So much has been made of just how unique this NBA return to play is that the uncommon is now commonplace. Virtual fans? Sure, why not. Zoom calls going on over top of live basketball action? Hopefully not on Memphis Grizzlies broadcasts, but worth a try. A reimagined arena experience around the court, making up for the absence of arenas filled with thousands of screaming people?
A nice touch.
You could have given me one million guesses about how I’d be spending late July and “in Orlando watching two NBA teams scrimmage in a quiet arena” would not have ever made it on the list. And yet...here we are, and it’s downright incredible they pulled this off. pic.twitter.com/GNACIVRa7w— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 22, 2020
It’s far from perfect. But the NBA is showing that this crazy idea of a “bubble” has a real chance at working, as long as there is discipline (and a ton of money) involved. The changes of structure and scenery of course impact the players as well as broadcasts and the courts on which they display their athletic gifts. Teams have devised ways to get players back in to playing shape as safely as possible to limit injury wherever they can, especially those of the soft tissue variety. With those exercises - and the extra time that essentially amounts to an offseason - comes opportunity for players, especially young ones, to grow both literally and figuratively.
Know any teams that could benefit from that?
The Grizzlies are among the youngest squads in the NBA. They also boast an impressive chemistry, one that comes from genuine enjoyment in playing together. Their skills fit almost perfectly together, like notes on a sheet of music coming to life in harmony - Ja Morant’s explosive athleticism paired with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s deadly range and Brandon Clarke’s elite finishing ability at the rim off the pick and roll plays beautifully when in action. With two of these players (Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke) in their first seasons in the Association, it stands to reason that some real developments in their games may be revealed as Memphis resumes play with a scrimmage/preseason game against Philadelphia on Friday.
While Ja, Brandon, and Jaren are already quite good in specific areas there is certainly room for improvement. Any exquisite work of art takes time to create, mature, and have its vision maximized. Between their time away working on their bodies and their time together with teammates and coaches growing their relationships and skill sets, we may very well see those steps forward become leaps sooner than expected.
Where may the dissonance in their games come to resolution?
Brandon Clarke: Less rolls, more pops
Brandon Clarke is in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year award consideration (he won’t win, but it is impressive the suggestion isn’t outlandish) and is a lock for a first team All-NBA Rookie selection. He is doing this especially by being elite in scoring efficiency (90th percentile in effective field goal percentage and 96th percentile in the short mid-range - 4 to 14 feet) thanks to his rolling to the rim. Teams have to respect his athleticism and ability to finish in the paint, so as they collapse back to the basket Clarke has mastered a floater and other means of scoring that aren’t just dunks. He does it on rim runs off picks, but can even do it off the dribble-
Brandon Clarke`s floater is absurd. He shoots a crazy 53% on this shot and he has mastered it. He is so efficient and skilled at it. pic.twitter.com/HrgX98PaGm— NBA Discussion (@NBAisBest4) July 6, 2020
Having that kind of touch is quite impressive when on the move. He also has decent feel from the charity stripe - his 78.5% free throw performance this season puts him 3rd among current Grizzlies that have played at least 35 games this season (and first among Grizzlies bigs). Imagine what he can do from a stationary position...from beyond the arc.
No, literally, you have to imagine it. Because Brandon Clarke per 100 possessions shoots only 2.2 threes per game according to basketball-reference.com. That is the lowest number on the Grizzlies - lower than Jonas Valanciunas, fewer attempts than even Kyle Anderson. This is true despite the fact that Clarke shoots 41% on such long range shots, putting him in the 89th percentile in the NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. He is even better on non-corner threes, hitting 44% of such shots. That’s better than Jaren Jackson Jr., Danilo Gallinari, Karl-Anthony Towns, and places Brandon in the 98th percentile in the NBA per Cleaning the Glass.
Brandon is an excellent pick and roll player. Now, entering the seeding games, it is time to see what he can do in the pick and pop. Especially when he is alongside Ja Morant in the two-man game, opposing defenses are going to retreat to the paint. Clarke’s apparent aversion to launching perimeter shots given his success when he does so must be limited moving forward. A Clarke that can be depended upon for spacing, not just running at the rim, is so much more dangerous. The floor becomes that much more open for him to dish to cutters or create for himself off the dribble, as he does above. But first? He must take the three more consistently.
He has it in him. He just needs to embrace that reality.
Jaren Jackson Jr.: Facilitation beyond perimeter production
Very few players have made the sheer amount of three point shots and blocked the attempts of the opposition that Jaren Jackson Jr. has. Add in the fact that Jaren Jackson Jr. is still only 20 years old, and his gifts become all the more impressive. But he, like all of us, has room for growth - he fouls too much, he could better utilize his handle against slower defenders, and he could be a better passer. With passing in particular, his assist percentage (7.5%) is easily the worst on the Grizzlies among players that have logged at least 300 minutes for Memphis. Considering his 3rd highest usage on the team according to basketball-reference.com that number is far too low. He is in the ninth percentile for assists to usage ratio per Cleaning the Glass - tied with JaVale McGee and Mitchell Robinson. That’s a problem.
In the here and now, the passing probably should be prioritized.
Why? Because of this.
For the sake of Ja Morant’s scoring prowess and the growth of the Grizzlies offense as a whole, the more that players like Jaren can help complete such plays like the one above the better. Morant on the ball is a monster - he can get past almost any defender off the dribble and can complete cross-court passes with ease. Ja prioritizes getting teammates involved early in games and then taking over in final frames, but if Memphis is going to make noise in the bubble they will need scoring Morant around for four quarters, not just fourth quarters.
Having multiple facilitators of offense assists with that, literally and figuratively. But Justise Winslow’s departure from the Grizzlies rotation before he even officially entered hurts those prospects. Sure, Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton have some experience with such facilitation of offense, and of course Tyus Jones is Ja’s second in command when it comes to assisting others on their way to a scoring opportunity. But when a big can pass and help guards and wings get their shots in their spots another layer gets added to the offense - Memphis fans should remember that well from Marc Gasol’s impact on the Grizzlies years ago.
Beyond the limited Dillon Brooks and the small-sample-size-riddled Josh Jackson, there are no real scoring threats on the perimeter beyond Ja. Getting him in positions to use his athleticism to finish around the rim in different ways takes the ball out of his hand sometimes. After all, getting backdoor cuts and coming off screens must be done from other areas of the floor outside of pick and roll schemes. Jaren, with all his shooting impact, will have defenses missing rotations. He has to be better at recognizing those holes and kicking out (or in) to open shooters. Like a quarterback finding a hot route after identifying a blitzing defender, Jackson’s eyes and actions need to be more in sync beyond seeing space for himself and launching a three - although he is quite good at that, in fairness.
As his assist percentage increases, so will the offensive efficiency of the Grizzlies.
Ja Morant: Situational defense making moments less tense
Ja isn’t ever going to be asked to be a defensive stopper. He is a force of nature offensively - that takes a remarkable amount of energy. As long as Morant is a net neutral (or even a bit negative) defender his impact on the offense of Memphis will negate that windfall. But there are specific areas where Ja could improve now that could mean the difference between wins and losses for the Grizzlies in the weeks ahead.
At and around the rim: Morant is not terrible in terms of impacting shooting overall - he is surprisingly effective limiting three point attempts (89th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass, with opponents shooting 3.5% worse with Ja on the floor) and is in the 88th percentile overall in opposing effective field goal percentage, 4th among NBA point guards that have played at least 500 minutes this season. But one glaring weakness is in his defense on the same type of shot that Brandon Clarke thrives on - the short mid-range of 4 to 14 feet from the basket. His size plays a role - if you have a decent floater, or a solid step back in the mid-range, you’ll likely get it off over Ja. But it also is connected to basic execution.
On defense here, Ja Morant is nowhere close to being in proper help position against the Bertans dive to the basket. He doesn't even stunt at Wagner as he drives towards the cement-footed Valanciunas. Gotta be more crisp on this end. pic.twitter.com/u2Amgdms7w— Grizzlies Film Breakdowns (@GrizzFilm) May 10, 2020
Movement. Positioning. Understanding of what an opponent is trying to do to you, and assisting teammates with meaningful help off of various rotations. Those things come with reps, and experience against more and more NBA offenses will help with this process. But as new GBBer Eric Nelson demonstrates above, sometimes it is as basic as an extra step or hand in the face to muddy a ball handler or shooter’s window ever so much.
Those hands could also be put to better use in creating more transition opportunities.
Defense turning in to offense: Morant is the worst Grizzlies perimeter player when it comes to steal percentage (according to basketball-reference.com) not named Grayson Allen (who has only played roughly 500 minutes this season). This is not ideal, considering that Ja intercepting passes and finishing highlight dunks would be a lot of fun. Yet per Cleaning the Glass Morant is in the 33rd percentile among NBA players in this area of the game, well below average. Improvement in this key aspect of the game can come with being more opportunistic - for example, in the clip above all Morant had to do was time his shot and attack Moritz Wagner with the ball to try to create a turnover. Jonas Valanciunas was never making that defensive play, and Wagner isn’t a guard - a kick to the corner would be difficult for him to complete in rhythm if Ja pinched off of his man in the corner.
A strip and transition chance, where Morant and many other Grizzlies like De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, and Josh Jackson thrive, could mean more easy points for a young offense that could use them every chance they can get. All “Big 12” needs to do is work on his timing and understanding of angles, both of driving dribblers and perimeter passers. That improvement could add to his scoring, and possible SportsCenter Top 10 moments.
The young Grizzlies are an unfinished symphony. They have the core instruments in place - the booming brass personality of Ja Morant, the smooth strings of the skill of Jaren Jackson Jr., the steadying percussion presence of Brandon Clarke. But as they build up their talent in other areas (wing scoring can be the woodwind section?), those currently in place can still make beautiful basketball music together. Layers of basketball tools added to skill sets are like additional beats and melodies, rests and refrains - they only add to the eventual full production currently under construction. As names come and go adding to this incomplete pursuit of basketball art, we can enjoy the bars and beats being assembled before us.
It is a work in progress - but as with any potential musical masterpiece, the desired end result will be creative chords and tantalizing tones that took time and talent to thrive.