The 30th overall pick in a 2020 NBA Draft many see as a weak one starting on opening night. Sounds crazy, no? But there are dreams of Desmond Bane lining up alongside Ja Morant dancing through the heads of some Memphis Grizzlies fans - and they may well be right.
Memphis has a problem...well, two problems. They’re missing best-case scenario one potential star big/a cornerstone of their franchise (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and a key role player who may be better in theory than he is in reality (Justise Winslow). Worst-case scenario? The one that’s actually best for the Grizzlies? A real contender for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award (Jaren) and a starter that unlocks the offensive potential of the first five for the Grizzlies (Justise) are leaving sizable gaps in the Memphis rotation. That leaves Coach Jenkins and his coaching staff in a tough spot.
The potential starting lineup of Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, and Jonas Valanciunas struggled mightily at times in the Bubble keeping the offense clicking. Per NBA.com/stats, that first five was a miserable -14 in net rating, the worst long-term grouping of players (14 games played together, 39 minutes total) still possible since all five remain on the roster. Their offensive rating of 94.2 especially leaves something to be desired, but really shouldn’t be surprising. Clarke was (is?) q player almost completely dependent on others to create offensive opportunities, either on the pick and roll or dribble penetration kick outs to the corner for three. Anderson is not a long-range threat and opposing teams know it. When Jonas Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks are options 2A and 2B, you are not going to see much scoring success.
Enter Desmond Bane? Perhaps.
Assuming that Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, and Jonas Valanciunas are locks for the starting lineup, that leaves two positions there for the taking. While Bane is a four-year senior from TCU and is experienced, usually players taken at the end of the first round shouldn’t be expected to be rotation contributors on teams trying to be good. Still, he possesses multiple skills (especially offensively) that are tantalizingly tangible within the schemes of Taylor Jenkins. His career 43% three point shooting speaks volumes, of course, but there are other layers to his game just begging to be unpacked alongside Morant.
And yet, there are players on this Grizzlies roster that have shown in actual NBA competition - especially on the wing. Memphis has players that thrived outside (De’Anthony Melton) and inside (Grayson Allen) the NBA Bubble that make a lot of sense inserting themselves in the starting lineup as well. Melton (+11.9 net rating in 161 minutes while playing alongside Ja/Jonas/Dillon) in particular has shown an ability to defend and run in transition alongside Morant while also competing nicely alongside and Allen while nowhere near as strong in net rating (-14.9!!!) showed the capacity in the (small sample size of the) Bubble in Orlando to be a viable scoring option when necessary.
So whether Kyle Anderson or Brandon Clarke was the “4” for Jenkins, on the wing there are veteran options that perhaps will get opportunity before Bane.
That could, quite possibly, be a mistake.
If Bane is to be initiated in to the league, it might as well be a baptism by fire as a starter alongside Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, and Valanciunas - regardless of whether or not Clarke or Anderson start at the “power forward” spot.
The skill set beyond shooting
Desmond Bane is an elite three point threat - well, at least he was at TCU. The two-time All-Big 12 performer was remarkable from range, finishing 1st in the conference this past season in all three three-point categories - makes (92), total shots (208), and percentages 44.2%). He brings that capacity to Memphis first and foremost, and because of that efficiency opposing teams will have to respect him from the beginning, making things easier for whoever he is sharing the floor with.
But Desmond Bane was also 6th in the Big-12 in assists (124). And 9th in two point field goal percentage (54.8%, and 6th at 61% the year before that). His game offensively is more than that of just a marksman - he can make many defenses regret overlooking his ability off the dribble as a creator for both himself and others.
Take this play against USC where he finishes over future NBA Lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu. He displays a touch around the rim, even when under distress, that should translate to the NBA as opposing defenses get more athletic and longer.
Full play of Desmond Bane finishing over Onyeka Okongwu with his left hand in transition: pic.twitter.com/Z9r9kWbUZK— Malik - Wear a Mask - the 5-10 freak (@MalikG) November 16, 2020
When you’re not blessed with elite athleticism, you must develop an impeccable understanding of angles and timing to be a high level basketball player. One quarter inch too shallow, or one half step too slow, and that shot goes on an Okongwu highlight reel. Instead, while on the run Bane shows that he can keep his body under control as he attacks the rim and finishes at the basket against one of the top rim protectors in college basketball.
Bane won’t be mistaken for De’Anthony Melton when it comes to his ability to run and gun. But he can move well enough with the ball in his handle to push tempo like any other guard on this roster, and that enables Ja Morant to be the very best version of himself at this stage of his young career. And when Desmond is on the move, he can find open shooters and slashers as his eyes are always looking for opportunities to kick to open cutters or perimeter threats.
These clips focus on what Bane brings to the table as a passer - envision Brandon Clarke finishing a lob pass (77.3% shooter at the rim per basketball-reference.com), or Dillon Brooks connecting in the corner off of a catch and shoot look (38.6% on corner threes this past season).
More evidence of the timing is present there, lining up with everything that has been said both leading up to the draft and now as Memphis opens training camp about Bane’s display of high level basketball IQ and his willingness to be unselfish. His assist percentage of 26% was 4th in the Big 12 this past season, and his 15.8 points produced (per sports-reference.com) ranked 2nd. Considering just how much was asked of him (12th in usage) he was quite efficient in much of his offensive movement - and that focus on maximizing production will fit nicely in Memphis...especially as a starter.
That carries over to the defensive end as well, where while he has a negative wingspan (6’4” may be a large piece of why he was there for the taking at #30) he displays a lot of the same intelligence within the game that makes him such an offensive weapon.
Whether he is fighting over screens, playing a trail technique off of a ball handler and waiting to rise up to block the shot (17 blocks this year had him 18th in the Big 12), or keeping his footing and hip flexibility in man coverage against the likes of Jahmi’us Ramsey, there is enough on tape to expect that Bane can hold his own against the lesser of the two wings for an opposing starting offense. This is likely not music to Dillon Brooks’ ears - Dillon would continue to be tasked with defending the opposition’s best wing scorer. But until Justise is back (and perhaps even then) Brooks will continue to carry that burden...and Bane is more than capable of playing help defense off the ball and generating tough looks and turnovers.
While Bane is a rookie, he is only a month younger than De’Anthony Melton. Physically he has an NBA-ready frame, capable of bodying up driving wings at the rim and protecting the basket. With that capacity, along with his handle, his passing acumen, his talent for finish at the rim, and his well-established shooting touch, Desmond can step in and start now.
Making the most of the mob
At times, when things were going great for the Grizzlies last season, it was their bench unit that was leading the way. There were games where the Memphis starters would leave the game tied, with a slight lead, or even with a deficit, and the reserves would gain ground despite the situations they found themselves in. Ironically, it wasn’t usually when they made wholesale changes that they found such a rhythm - the four man crew of Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen, and Brandon Clarke posted a net rating of -7.7 across almost 40 minutes of play. It’s when they were intertwined with starters that they had their most success.
For example, here are some strong two man combinations according to net rating per NBA.com/stats. These are the best among players that played at least 200 minutes together last season.
- Melton and Clarke - +8.1 in 589 minutes
- Valanciunas and Melton - +9 in 465 minutes
- Jones and Melton - +11.3 in 425 minutes
- Brooks and Melton - +6.9 in 372 minutes
- Valanciunas and Clarke - +6.1 in 319 minutes
Considering we are looking at two other possible starters instead of Bane for this role of starter next to Dillon Brooks, two things stand out about the numbers above.
- De’Anthony Melton is listed fairly consistently.
- Grayson Allen is not.
With Melton, the +8.1 alongside Clarke especially grabs your attention. Ja, De’Anthony, Dillon, Brandon, Jonas. Problem solved - right? Maybe...especially if Clarke has improved as a catch and shoot three point threat. But it’s important to keep in mind a vast majority of those Melton/Clarke minutes came while both of them were coming off the bench. De’Anthony and Brandon had issues as starters last season, and in this instance as we focus on Melton of his eight games he started last year only one of them registered in the top 15 of his best performances according to basketball-reference’s Game Score metric. Melton has proven to be a very, very good second unit player. Why disrupt that if Bane can provide scoring and defense without moving around too many pieces?
With regard to Grayson, it isn’t simply just the injury. Allen played enough minutes to qualify here in seven different pairings...and he only posted a net positive with one other player. You likely guessed it - it was De’Anthony Melton (+2.3 in 281 minutes). Grayson had a terrific Bubble, and because of his shooting the Grizzlies stood a chance in games that they would have been blown out in if not for him. He’s earned a long, hard look at rotational minutes in camp. But given the larger sample size of struggles before Orlando and injury concerns, simply writing off Bane in favor of Allen doesn’t make as much sense either.
So perhaps it’s a Melton vs. Bane instead of a triple threat. Bane’s durability (1st in the Big 12 in total games played in 2 of his 4 years at TCU, 6th all-time in the Big 12 in minutes played) means that he can be depended on to eat up time on the floor, and his skill set offensively is more diversified than Melton’s at this stage. But we’ve seen De’Anthony perform at a high level - it’s what earned him his shiny new deal - and there are legitimate arguments for Melton to fill the void as well, whether he lines up with Clarke as the 4 or Anderson (Melton and Anderson were a +3 together across 481 minutes played, for what it’s worth). He can run, he can defend, he can be a secondary facilitator...
But he can’t do those things AND be an elite three point threat.
Desmond Bane, while perhaps not as well as Melton at first as a runner and defender, can facilitate just as well (if not potentially better) while creating much needed spacing on the floor. And a Melton reserve role would mean more of him running with the bench mob, striking fear in the hearts of NBA reserves everywhere as Tyus Jones’ return allows for De’Anthony to play off ball where he belongs.
It is a win-win, both in the short and long-term. For if/when Justise and Jaren are both healthy at the same time, and perhaps Bane goes to the bench? Jones/Melton/Allen/Bane/Anderson/Clarke has a real 11-man rotation sound to it. Add in Xavier Tillman and John Konchar, and the depth that Memphis so desperately needs is there for the taking.
Desmond Bane has done nothing but impress since he was drafted by the Memphis Grizzlies after a draft night deal with the Boston Celtics. Memphis used valuable future draft pick capital to move up to take Desmond, and to this point he’s wowed coaches, teammates, and media alike with his self-awareness and humble mindset. He sees himself as a perfect fit in Memphis for whatever the Grizzlies see him being as a rookie, not just because of his talent, but because of his character. The standard got stronger with Bane’s selection.
And the starting lineup - compared to the last time we saw this group with Jaren Jackson Jr. in the fold - would be stronger too.
When it comes to NBA initiation, all rookies experience the adversity that comes with their professional leap in one way or another. For a Memphis team that saw struggle in the Bubble without having a player capable of providing what Bane theoretically can be, they need to try something different. They need to let De’Anthony Melton be maximized in his ideal role next to Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke (who can run with the reserves whether he starts or not, depending on rotations). They must find ways to let Dillon Brooks allow the game to come to him more. They have to provide Ja Morant with not just sharpshooting but also secondary facilitation so Ja can take on more of a scoring load for the full 48 minutes of games.
Desmond Bane, throughout a successful college career, showed he could be that player in the Big 12. Now the time has come to see if he can be that for the young Memphis Grizzlies.
Ready or not.