Have you ever heard the saying “you don’t know what you’ve got til’ it’s gone?” The Memphis Grizzlies learned that the hard way in the NBA’s Bubble campus in Orlando.
Fans of the Grizzlies can tell you how important the back-up point guard position is. Aside from brief snippets of time (Beno Udrih and Mario Chalmers in particular say hi) the position has been a disappointment for the better part of a decade. So when Memphis lucked in to the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and selected Ja Morant (after trading Mike Conley), it became a priority of the Grizzlies front office to get a solid back-up to fit behind Morant. Delon Wright was more of a combo guard, so Memphis made the move to trade him to Dallas in a sign-and-trade.
With the money that became available, they signed Tyus Jones, formerly of the Minnesota Timberwolves, an analytics darling who protects possessions and facilitates offense at an elite pace in terms of assist to turnover ratio. There were growing pains - Head Coach Taylor Jenkins likes his offense to both play with pace and provide space, and Tyus needed to adjust to both aspects of the style of play for the Grizzlies. But once Tyus settled in, he became the anchor of a second unit that was elite when Memphis was playing their best basketball.
Once Jones fell out of the rotation due to injury during the seeding games in Orlando, his absence made clear just how valuable Tyus is to Memphis. His absence has made the hearts of Grizzlies fans grow fonder heading in to the future.
At his best
Tyus Jones had several games where that greatest strength of his - the assist to turnover ratio - was on full display. He combined his passing with scoring extremely well against the Atlanta Hawks on March 2nd.
He didn’t shoot from range particularly well in this game (1 for 4 from three). But in just about 19 minutes played Tyus was a +36 in a 39-point blowout victory. Tyus scored 15 points while shooting 5-6 on two point attempts, and also dished out 9 assists while turning the ball over only one time. Jones also tied a season-high with four steals, making an impact not just offensively but defensively as well. Tyus attacked the rim and created shot opportunities for all sorts of teammates in this game, and his steady hand was on full display. By this point, Jones understood just where his teammates wanted the ball and how to get it to them in rhythm. He also maintained his patience, not allowing poor decision-making to disrupt precious offensive possessions.
He did exactly what Memphis signed him to do. And he played a massive role in this victory.
At his worst
Early in the season there was a major learning curve for Jones as he adapted to the new schemes of the Grizzlies. Nowhere were these issues more apparent than on November 25th against the Indiana Pacers. Tyus was a -25 in 12 minutes played, failing to score a point and only tallying one assist. That was his only counting stat - no rebounds, no turnovers (thankfully?), no steals...just the one assist in 12 minutes of play. Considering Tyus posted a career-best 8.3 assists per 36 minutes this season, this performance was out of character for Jones. But that is how much of Tyus’ early time with the Grizzlies went. Tyus had 2 or more turnovers in 14 of his 65 games played for Memphis this season...10 of them came in the calendar year 2019. That means that in 30 games in 2020, Jones only had more than 1 turnover in 4 games.
Impressive. And further evidence that once Tyus got in the groove with the Grizzlies, he was exactly what the team needed. But that took time to come for him and Memphis.
What comes next?
Tyus Jones’ knee injury is not expected to keep him out of the Grizzlies season when it eventually comes along this winter. When that time arrives, Tyus will retake his role of the floor general of the second unit. It’s a good thing too - with him out in Orlando, Memphis found out just how important he is to the Grizzlies. De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson in particular did their best to fill his shoes, but it simply was not the same. No one combined offensive facilitation and timing with elite decision making like Tyus can - and it showed. That special set of reserves lost much of their shine, and the Grizzlies suffered for it.
Will Memphis acquire a third point guard this offseason? Maybe - but it isn’t as if they’ll be any better than Jones, and the logic of the Grizzlies from this past season with regard to not needing a 3rd point guard may remain. Perhaps the play of Anderson in particular gave them hope that a Point Forward answer could work if Tyus, or even Ja Morant, eventually have to sit for some reason. Even if Melton does not return in restricted free agency, with the play of Grayson Allen and John Konchar this season the team may feel Anderson can adjust his role. Perhaps using that 40th draft pick or mid-level exception space on a floor spacing shooter would be a better use of limited 2020 assets.
Regardless, the presence of Tyus Jones will steady the reserve unit of the Memphis Grizzlies. And that will make quite a difference as players are able to return to roles better suited to their skill sets.