The Memphis Grizzlies decided to keep things in the family when it came to free agency this year, prioritizing players that have been in their organization and understand the expectations attached to the “Grizzlies standard”. This was even true in the case of an athlete that has yet to play a single second for Memphis, a young man who clearly did enough in practice to convince Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies front office to make an investment of multiple contract years and millions of dollars. There are opt-outs and non-guaranteed seasons, but the fact remains that Jontay Porter has signed two different contracts with Memphis before playing in one game.
So...what exactly does Jontay Porter bring to this team as the season approaches? The roster seems to be stuffed with bigs, and Porter almost certainly is toward the bottom of the depth chart, at least to start the training camp process. But Porter’s skill set when he is able to stay on the floor fits these Grizzlies quite nicely - and that is why he’s still in Memphis.
The newly minted 21 year old did not play a single second of basketball the last two years due to various knee injuries. The last time he was involved in meaningful games he was at Missouri alongside his brother Michael Porter Jr., shooting 36.4% from beyond the arc while earning SEC All-Freshman Team honors while also being names the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year. He checked a lot of Grizzlies statistical boxes in that lone campaign - he was sixth in Box Plus/Minus in the conference, 5th in total rebounding percentage, and 12th in win shares per 40 minutes (per sports-reference.com). The numbers showed the various ways that Porter impacted the game, and he was on pace to have opportunities beyond Missouri before knee injuries struck.
And by the way, he did all this after reclassifying to play alongside older brother Michael Porter Jr., now of the Denver Nuggets (who dealt with injury issues of his own), meaning he essentially played at this high of a level as a HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR. He just turned 21 last month, which is remarkable considering the last time he played competitive basketball was over two years ago at Missouri.
So Porter signed a deal last last year with Memphis essentially to rehab and get back in to playing shape after not one, but two, ACL tears in the same knee. He even traveled with the Grizzlies to the Bubble in Orlando, practicing with the squad and ramping up basketball activity. Today, he’s a full go for Memphis - and apparently ready to show what he can do in the NBA.
If there are seven true bigs on the roster - Jonas Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Gorgui Dieng, Xavier Tillman, Porter, and two-way contract Killian Tillie - Porter is probably the sixth man on the list to start training camp. Tillie, who has injury questions like Porter and also a similar level of talent, figures to see opportunity in the preseason to display what he is capable of. The same can be true of Porter, especially considering he will not be hampered by the two-way limitations of games active with the team.
Porter is an end of the bench player for now...but he should certainly be given every chance to move up the pecking order. Gorgui Dieng should be on the roster as a trade piece only at this stage. There are enough young bigs like Porter in place that Memphis is trying to figure out if they’re possible Jonas Valanciunas replacements down the line without Dieng eating time, even though he may be a better player in the here and now.
Look for Porter to compete with Tillman and at times Tillie for spot minutes on the floor for Memphis, especially if Kyle Anderson doesn’t see minutes at the “4” (which he likely will).
Season Best Case Scenario
Porter first and foremost makes it through the season completely healthy. From there, he rediscovers the unique combination of floor spacing, rebounding, and facilitating (18th in the SEC in assist percentage in his lone season at Missouri) that make him so intriguing to Memphis in the first place. That player, if he’s still there, can compete to be the 4th big on this roster behind Valanciunas/Jackson Jr./Clarke - and potentially eventually see an increased role beyond that in the future. But that goal is far off on the horizon. If Porter can stay on the floor and display his skill set hasn’t been negatively impacted by the time away from the game competitively, this season will be a massive success for Jontay.
Because that guy, the 2017-2018 SEC Sixth Man of the Year, could be a damn good NBA player. If he is still there.
Season Worst Case Scenario
It’s simple, really - another catastrophic injury to a knee (or in general) that takes away yet another season from Porter. The good news for Porter is the Grizzlies medical/performance staff is extremely cautious with injuries and has a track record of prioritizing coming back fully healthy ahead of coming back before the player is ready. If he’s cleared, he must be in good standing at this stage and in a position to compete at a high level.
Which is why another injury would essentially end Porter’s NBA career. The Grizzlies contract with Jontay has multiple outs for the team, essentially making Porter a low-risk high-reward bet. If he succeeds? Jontay is on a bargain of a deal. If not? Very little money beyond this season is guaranteed...and the team can cut bait on the investment they made.
Memphis doesn’t want that to happen. They benefit tremendously if Jontay can return to form. But given Porter’s injury history, the possibility of it happening cannot be ignored.
Simply stated - there aren’t any. The Grizzlies roster has a lot of bigs, but they’re also bigs that have considerable questions in spots, starting with Porter. If Jontay can play to the level he did at Missouri and show mobility and movement as a defender and screener that isn’t hindered by the knee surgeries, he will work his way up the roster. If he is slow to catch up, there are plenty of options on the Memphis roster that can fill the void as he gets up to speed.
Instead of games played this year, games active should be the goal for Porter. Instead of points per game, he should focus on practices and pregame conditioning sessions where he can continue to develop and grow - he is younger than Jaren and Ja, he has time. If - a big if - Jontay stays healthy, his talent will dictate a rise up the depth chart. The cream will rise to the top. But no rising can occur if you cannot stay on the floor. In year one of this Memphis investment, prioritizing that should be paramount.