Finally, the Memphis Grizzlies and the rest of the NBA have an official timeline in which the league will return to play. After a lot of discussion and speculation, the NBA seems to have done well in laying out a fair format that respects where the standings were when the season was suspended. For the Grizzlies, they now understand what it will take to maintain their current playoff position, and know that they are in full control of their own fate. However, with nearly every roster still participating now at full strength, the path to the playoffs will not be easy. As a result, the Grizzlies will need to consistently play at top form in order to keep chances high that they will make their first postseason appearance since 2017.
To play at top form, the Grizzlies much feature their strengths. On paper, that obviously begins with their front court and their depth. Getting the ball into the paint, finding Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, and Brandon Clarke good looks, and utilizing various lineup looks to find success in different situations on both ends of the court are all essential. However, in an environment where the Grizzlies will likely be facing more talented teams, offensive efficiency becomes critical.
That responsibility begins with the Grizzlies’ young point guard duo of Ja Morant and Tyus Jones. Fortunately, despite their youth, both Morant and Jones have delivered better than expected results in their respective roles for much of the season.
You do not have to dig deep to see how good of a job the Grizzlies point guard pairing has done. The Grizzlies are currently second in the NBA in assists. However, that statistic is not just a reflection of the Grizzlies’ starting lineup. Memphis ranks first in assists among NBA benches and NBA guard units. Considering the Grizzlies’ rank eighth in AST/TO Ratio and sixth in pace among NBA backcourts, their results become even more impressive considering their efficiency while on the run. Though Memphis’ pace allows for an above-average amount of assist opportunities, when compared to the rest of the NBA, both Morant and Jones have have been very good at making decisions and plays this season.
The Grizzlies’ impressive passing and assist numbers are a result of significant contributions from their entire back court. However, Jones and Morant are among the most productive point guard combinations in the NBA. According to John Hollinger’s point guard production rankings, Morant and Jones rank 12th and 31st in PER, respectively. This makes the Grizzlies one of only five NBA teams with multiple players in this group of 31 players. Both Morant and Jones were among the 48 NBA players who averaged 4 or more assists this season (minimum 50 games). Though many teams had multiple players on the list, the combined 11.3 assists per game between Morant and Jones was the seventh highest total among duos on the same team from this group.
The impact of Morant and Jones goes beyond their assist production. As has been well documented, Morant (all-around playmaking) and Jones (offensive efficiency) both know their strengths and how to consistently feature them. Their abilities make both Morant and Jones rare commodities, in terms of both this season and history. This season, Morant’s per game production (17.6 points, 6.9 assists and 56% true shooting percentage) is a standard only seven players have reached (min. 50 games played). In fact, Morant and Lebron James were the only players to achieve that stat line while shooting better than 49% from the field this season. Furthermore, that per game production line has been achieved by only one other rookie in NBA history; Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. Without a doubt, Morant has clearly established him as the premier talent on the Grizzlies in the present and for the future.
Though Jones does not have the all-around game of Morant, he excels at the role the Grizzlies envisioned for him last summer as their second unit general. Jones’s historic levels of efficiency were well-known when the Grizzlies signed him, and they have carried over to this season. Over the past two seasons, Jones has not only been good in terms of assists and turnovers, but also in how often his touches led to assists. In fact, Jones is the only player in NBA history to have played at least 1,200 minutes in a season, produced a 28 or higher AST% and an 11 or lower TO% while having an 18 or lower USG%. He actually has done it twice. The significance of this stat line shows that not only is Jones efficient by limiting mistakes, he is the rare player who offers significant offensive value without having high scoring or usage rates.
Another aspect of both point guards’ games is their ability to put themselves in high percentage situations to score when they must. Both Jones and Morant were in the 80th or above percentile of guards whose overall percentage of shots came from 4-14 feet from the basket; they also both ranked in the 80th or above percentile of guards in terms of FG% from that distance. In other words, both Morant and Jones are highly successful at getting into the lane for a good look at a floater, finish at the rim, or a quick pass out to an open shooter.
In fact, the Grizzlies guards have by far been the most frequent and productive unit in the paint among NBA back courts. This has allowed the Grizzlies to play above their perceived offensive talent level as a roster, creating space for better open looks at the basket from distance and being able to find ways to score via a shot or pass no matter how the defense reacts. This level of resourcefulness has been missing from the Grizzlies’ offense for years, and both Morant and Jones are major reasons for its existence.
As can be seen, the intelligence of Morant and Jones to know their games and feature their strengths has been one of the biggest and most valuable developments for the Grizzlies this season. Their play has elevated the overall offensive ceiling for the Grizzlies roster as a whole. Considering the 25 four-man Grizzlies lineups this year that have played 100 or more minutes together, either Morant or Jones are included in each of the five combinations that have produced the highest offensive ratings and NET ratings. This is a clear indication that the Grizzlies are at their best offensively when Morant or Jones are running the show.
The Grizzlies franchise actually has a pretty interesting history in regards to the point guard position. From the beginnings with Mike Bibby, to the Steve Francis soap opera, to drafting Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley in consecutive years, the franchise has had ties to some notable names. Without a doubt, the best of this bunch in terms of the Grizzlies was Conley. However, it could logically be argued that the Grizzlies have had more offensive production from the point guard position this season than in any of the 11 seasons Conley was here. The fact that debate can logically be had the year after Conley left is truly amazing.
A debate as to where this point guard pairing ranks in terms of franchise history or in the NBA (they have a strong case to be among the best in both aspects) is a fun conversation for another time. However, there is no debating that the combination of Jones and Morant are exactly what the Grizzlies needed to escape a future of perceived purgatory and emerge as a roster with a high potential for prosperity moving forward.
While Morant is a potential superstar that can lead the Grizzlies starters against any lineup in the NBA, Jones is the calm and consistent captain of one of the NBA’s best bench units. While other NBA rosters may feature more advanced over talents, better perimeter defenders, or point guards who can play together, it would be hard to find a pair of point guards who fit their roles and complement their roster better than Morant and Jones do with the Grizzlies.
With the precision of their passing as they calling cards, the pair of Ja Morant and Tyus Jones are precisely what the Grizzles need for the present and future to continue clearing their path towards contention.