The Memphis Grizzlies miss Tyus Jones. A lot.
The value of the steady-handed Jones has never been higher as the Grizzlies feel the void left behind by his absence from the lineup. The second unit is rudderless, and when the starters are struggling (as Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. had for much of Monday night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans) that issue becomes only more pronounced. Right or wrong, the Memphis front office decided to stick with the familiar and bring back Anthony Tolliver for the NBA’s bubble in Orlando instead of signing a third point guard. When Justise Winslow was healthy, in fairness, this wasn’t as bad of an idea- surely the team saw him as capable of filling the job if necessary considering his Miami success.
But then he injured his hip. Making the knee soreness forcing Tyus Jones out of the Grizzlies rotations for the past week hurt all the more.
Ja Morant is tired from carrying so much of the load. Dillon Brooks is...still doing what he normally does. Kyle Anderson is having to be both secondary facilitator with the starters and the primary one at times with the second unit. On and on you can go with players that sorely miss what Tyus brings to the team, especially his elite assist to turnover ratio.
But De’Anthony Melton has a case of the Basketball Jones the most.
Before the seeding games began, De’Anthony Melton was called the X-Factor to the Grizzlies success in Orlando by several outlets/websites. Estimates of his potential haul in restricted free agency this summer were put at 4 years, $50 million. He was seen as an ideal running mate with Morant in transition, a defensive savant who can effectively help at the rim and fill the gaps in terms of rebounding and playing passing lanes to create deflections and turnovers. “Mr. Do Something”, as Grizzlies commentator Brevin Knight appropriately dubbed him, seemed poised to have a massive Orlando summer session.
But the opposite has happened.
Sta mancando anche Melton ai Grizzlies: male in attacco e pure in difesa. pic.twitter.com/ltzNZ0vDT2— Francesco La Mura (@cicciolamura) August 3, 2020
He often appears lost defensively, uncomfortable offensively, and because of that in part the Grizzlies are suffering. Now it’s important to point out that if Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are going to combine to shoot 12-38 from the field, Memphis is going to probably lose regardless of what Melton contributes. You can’t defend Dillon Brooks as not being the only problem and then crush De’Anthony Melton. That’s not where things are with De’Anthony - if anything, the argument can be made that he is so vital to the Grizzlies that the fact Dillon is being Dillon is amplified. Melton, as 92.9 ESPN’s Connor Dunning puts it, is the “ultimate glue guy”. He helps things stick together, to cover up the flaws and imperfections in the Memphis roster when he is on.
When he is off, as he has been through three games in the bubble? Memphis yearns for their Swiss Army Knife. So where have things gone awry?
A “positionless” player in need of his position
In three bubble contests, Melton has seen his minutes dwindle (30 against Portland, 14 against the Spurs, 16 in Monday’s loss to the Pelicans). That’s partly due to foul trouble - which he faced with San Antonio. But no such issue existed with NOLA, and as Melton’s playing time declines Grayson Allen saw his increase and has taken advantage by showing an ability to score and facilitate. Meanwhile, De’Anthony is 3-12 from the field in his 60 total minutes played for the Grizzlies in the bubble, and his lack of offensive rhythm is especially harmful to his prospects.
Is that all on Melton? No. But it does show his struggles balancing the need to fill in for Tyus with his other roles for Memphis. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us - after all, his performance in Phoenix (where he played 95% of his time at the point according to basketball-reference.com) was solid, but nowhere near as impressive as what he has done with the Grizzlies playing off the ball more. 82% of Melton’s Memphis minutes have been at the 2 guard spot - only 17% of his time until the Tyus injury was at the point. The Grizzlies were +10 in plus/minus net per 100 possessions with De’Anthony this season before Orlando, whereas he was only a +.9 difference for Phoenix. In Memphis Melton has been an off the ball threat, able to be a secondary facilitator in the half court and slash/cut more than have to dish out of different pick and roll and other offensive sets. The Suns used him inappropriately, and Phoenix’s loss was Memphis’ gain.
Until Tyus went out. Now, Melton is back to being a lesser version of himself out of necessity.
Now that’s not to say Melton is incapable. He actually had four assists against the Pelicans, with this one being particularly well-read as he helps the player that has essentially taken his place on the wing a majority of the last two games - Grayson Allen.
Melton is the initiator of a pick and roll set with Jaren Jackson Jr. Jaren sets a solid pick and De’Anthony has room to work, forcing Jaren’s man in to a tough spot. Fight or flight - neither option is a good one.
Because of the easy bucket Jaren likely would have had, J.J. Redick leaves Grayson Allen in the corner wide open. Perhaps he knows Melton isn’t ideal as that main initiator for others and thinks Jackson is a much larger threat. Maybe he things the angle of the pass and the way NOLA has defended Melton to that point would make such a pass unlikely to clear the paint to the other side of the court.
He was wrong. A crisp overhead pass (over the top of Jaren’s head) leads to a three point attempt for Grayson that is both clean and in rhythm. Splash.
So Melton has it in him...in spurts. The issue is when the Grizzlies ask him to be everything for their largely reserve units. He’s a jack of all trades, but he’s human and can be spread too thin. It is easy to forget he in 21-years old and was in the same draft as Jaren Jackson Jr., as a second round selection (46th overall). He cannot be timely and selective with his own shots while also being tasked with creating opportunities for others and protect the basketball. It will lead to freezing up entirely or forcing things, whether its shots or passes (0 turnovers against New Orleans, but 1 turnover without an assist against the Spurs) and his skill set does not fit that model of play consistently.
His overall struggle offensively is also indicative of a larger team issue.
Born to run...but stuck in neutral
The Memphis Grizzlies had seven fast break points against the New Orleans Pelicans in their worst offensive showing of the restart.
On Sunday against the Spurs, Memphis doubled that and scored 14, and the Grizzlies (despite their half court problems) were in a position to win that game more than they were against New Orleans, where the lead only changed hands twice. Then, in Friday’s opener against Portland where the Grizzlies lost in overtime and had their best offensive showing of the three games? 18 fast break points.
Noticing a trend?
During the 2019-2020 season Memphis has averaged 17.8 points on the fast break according to NBA.com/stats, good for 4th in the NBA. That includes these three bubble games. The Grizzlies offense - and Melton as a passer and finisher - thrives on the move in transition. Half court sets are not where most young teams find consistent success, and New Orleans did an exceptional job of limiting fast break opportunities for the Grizzlies. When Memphis can get these types of buckets it creates energy and rhythm for their half court sets. One of Melton’s assists early in the Pelicans game came on such a fast break exchange - a Melton deflection led to a Jonas Valanciunas outlet pass and Brandon Clarke getting position under the rim for an easy bucket.
Those chances were too few and far between against the Pelicans. Three converted fast break shots isn’t going to cut it. The last time Memphis won, a 118-101 victory over the Atlanta Hawks back in March? Six such conversions, and four of them were scored by Melton, including three point shots. 11 of his 13 points came on the fast break.
If the Grizzlies don’t run, Melton is going to struggle to score. And Memphis as a whole is going to do the same. Coach Jenkins and his staff must reiterate creating havoc defensively, forcing turnovers, securing loose/50-50 balls, and long rebounds in order to get out and push the ball up the floor, not allowing defensive sets to get established. Without that? It’s unlikely Melton - and more importantly the Grizzlies overall - get the most out of their offensive firepower.
Defensive woes beyond what he knows
The length, lateral quickness, and basketball IQ of Melton really shines through in his off-ball defense. He is a very intelligent help defender and can take advantage of passing lanes, helping him have a steal percentage (2.4%) in the 95th percentile in the NBA while also posting a block percentage (.8%) that is in the 84th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. Only five other NBA players that have played at least 1,000 minutes this season can boast that level of defensive disruption - Kris Dunn, Matisse Thybulle, Alex Caruso, Nerlens Noel, and Robert Covington.
Good company to keep, right? Then what’s the deal?
Melton is being asked to do more defensively on the ball against true point guards. Which is, again, difficult for someone that has become accustomed to defending perimeter players who may be less fleet of foot and/or able to handle the ball at an elite level.
Take the Spurs game, for example. Melton was asked to defend the likes of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Patty Mills, and Lonnie Walker IV as he switched from the “point” to being off the ball more when Ja Morant was in the game. The same is true for the Portland game - defending Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum is different than guarding Gary Trent Jr. It is hard enough to game plan for one or two matchups - favorite moves of players, their means of getting their shot off, how they use their physical strengths and try to mask their limitations. Now add on having to adjust in-game from meeting the ball at half court to playing on the wing and dealing with off-ball screens and help switch on defensive coverages.
It’s a lot to balance. And Melton is being asked to do it all. That’s a tall task, and in the absence of confidence in what you’re doing you force things even more than you normally would. Melton fouls a lot already (3.8% of the time, 22nd percentile per Cleaning the Glass) but it’s more painful when the foul trouble takes away yet another player capable of offensive facilitation and forcing opposing offenses in to mistakes that could feed the Grizzlies more scoring chances.
It’s intertwined. Success defensively will lead to greater offensive efficiency. And Melton, a player who has played a large role on that side of the court, has been rendered less effective everywhere because of it.
“Mr. Do Something” has become “Mr. Doing Too Much”. The ultimate glue guy is ripping at the pressure points on the project under construction that is the Memphis Grizzlies. A lot of it is outside of his control - the Grizzlies need him to fill a chasm that’s impossible to occupy.
Tyus Jones is that important to what Memphis is trying to do. Not only does he protect possessions and help others get to their spots and shots, he enables the likes of De’Anthony Melton to thrive where they’re best suited to do so. When Jones is available, Melton can help create and not be the creator. He can force the issue defensively and enable his fellow fliers on the squad like Brandon Clarks and Ja Morant to run and put opposing defenses on their heels.
Without Tyus? The wrong kind of chaos reigns supreme. And that leads to jonesing for his return to the backup point guard position - and for De’Anthony Melton to go from underachieving fill-in to thriving game changer once again.