We made it!
Tis’ the season as Grizzlies basketball is back after a near four month layoff. The 2019-20 season didn’t end the way many would have preferred, with the Grizzlies coming up short in the play-in game vs. Portland back in August, but it was definitely memorable experience as the Grizzlies exceeded expectations under first year head coach Taylor Jenkins.
The 2021 season will be a unique one. There’s no NBA Summer League, so new faces such as Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman will be thrown straight into the fire without the buffer to acclimate to the speed of the NBA. It brings new expectations in an even tougher Western Conference — as well as new challenges, as the Grizzlies will start the season without Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. due to injury.
The Grizzlies are still one of the youngest teams in the league, so their early-season absence could be a long-term blessing, as it will offer other guys new opportunities before they return to the fold. After yet another great draft, the Grizzlies re-tooled their roster by investing from within by keeping all free agent signings in house. With preseason camp starting this week and games (!!!) next week, let’s take a look at players to watch throughout the Grizzlies preseason.
The Big Stepper. The 2020 Rookie of the Year.
This was the obvious one as we prepare to see how Ja Morant improves on a stellar rookie campaign. The Morant in the Orlando bubble was an improvement over the Morant the league saw prior to the shutdown, so any worries about a “sophomore slump” are minimal at best. But there are still some things to watch for Morant throughout camp, primarily his jump shot & defense.
As is the case for 98% of rookies, NBA coaches hunted for Morant, as he figured out how to defend on the NBA level, so it will be interesting to see how much Morant has grown from Year 1 (and Year One+ in the bubble) as an NBA defender. Offensively, his rookie season made the league respect his ability to get to the rim, but has his jumper improved enough over the offseason for him to respect him on the perimeter? This progression is even more important with the absence of Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies best perimeter shooter in the starting rotation.
This is Ja Morant’s team, and with the absence of Jackson Jr., I believe this will force Morant to takeover games early instead of waiting until the 2nd half to turn it on as a scorer — like he did his rookie season.
Grayson Allen finished the season as the Grizzlies’ best three-point shooter as a 40.4% shooter from deep. In the bubble, Grayson Allen took advantage of the opportunity presented to him by carving out a role that could solidify him a spot in the Grizzlies rotation moving forward. He was the Grizzlies best perimeter scorer (outside of Morant) in the bubble averaging 12.4 PPG on 50% shooting and 47.1% from three. This level of play moved Allen from situational role player to first guard off the bench, in relief of Dillon Brooks or Ja Morant, as he became a dependable knockdown three point shooter that could hold his own defensively.
The question now is can Allen sustain this level of play over an entire season? If he can, it will be hard to take Allen, an efficient 3&D player, out of the rotation even with the arrival of Desmond Bane and the potential addition of John Konchar to the rotation.
Jontay Porter/Xavier Tillman
Jontay Porter and Xavier Tillman are two players that the Grizzlies staff and front office have been high on this offseason. With the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. to start the season, both of these players have an immediate chance to impress the Grizzlies coaching staff.
While some of Jackson’s minutes will be delegated to Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke, there will still be roughly 20 minutes up for grabs. It has been two years since Jontay Porter played due to an injury. However, as Brendan Smart noted here last week, when he last played his freshman year at Missouri, he showed the capability to stretch the floor and be an offensive playmaker with a High IQ on both sides of the floor.
Xavier Tillman didn't shoot many 3s at Michigan State, but he showed at the NBA Combine that he might have some untapped floor-spacing potential, finishing tied as the second best shooter in the star drill while making 75% of his attempts. pic.twitter.com/bJoeQPJ0Ve— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) November 6, 2020
Xavier Tillman is coming off a junior season at Michigan State that saw him average 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, but a facet of his game that wasn’t fully fleshed out was his shooting ability. Tillman showed a perimeter shooting touch throughout his NBA draft workouts that is exponentially better than his 27% career 3PT% would suggest. This will be a battle to watch closely as the front office seems highly invested in both players who could potentially fill the void left by Jackson for the time being, as they get comfortable at the NBA level as two versatile, high basketball IQ players with the potential to have an impact on both ends of the floor at the Power Forward and Center positions.
Is it time for the Grizzlies to get jitty with it full time?
John Konchar only played in 19 games for the Memphis Grizzlies as one of the Grizzlies two two-way players last season, but he quickly became a fan favorite, endearing himself to the fans as a player that always made the right play. Konchar has also been a favorite of analytical savants with his advanced stats on both sides of the floor jumping off of the screen both in the G-League with the Memphis Hustle and in minimal action with the NBA squad. The Grizzlies loved Konchar so much they made him an official member of the NBA squad as he signed a 4-year deal this offseason to stay in Memphis.
The question is what’s next for Konchar?
His flexibility along with a high BBIQ is a huge plus, allowing him to slide from point guard to small forward with ease. I believe Konchar’s ability to seemingly always make the right play will force his way into the rotation early. Last season, Taylor Jenkins started the season with a 12-man rotation. Konchar will most definitely be one of those 12, but how jitty the Grizzlies get this preseason will definitely be something to keep an eye on.
On November 18, 2020, the NBA Draft gods smiled on Zach Kleiman, Taylor Jenkins and the Memphis Grizzlies once again as Memphis was able to swoop in and draft Desmond Bane with the 30th pick.
Now it’s time to let Bane liberate Grind City.
Desmond Bane is someone I believe will make an impact from day 1 of training camp and can play a role for the Grizzlies as a starter or off the bench. Offensively, you have a larger playmaker to play alongside Tyus Jones, as well as another reliable three-point shooter to take some focus off of Allen on the perimeter. Bane allows the Grizzlies to effectively space the floor as he will keep defenders honest, unlike Kyle Anderson who is more at home driving to the basket than standing on the perimeter making threes. Defensively, Bane adds another scrappy defender to a second unit that was already a terror last season.
The addition of Bane allowed the Grizzlies to improve upon one of the best bench units in the NBA, but the biggest beneficiary of Bane’s arrival should be Dillon Brooks. Over the course of his Grizzlies career, Brooks has had to play outside of himself due to being the Grizzlies best perimeter defender, as well as the Grizzlies scorer on the wing. This has led to some questionable plays on both ends of the floor. If Bane’s skillset translates to the NBA, the Grizzlies inject a better defender and perimeter scorer into the rotation, which should calm Brooks and allow for more efficient play on both ends due to less pressure and exertion.
As Shawn Coleman noted quite exceptionally, the Grizzlies have a plan and a type. That plan is built around efficiency, defensive playmaking, and intangibles through high IQ basketball players which is a plan that on paper bodes well for the future of the franchise.
On December 12th, the plan gets to put in to practice for the first time in the 2nd year of the Taylor Jenkins regime as the Grizzlies take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. With the absence of Jackson Jr. and Winslow, there will be a ton of intrigue in how Jenkins deploys certain lineups and how the rotation evolves over the course of the condensed preseason. The 2020-21 season will be curious, as other Western Conference teams return at full strength. The evolution and production of these 6 players are something to watch, as I believe they will determine how competitive this young squad will be in the infant parts of the season.