Welcome to part two of the Memphis Grizzlies midseason report card! Part one was about the reserves, and here we will be grading the starters for the Grizzlies as well as Coach Jenkins and his staff. The players are sorted by minutes played, and the grades were determined by 10 GBBers who submitted grades and thoughts on the players and their 2019-2020 campaigns to this point.
We pick back up with a big man who has been there for Memphis when the young Grizzlies have desperately needed a pick-me-up. All stats are provided by basketball-reference.com.
Jonas Valanciunas: 962 minutes played in 38 games, 60% shooting (43.1% from three), 76.9% free throw shooting, 15.2 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists, 119 offensive rating, 110 defensive rating, 22.5 Player Efficiency Rating, .165 win shares per 48 minutes
Jonas continues to outperform expectations. Valanciunas’ return to the Grizzlies in free agency came with essentially universal praise, partly because of his skill set and being a bridge between Jaren Jackson Jr. and becoming the team’s full-time center, and partly because of how the Grizzlies front office structured his contract. The presence of Jonas in theory limits the time that Brandon Clarke gets on the floor, but when it comes to physicality as a screen setter and on the glass there’s no denying the big man has value.
But where he has really shined brightest so far this year is at times when the offense around him stagnates. He has the best combination of skill and experience on the roster at this stage, and because of that he can pick up the slack when his younger and/or less talented teammates aren’t making their shots. The Golden State Warriors game recently is a great example - the team was not playing up to their recent standard, and all Jonas did was play his best game of the season, scoring 31 points on 17 shots and grabbing 19 rebounds.
Will he shoot 43% from beyond the arc all season long? Almost certainly not. But he will continue to be what the Grizzlies need him to be. That’s good enough for now.
GBB GRADE: B+ (3.3)
THEY SAID IT: Jonas’s ability to take over games against smaller lineups is great to watch and he has quickly become a fan favorite.- GBB Writer Lauren Harvey
Ja Morant: 1,040 minutes played in 35 games, 49.4% shooting (40.7% from three), 80.4% free throw shooting, 18 points per game, 6.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 110 offensive rating, 114 defensive rating, 18.8 PER, .095 win shares per 48 minutes
What more can be said, really?
Ja is audacious. He is an elite athlete. He’s well worth the price of admission, and is on a trajectory beyond what any Memphis Grizzly player has ever achieved. The fact that people are even arguing the possibility that Ja Morant may have a better career than Zion Williamson, just roughly seven months removed from the 2019 NBA Draft (also known as “The Zion draft”), is a testament to just how electrifying and special he’s been. He’s been more than expected as a shooter, as a leader, and as a force of nature against the NBA’s elite.
He has room to grow still. He appears to get in the air and not quite know what he wants to do yet. He makes rookie mistakes, like silly turnovers. He has a ways to go to be a neutral-to-plus defender. But he is 20 years old, and has already helped establish in just half a season what the next era of Grizzlies basketball will look like. It will be tenacious. It will be fast. It will be fearless. And it will almost certainly be fun as hell.
GBB GRADE: A+ (4.1)
THEY SAID IT: (Ja) has revitalized the franchise and is clearly the rookie of the year. Ja is the reason the Grizzlies are in the playoff picture- GBB Senior Writer Brandon Abraham
Jaren Jackson Jr.: 1,128 minutes played in 40 games, 48.2% shooting (41.5% from three), 75.6% free throw shooting, 18 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 1.5 assists, 112 offensive rating, 112 defensive rating, 17.7 PER, .111 win shares per 48 minutes
Ja Morant gets the headlines, but the argument can be made that Jaren Jackson Jr. is the best two-way player on the Memphis Grizzlies right now. He is essentially a 6’11” Klay Thompson at this point, both a defensive force and an offensive weapon from beyond the arc. He can protect the rim and switch on the perimeter against wings and even guards on one of the floor, and then the very next possession throw down a rim-rattling dunk off of dribble penetration that a point guard would be proud of.
He is a much better ball handler than he has any business being, and he is capable of taking over a game in every way. Oh, and he’s younger than Ja Morant despite being in his sophomore season.
It’s amazing how comfortable he looks in the schemes of Taylor Jenkins. The most fun part of the growing chemistry between Ja and Jaren is how the two-man game dynamic is an evolution of what Marc Gasol and Mike Conley once did. With seasoning and valuable experience, instead of being the next Marc, or Kevin Garnett, or Chris Bosh, he will truly live up to his unicorn moniker and be the first Jaren Jackson Jr. His foul issues are the last main weakness in his game.
And to think, some on social media wanted him traded in November. That was silly.
GBB GRADE: A (4.0)
THEY SAID IT: The 20 year-old big man’s 3-point prowess has made him one of the most tantalizing prospects in the league.- GBB Associate Editor Parker Fleming
Dillon Brooks: 1,146 minutes played in 41 games, 41.1% shooting (38.5% from three), 83.7% free throw shooting, 15.1 points per game, 3.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 103 offensive rating, 114 defensive rating, 12.2 PER, .040 win shares per 48 minutes
Dillon Brooks is polarizing. Depending on who you ask, Dillon is either a key cog in the Grizzlies machine moving forward or an over-hyped Kobe Bryant wannabe, someone that stops offensive flow but has the potential (and swagger) to carry Memphis on the perimeter for a stretch of time. A lot of this mindset likely comes from experience for Dillon. From his time at Oregon to his rookie season with the Grizzlies - the “tank” season of 2017-2018 - Brooks has been tasked with performing above and beyond what most would say his ideal role would be.
The ironic thing? Brooks was asked to be superstar for the Ducks, and he succeeded - he has the Pac-12 Player of the Year award to prove it. In his rookie year, he played every game and defended the very best perimeter wings on teams every night while Memphis counted on him to eat minutes and somehow be functional as a scorer as well. He was “successful” there as well, for as the losses piled up Dillon made a pretty convincing case for him to be the steal of the 2017 NBA Draft.
Should we really be surprised, then, that Dillon’s confidence is perhaps a bit too high? He’s overachieved his entire basketball career. This season is no different, especially as a shooter. He’s one of the NBA’s best volume perimeter scorers right now, and as he enters free agency he will likely make more money than some will be comfortable paying. Memphis would be wise to match, within reason ($11-$13 million average annually) - whether as a reserve or as a starter, Brooks has proven himself to be a valuable commodity.
Don’t run off shooters with confidence.
GBB Grade: B+ (3.3)
THEY SAID IT: He’s bounced back and forth from being the most hated Grizz, to one of the most adored Grizz. He’s taken it all like a pro, and has proved there’s a spot for him on this team. - GBB Writer Darren Jeans
Jae Crowder: 1,147 minutes played in 38 games, 37.6% shooting (30.6% from three), 77.9% free throw shooting, 10.4 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 106 offensive rating, 112 defensive rating, 11.2 PER, .057 win shares per 48 minutes
Jae Crowder has been an older version of Dillon Brooks in a lot of ways for the Grizzlies. In fact, Crowder is another example - just a veteran one - of why Memphis has struggled so much the last two years or so until recently. You had/have multiple players fitting in to roles larger than they’re capable of filling at this stage of their careers. The difference now is, superstars (Ja Morant), stars (Jaren Jackson Jr.), and elite-to-good role players (De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, Tyus Jones the last 20 games) are performing well in their spots, and in several cases are outperforming expectations.
If he sits out again Friday night against Cleveland (questionable as of this writing) both Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. will pass him on the minutes played list. Even so, the amount of time invested in Crowder has been one of the Taylor Jenkins’ questionable calls so far in his rookie head coaching campaign. Crowder leads Memphis in minutes per game, the only player averaging over 30 minutes per game, and is 2nd on the team in three pointers attempted per game behind Jaren. He is also, among the 11 players graded in this series, 10th in three point percentage. Only Kyle Anderson is shooting worse, but Anderson isn’t expected to be a three point threat. He attempts less than one three per game.
Jae brings a mentality to the Grizzlies of professionalism and competitiveness that is vital when constructing a winning culture. He also is a solid front court defender that has the capacity to get hot from beyond the arc, and considering he’s shooting roughly 3% below his career average from three he’s likely to heat up a bit. But he is also in over his head as a consumer of minutes and a starting role on any “good” team at this stage of his career. He should be getting 16-ish minutes a night on a “competitive” team as a reserve...
Which is why he should be #1B next to Andre Iguodala on the Grizzlies list to be traded before the deadline two weeks or so from now. Starting Kyle Anderson and increasing the minutes of De’Anthony Melton could arguable make Memphis better than they are currently, and Crowder’s experience would do wonders for the Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, or any other playoff contending squad that could slide Jae in to that ideal reserve role. Cap filler, a young player, and a 2nd round pick for Crowder (and the waiving of Josh Jackson or Bruno Caboclo) would make a lot of sense all the way around.
Crowder has been awesome as a leader for these young Grizzlies. But his time in Memphis, be it in free agency or via trade, may well be coming to an end. How his situation is handled moving forward will be a window in to just how the Grizzlies front office is approaching this faster-than-anticipated rebuild.
GBB GRADE: C+ (2.9)
THEY SAID IT: Jae is another bounce back player who has raised his value tremendously...he fits & gets along great with the Ja/Jaren/Clarke trio. - GBB Writer EdMemphis
Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and staff: 113.6 points per game (9th in the NBA), 115.9 opponents points per game (27th in NBA), 103.2 Pace (3rd in the NBA), 109.8 Offensive Rating (16th in NBA), 112.1 Defensive Rating (21st in NBA), 27.9 assists per game (1st in NBA)
Overachieving with the Grizzlies starts with Taylor Jenkins and the coaching staff of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Sure, having players like Ja Morant on the roster helps, and blind luck is the reason Morant is in Memphis. But the Grizzlies also appear to be quite fortunate to have the young Jenkins and his staff in the fold. Whenever such a large group of players overachieves, it oftentimes has to do with coaching (and roster construction - tip of the cap to Zachary Kleiman and company). The pace this team plays with is elite, and the way they’re passing and scoring the basketball right now is as well. It shines through in the assist numbers of course, but it also is clear in their two point field goal percentage (53.3%, 7th in the NBA) on 58.3 two point shot attempts per game (also 7th).
Of the 11 players featured in this midseason report card, four of them take at least 30% of their shots at or around the rim (within 0-3 feet) - De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, Jonas Valanciunas, and Ja Morant. This Grizzlies team is 11th in the NBA in three point percentage (36%) but they’re 16th in threes attempted (32.9 per game). It’s not like they’re chucking from range hoping they go in. They’re taking the best shots they can, and it shows. That, more than elite conversion, is sustainable. And a good sign for the staff moving forward, as is his ability to manage minutes. Only one player for Memphis is averaging more than 30 minutes per game right now, the aforementioned veteran Jae Crowder. While that will likely change as the home stretch of the season comes, the time saved early in the year will hopefully mean fresher legs for young players not used to such a long season down the line.
The same forward thinking can be applied to the team’s defensive improvements. The defensive rating for Memphis has been steadily getting better, and the Grizzlies have invested more time and effort on that end of the floor of late. Whether it is in an inefficient shooting night from James Harder or racking up defensive stats through increased rate of play (9th in total blocks, 10th in total steals), Memphis - while still nowhere near the top-10 overall defensively - is growing. So is Jenkins, as his rotations stabilize and schemes become more entrenched in the minds of his young squad.
Growth remains the standard for this season. The Grizzlies are a good basketball team “right now”, but as the schedule hardens at points in the second half of the campaign and opposition for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference explores ways to improve their rosters (looking at you, Timberwolves/Trail Blazers/Spurs), it is possible Memphis slides back to a lottery reality.
That’d be OK. Because this team wasn’t supposed to be this good so soon. And the building blocks in place from Jenkins and his staff are ones that can be built upon far beyond one playoff push, both in terms of this individual season and the long-term ultimate goal.
GBB GRADE: B+ (3.5)
THEY SAID IT: I question sometimes the staff’s ability to recognize situations in-game such as challenges, timeouts, and proper rotations but for a staff that’s growing together they’ve been pretty good so far. - GBB Senior Writer Greg Ratliff
Thanks to the GBB staffers that participated in the voting, and thanks to all of you for making GBB part of your Grizzlies fan experience.