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A modern approach to the backup center

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This isn’t your father’s NBA. This is a position-less league that the Memphis Grizzlies are built for.

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2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Over the past month, there has been a lot of content on the rotation, particularly on who would be the 9th and 10th men. Given his size, defensive prowess, and the Grizzlies’ need for a pure big off the bench, Gorgui Dieng seemed like a lock for the rotation, leaving the 10th man spot to be decided between Josh Jackson and Kyle Anderson. Obviously injuries to Justise Winslow, and now Tyus Jones, have thrown a wrench in rotation plans, but it looks like Dieng may not remain in them.

In both the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat scrimmages, Dieng only saw garbage time minutes — which I didn’t even find possible in these type of games. He also didn’t really impress in his time either. In 16 total minutes, Dieng went 1-6 from the field, while only recording 4 rebounds and 4 fouls. Without Dieng shoring up backup 5 minutes, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke have taken those opportunities while Jonas Valanciunas is resting.

It might be perplexing to those who think about basketball with a traditional mindset. Why not play the team’s only other center as the backup? Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke aren’t good rebounders, so they need Dieng on the floor.

Contrary to traditional basketball beliefs, running either of the Grizzlies’ young big men at the 5 spot can pay dividends in the bubble.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke won’t see a lot of time at the 5, but in the scrimmages, we saw him manning that spot while paired with Anthony Tolliver in the frontcourt. That decision may be confusing, since Tolliver was brought in on a 10-day contract to probably be the 13th guy. However, he makes sense in Jenkins’ system. Coach Taylor Jenkins is reliant on heavy movement and 3-point shooting, and Tolliver is the superior player in that regard. He’s drained 41.2% of his 3-pointers in 5 games with Memphis, while Dieng only converted on 22.7% of his triples in 12 games. In addition, Tolliver is the more willing ball-mover, as he can put the ball on the deck for a few dribbles to find the open man.

With Clarke at the 5, it turbo-charges the Grizzlies’ offense. They have a 5 that runs the floor like a wing, now passes at “secondary playmaker” levels, keep defenders honest from 3, and can rim-run as an elite roll man. And despite his size, his offensive and defensive efficiency allow him to play at these spot minutes at the 5. He finishes within 5 feet at a 73% clip, marks better than Rudy Gobert, John Collins, and Hassan Whiteside. Players also shot 7.2% worse within 6 feet with Clarke defending them, which is lower than Bam Adebayo and Pascal Siakam.

I’m not saying the 5 is his best position, but he can manage 5-7 spot minutes there if necessary.

His poor rebounding and perpetual fouling mask it, but Jaren Jackson Jr. is ready for significant minutes at the 5, contrary to popular belief. Not only do good things happen when he runs the 5, the Memphis Grizzlies are dominant when he does so.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies outscore opponents by 15.2 points per 100 possessions when Jackson is at the 5 in 505 possessions (note: I filtered the lineups to not feature Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill).

How does it work if his rebounding numbers are so low?

For starters, Jaren Jackson Jr. is a transcendent shooter from the big man spot. As one of GBB’s newest writers Eric Nelson put it, Jackson creates a lot of gravity when he’s on the floor. When he’s out on the floor, he draws the defense’s attention with his shooting prowess and his threat to fire at a high volume. When your center is generating that gravity, instead of doing more damage in the paint, it’s going to open up the offense. For the Grizzlies in particular, it clears the paint for cutting lanes for low-volume, low-percentage shooters like Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, for Dillon Brooks to attack closeouts and finish inside the arc, and for Ja Morant to do damage as a scorer and facilitator.

Secondly, Jackson at the 5 allows for him to share the floor with Brandon Clarke. Offensively, while Jaren spaces the floor from the perimeter, Clarke is an excellent vertical spacer, as he’s a lob threat if he gets anywhere near the rim. This pairing is optimal defensively, since both big men are prolific rim protectors that can also switch out on the perimeter. Having your 4 and 5 serve as versatile threats on both ends of the floor is going to yield good results.

Where the Grizzlies do a good job of masking Jackson’s rebounding is through mob-rebounding and creating turnovers. Most of these lineups feature De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson, two players that rank around the top-30th percentile in both Offensive Rebounding Percentage and Defensive Rebounding Percentage for their respective positions. When those guys crash the rim, they have the playmaking chops to take it and start transition offense... which is another big area of their success here.

Though they don’t have an elite rebounder like Jonas Valanciunas — or even a solid one like Gorgui Dieng — in these lineups, there are generally 3-4 great, versatile defenders that can buzzsaw teams with their defensive IQ, tenacity, quick hands, and switch-ability. Per Cleaning the Glass, 16.2% of the defensive possessions result in turnovers, which generate easy transition opportunities. When that’s the case, and you have a fastbreak dynamo like Ja Morant alongside 4 other guys that are great at running the floor, you’re going to have an elite transition offense.

While it goes against traditionalism, there’s tangible evidence that the Grizzlies are just fine rolling with Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5, despite the conventional wisdom that he’s not ready for minutes there.

Memphis Grizzlies v Miami Heat Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Gorgui Dieng is a good basketball player. He can protect the rim, score efficiently in the paint, and defend in space. And he’s not completely cast away from the rotation, because he can be a good big man that plays spot minutes against a team with tremendous size (i.e., a potential first round date with the Los Angeles Lakers).

Who knows? Maybe Dieng needs to shore up extra minutes as the backup 5 in other games, because Jackson is in foul trouble, and they’d sacrifice too much size with Clarke there. It’s a realistic scenario, and playing him isn’t a doomsday situation.

However, what’s worked impacts winning now, and it also gives an early look at the future of this system.

When imagining the Grizzlies as title contenders, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the 4 and 5. It’s why they drafted Clarke to pair with Jackson and Ja Morant. When you can see how it looks early in their careers, while in an intense environment like this restart, and it works ... roll with it. These are valuable reps that are going to pay off in the long run.

The goal of this season is to build towards sustainable success, and one way they could achieve that is by feeding these opportunities to the Grizzlies’ young big men.

This isn’t your dad’s NBA. The league is evolving into this free-flowing, versatile game where every player is expected to do a little bit of everything. The Memphis Grizzlies are built to not only keep up with the times, but to excel in them now, and set the golden standard for them in the future.

Stats found on nba.com/stats and Cleaning the Glass.

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