Welcome to the new normal of the NBA’s 2019-2020 season that should have ended weeks ago. Here, the campaign will continue well in to the Fall, and the Memphis Grizzlies - who should be about two months in to their off-season at this stage - are preparing to play the most meaningful basketball they’ve been involved in since 2017. Led by an unlikely cast of young stars and castoffs, these Grizzlies are primed to make serious noise in the Orlando bubble...assuming the season actually reaches its October finish line as the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on the United States.
You’re not in this space to be reminded of the country being proverbially ablaze, though. You want to be reminded of - or perhaps be introduced to - the Memphis Grizzlies as they enter the bubble. Be optimistic! Have hope! Basketball is back...and the Grizzlies are going to crash the Disney party.
Get caught up with the squad. It has been too long.
Ja Morant is the star of the show
The likely Rookie of the Year for the 2019-2020 season is off the charts exciting, audacious, and surprisingly good considering he’s a first year point guard in the NBA.
Ja Morant is in ELITE company— CBS Sports HQ (@CBSSportsHQ) June 28, 2020
As rookies, the ONLY players in NBA history to post 17 PPG, 6 APG while shooting 35% from 3 in a season:
▪︎ Damian Lillard
▪︎ Damon Stoudamire
▪︎ Ja Morant@JaMorant pic.twitter.com/Gm1XWboAr9
In an NBA world where folks desperately want Zion Williamson to be the next big thing, Ja Morant continues to be the pesky reminder that sometimes the greatest ability in life is availability. While Zion was elite in 19 games played prior to the suspension of the season, Ja’s 59 game sample size is extremely impressive in and of itself. He is a human highlight reel with a remarkable ability to take games over in the fourth quarter and a willingness to get his teammates involved early and often to get their confidence up. He’s cocky and brash in the very best way, willing to take on all comers and embrace the underdog mentality that both he and Memphis have had for the longest time.
He has the Grizzlies in prime position to make the postseason, something that absolutely no one expected to happen when this season began eight months ago.
Speaking of that...
Memphis isn’t supposed to be here
It is a weird year for Las Vegas over/unders. Just about everyone is at the under right now with the season currently suspended at roughly 65 games played except for two teams - the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Thunder were supposed to be below .500 at 32.5 wins and are currently 40-24, making them the biggest surprise of the season. However, they were projected to win five more games than the Grizzlies, and the 32 wins of Memphis are just as surprising if not more so. The Thunder have veterans like Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams, and they also have Billy Donovan who has bad een an NBA coach for several seasons. Memphis is the youngest team in the Association, with their rookie head coach being the youngest head honcho heading to Orlando’s bubble at the helm.
OKC is better than expected. But Memphis is miles ahead of where they’re supposed to be. The conversation that was supposed to be happening now is “will Anthony Edwards fit next to Ja and Jaren”, or “will Memphis regret not having the #7 pick in this draft?” Instead? A clear path to conveying their first round pick this season to Boston exists, and the future for the Grizzlies is brighter than anyone expected it to be 14 months ago.
That’s not just because of Ja.
Are we sure Klay Thompson didn’t just grow and get traded to Memphis?
Jaren Jackson Jr. is 20 years old and is the second youngest sophomore in the NBA. He is also the best youngest 2nd year player in the NBA (sorry Issac Bonga), and is putting up numbers that aren’t normal for a 6’11” player. According to basketball-reference.com, only 12 players ever have had a season where 135 or more threes were made and 87 opposing shots were blocked. The youngest player on this list used to be Dirk Nowitzki...until Jaren Jackson Jr. this year. Active players on this list are Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Danny Green, and Brook Lopez.
Jaren is also 6th on this list overall in three point percentage (39.7%, better than young Dirk), 5th in effective field goal percentage (56.4%, better than 24 year old Kevin Durant), and again, IS FIRST IN AGE IN TERMS OF YOUTH. This cannot be understated - yes, Jaren is a weak rebounder. Yes, he still has foul issues and combining that with the rebounding limits his impact at times, especially as a defender (which, while he still is a force there, is supposed to be his undisputed strength).
But he can handle the ball at times like a guard, switch on the perimeter defensively like a wing, and is the 20th youngest player in the NBA. He’s younger than his teammate and likely Rookie of the Year Ja Morant by 36 days. Ja gets the headlines, but if Memphis is going to shock the bubble Jaren Jackson Jr. will likely be a large part of that process. How his game has developed is a must-watch.
Taylor Jenkins is the best NBA coach you didn’t know existed
Yes, yes, you love the NBA, we get it. You didn’t know who Taylor Jenkins was until this video happened at the earliest - and even now you aren’t sure you know who he is.
Every NBA team needs an assistant coach who's trained like the Bucks Taylor Jenkins to keep players from being suspended. pic.twitter.com/ja2DNFFfNM— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) May 2, 2019
The key word in that tweet, it turns out, is “Bucks”. For Taylor Jenkins, who got his start in coaching from a connection in San Antonio with the Spurs, was an assistant for the great Mike Budenholzer in Milwaukee and has brought a lot of what makes Milwaukee good (outside of Giannis) to Memphis. The Grizzlies are very sound in terms of scheme, prioritizing defensive versatility wherever possible and pace more than Memphis has in some time. Jenkins prefers players that are floor spacers and willing chuckers from three when it comes to his role players (which partly explains his affinity for former Grizzly Jae Crowder) and has found ways to adjust and adapt what he does as the season grinds along.
He’s not afraid of players taking long-range shots, and he’s willing to run with small wings as long as they have length and an understanding of the importance of angles and possessions that help to make up for their lack of size. He relates to his players in terms of allowing them space to grow and learn through mistakes (in most cases - stop fouling please, Jaren) and has earned their trust both on and off the floor.
He’s won a Western Conference Coach of the Month for this season, which no one expected - even the most optimistic Grizzlies fan. The future of the Grizzlies coaching staff is almost as bright as the players they work with...which is a stunning (but welcome) development.
The new kids are rocking the block
Brandon Clarke fell (inexplicably) all the way to 21 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. He then dominated the NBA Summer League and has made his case for being a first team All-Rookie team selection for this season, posting numbers comparable only to the likes of Mitchell Robinson in recent history.
Tyus Jones arrived in Memphis via free agency and after a rocky start to his time with the Grizzlies has become an excellent yang to the yin of Ja Morant. Jones is elite when it comes to assist to turnover ratio, and his ability to protect the ball balances out the turnovers that could come with the breakneck speed and risky (but awesome) passes Morant launches from time to time.
De’Anthony Melton came to the Grizzlies in an inexplicable trade from the Phoenix Suns in which Phoenix gave Memphis Melton, Josh Jackson (who has also shown flashes of value before the season was suspended), and two second round picks for the buyout-friendly contract of Kyle Korver and Jevon Carter. Now, Melton has SB Nation Team Bloggers and writers for The Athletic saying the Atlanta Hawks should offer him a 4 year $50 million offer sheet for his malleable skill set, athleticism, and ability to run with the best of them.
These are just three examples. But they’re strong ones - and evidence that Zachary Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ “new” Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, should be a dark horse contender for Executive of the Year. Ja Morant at #2 overall was almost a no brainer. But the Mike Conley and Marc Gasol trades were the catalyst for moves that led to Memphis going from a dark and dreary future to one of the brightest ones in the entire NBA. They have draft capital, they have future salary cap flexibility, they have real hope for even better days ahead.
But in the immediate future, one player will impact what the bubble looks like more than any. And he hasn’t played a second for Memphis yet.
The key is Justise Winslow
Assuming COVID-19 doesn’t decimate anyone, this should be as healthy as the true contenders for the 8 seed have been in some time. The Trail Blazers have Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back. The Kings could benefit mightily from the return of Marvin Bagley III. The Pelicans haven’t been healthy much of the season and should have most of their key cogs back.
But for Memphis, the addition of one Justise Winslow could make all the difference.
Assuming Winslow plays roughly 25 minutes per game, he adds another layer to the offensive and defensive schemes of the Grizzlies that the organization did not expect to see until next season. Justise can shoot the three (when healthy) and facilitate offense, making life easier for Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant and allowing for them to simply score more often. He can help Jaren Jackson Jr. with rebounding while being more of a threat from beyond the arc than Kyle Anderson. He has size and length to defend multiple positions, bringing a versatility that can impact opposing offenses on the perimeter in numerous ways.
If Justise is healthy, he makes Memphis better. And adds depth to a roster that already is plentiful in that department - which, again, given the reality of this imperfect restart, may come in handy.
Winslow was acquired by the Grizzlies to be a core piece to the 2020-2021 team. The suspended season provides opportunity to see exactly what they have in Justise earlier than anticipated - and a wrinkle to what Memphis has been all season long for opponents to have to account for.
So there you go. All caught up. If you’re a competitor for the eight seed, BOO. If you’re a fan of one of the “delete eight” squads not heading to Orlando, welcome to our bandwagon! We have BBQ and sweet tea to spare. The Grizzlies are fun, and young, and unexpectedly mediocre instead of the bad team they were supposed to be.
Will that equate to a playoff run? Probably not - the reward for winning the race to the eight seed is a date with the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. But experience in the postseason would be worth its weight in gold for the youth of Memphis, and the chase for that chance at LeBron James and company will be valuable in and of itself. The season’s resumption brings with it more icing on the cake for the Grizzlies from a basketball perspective. In Memphis, the season is already a success.
Rejoice basketball fans! The next time we see what surprises these Grizzlies have in store will be a sight for very sore eyes.