After four straight losses post All-Star Break, the Grizzlies playoff chances looked bleak. With injuries to Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke, the depleted roster would be tasked with maintaining the eighth playoff spot in the West. The Grizzlies responded, winning four of their last five games and a significant part of that has been the bench unit being not only able to maintain but extend leads.
A lot had to go right this season for the Grizzlies to still be playing meaningful basketball in March. Ja Morant instantly looking like a superstar is the main reason for the Grizzlies success, but Morant’s backup Tyus Jones has played a vital role in keeping the Grizzlies in the playoff hunt, anchoring the second unit and shooting a career high 38% from three. More importantly, he fits the young cores’ timeline and looks to be the Grizzlies long term answer at backup point guard, a position that has historically plagued the franchise. For an explosive, high usage guard like Ja, it is vital to have a reliable backup that can competently run the team if he were to miss time and the Grizzlies have found that in Tyus Jones.
When the Grizzlies added Tyus to the roster last summer, they were confident they were getting a player that does not turn the ball over. Jones career assist to turnover ratio sits at 4.8, and he set an NBA record in the 2018-2019 season with a ratio of 6.9. Stat gurus disagree about the merit of assist to turnover ratio, but there is real value in having a point guard that takes care of the ball. The Grizzlies bench unit is most effective when it is able to limit transition opportunities for their opponent and Tyus’ sure hands are a big part of that. At 6’0’’ Jones may never have the size to be an impactful individual defender but he is a smart player that understands the best way for him to affect the game is to make sure the other team doesn’t get any easy opportunities on the break when he is on the floor.
As previously mentioned, Tyus is shooting a career high from three. Similar to Ja, he is shooting a respectable percentage on not a lot of attempts (just under two a game) but at only 23 it is not difficult to envision him improving his shot to the point where he is a legitimate threat from deep. If Tyus can consistently shoot 37% from three on 3 to 4 attempts per game, he could easily be in the conversation for the best backup point guard in the league and a possible sixth man of the year candidate.
A perfect example of Tyus’s potential is the recent game against the Nets, where he exploded for 18 points on 5-6 shooting from three. The Nets game is an outlier performance for sure but Tyus should be able to replicate that performance more often as he enters his prime. The coaching staff has passed every test so far with the Grizzlies young core and Tyus is in an ideal situation to maximize his talent. The early returns for this staff are promising enough that the expectation going forward should be that any young player that is a member of the Grizzlies will more often than not become the best version of themselves.
If Tyus is able to reach his potential, he opens up some intriguing rotation combinations. Tyus’s primary role is Ja’s backup and while they have not played significant minutes together, in theory if Tyus continues to develop he could be used in more clutch situations that allow Ja to play off the ball more frequently. Fourth quarter Ja has been a “thing” all season and while he looks to set up his teammates first, he is showing more and more that he is willing to take on the scoring burden when necessary. Teams absolutely should want their best player with the ball in his hands in tight games but most contending teams also deploy multiple ball handlers and teams are throwing double coverages at Ja whenever he has the ball in in his hands. As Morant’s shot improves, I like the idea of testing how he plays in off ball situations and Tyus should allow for that.
Even if his role never evolves beyond backup point guard, Tyus provides great value by merely being available. He has stayed relatively healthy his entire career, playing all 82 games in 2017-2018 and he is on track to play all 82 games this season, having appeared in all 64 contests so far. His career low in games played was during his rookie year where he was shuffled between the then D-League and had not yet solidified a roster sport. Ja Morant’s aggressive style makes a reliable backup a necessity. In the near future when the
Grizzlies are hopefully contending for the playoffs most years moving forward and postseason seeding matters. It is comforting to know that if Ja misses significant time Tyus can step in and the team will likely to be able to survive that blow.
The list of Grizzlies backup point guards during the Core Four era was long and had varying degrees of success. Fans were understandably filled with dread whenever Mike Conley would lose time due to injury. The Grizzlies are still in the middle of a rebuild but in short time they have locked up their starting point guard and have secured a high level, young back up. Tyus Jones recent play shows the Grizzlies appear to have solved the point guard riddle that has plagued the franchise for so long. The result is a team in the thick of a playoff race and the most fun season Grizzlies fans have experienced in some time.