a borderline top five player in the league even if that possibility is remote.
It’s as good a reason as any to be optimistic about the Grizzlies future.