Whether in the movies or in the NBA, the sequel is at times better than the original. Batman Begins is a stellar and memorable film, but The Dark Knight is transcendent. The same goes for A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back respectively. And in the realm of the NBA specifically, Ja Morant will almost certainly have an even greater encore to what was one of the best rookie seasons a point guard has had in recent NBA history.
But make no mistake about it: as great as Ja Morant is and will become, the heights that the Memphis Grizzlies will reach both this year and in the future will depend on the trajectory of Jaren Jackson Jr. They will truly only go as far as he takes them.
And unfortunately, it’s that reality that will almost absolutely limit the Grizzlies’ upside for the 2020-2021 season, as he is expected to be out for an extended, albeit indeterminate period right from the jump due to his ongoing recovery from the surgery he had to repair his torn meniscus. As far as the inevitable playoff race in the Western Conference is concerned, his absence will definitely prove to be troublesome if not outright debilitating to the Grizzlies’ hopes of making the postseason.
Of course, it’s not the end of the world by any stretch of the imagination. Jaren Jackson will eventually be back fully healthy to continue his progression that he demonstrated in Orlando, and the Grizzlies aren’t close enough to contending status where the loss of their second best player feels like a death-sentence for what they’re trying to achieve. Also, if the Grizzlies do fall behind the eight-ball a bit in the playoff race, it would only mean better odds at a top pick in a loaded 2021 NBA Draft (I’m NOT advocating for tanking, please step away from the comment section). Still, it is frustrating for the Grizzlies to not have one of their young cornerstones immediately available to help continue the team’s momentum from a year ago.
Yet there is an opportunity to be had for the Grizzlies (beyond a possible third star near the top of the 2021 NBA Draft) with Jaren Jackson’s absence. Specifically, several players on the team will have an opportunity to develop in increased roles until he returns.
Brandon Clarke is the most obvious beneficiary here, and he will very likely have a chance to prove himself in really the only place he failed as a rookie—the starting lineup. As the first-and at times, the only-big off the bench for the Grizzlies, he was phenomenal in almost every way, using his combination of athleticism, preternatural feel for the game, and feathery scoring touch to excel against opposing second units en route to one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history.
However, that all mostly went out the window when Clarke found himself in the starting lineup. Granted, he did exit the game early twice in those instances due to injury, but in the four games that he started, he basically turned into the Grizzlies’ version of Grant Williams, averaging 2.3 points and shooting 29% from the floor. That is, as Charles Barkley would say, turrible. And even if the small sample size exaggerates his extreme ineffectiveness, his impotence as a starter was a major reason why he has a limited sample size as one.
Now as to why he struggled to the degree he did, it seems rather inexplicable. Obviously, playing against longer, more athletic players in starting lineups can be an adjustment from playing against mostly bench lineups. But one of the teams the Grizzlies played in those four games was the Houston Rockets, who often had James Harden playing the four defensively in Daryl Morey’s fully-realized fever dream of small-ball. You would think that playing more minutes with an elite playmaker like Morant and a space-eater like Jonas Valanciunas would also help. Regardless, Clarke will likely have the opportunity to show that he can truly be Jaren Jackson Jr.’s partner in the Grizzlies’ front-court of the future.
Even if Brandon Clarke never quite becomes that for the Grizzlies, they have another candidate for that role in Xavier Tillman, whose ‘do-it-all’ skill-set has him primed to be an immediate contributor for the Grizzlies. He is by default already the second best rebounder on the roster, and his almost total lack of real weaknesses will earn him significant minutes from the jump, especially with the absence of Jaren Jackson. I’m also intrigued to see what he will be as a shooter at the NBA level, as he had the second highest three-point percentage on the three-point star drill at the NBA combine.
With Clarke likely in the starting lineup, Tillman will likely be the first big off the bench (sorry Gorgui Dieng), and he will have the opportunity to showcase his tantalizing combination of playmaking, screening, and defense to immediately have an impact.
And the Memphis Grizzlies will definitely need players like Clarke and Tillman to be impactful if they are to at least match their unexpected success from last season. It’s always frustrating to lose one of your young cornerstones for possibly an extended period of time, but there’s a real opportunity here for the Grizzlies. They have a chance to better see what they have and what they could have in the future. And since the Grizzlies are not yet ready to contend, a greater opportunity for player development may just be a blessing in disguise.
Ja Morant’s encore is coming. But it will take the Grizzlies’ other young front-court players seizing their increased opportunity for this coming season to be everything that they want and more.