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Where the Grizzlies stand in the small-ball revolution

The league is growing smaller and faster, and the Memphis Grizzlies have the personnel to pivot in any direction.

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Detroit Pistons v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Golden State Warriors created the “Death Lineup” that featured Draymond Green at the 5, it changed the game and made people question the value of the traditional center. In the bubble thus far, we’ve seen how the NBA is a copycat league, as teams are continuing to go smaller.

Not every team has a position-less big man like PJ Tucker, Draymond Green, or Pascal Siakam. They also may not possess a more traditional, yet modern, big man such as a Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, or Bam Adebayo. And how these Finals shake up, and the strategies deployed to win it, will determine the landscape of the center position moving forward. Will small-ball continue to prevail, or will the teams with size show that size really does matter?

This puts the Memphis Grizzlies in an interesting situation. They could really pivot in either direction, and it all starts with Jaren Jackson Jr. He’s a prototypical big man that can create off the perimeter as a stretch-4, but he also has the size and mobility to be a devastating two-way center. If they elect to stay big, they have Jonas Valanciunas, a bruising center that is a magnet for rebounds and racks up double-doubles. If they need to go smaller and quicker, they have Brandon Clarke, a wing-sized big that slots in as a rim-runner that can also protect the paint on the weak-side.

In light of Draymond Green’s comments on the value of the big man, where do each of these Grizzlies big men stand? And how will this affect the team’s construction going forward?

Memphis Grizzlies v Toronto Raptors Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When comments about the league going smaller circulate, players that are often cast as the casualties are bigs like Jonas Valanciunas. The thing with Valanciunas is his staying power is stronger than you think. He may not be Brook Lopez, but he’s not an Enes Kanter or Greg Monroe.

Valanciunas projects more as a traditional big man that does most of his damage in the paint, but he’s also shown value in the modern NBA. His defensive deficiencies are masqueraded when he can get into drop coverage, using his size and instincts to alter shots. He’s shown that he can make opponents pay for leaving him open on the perimeter, either operating as a temporary floor spacer and playmaker.

However, we see where he can struggle in the modern NBA — and how his role can be minimized. When guarding a stretch big, he struggles defending in space, and that doesn’t bode well as the league trends smaller. While he can knock down outside shots (35.2% on 91 total attempts), his form is still unnatural and clunky out there, and the volume doesn’t make him a legitimate threat out there.

When the matchups go from centers like Jusuf Nurkic, to makeshift centers like PJ Tucker, Valanciunas’ value as a starting big becomes a legitimate question.

At this time, Valanciunas has proven he can be a good starting center in this NBA climate, as he’s probably a top-10 center in the league. He’s in his prime right now, but in the final year of his Memphis deal — or in his next contract — he may become more of a super-sub big man that bullies backup 5’s and generates a good stats.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Brandon Clarke can be the Grizzlies’ PJ Tucker. Going forward, he projects as a 4, but his versatility and style of play indicate that he can shoulder minutes at the 5 spot.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies were outscored by 7.4 points per 100 possessions when Clarke took over the 5 — 23% of his minutes were at this position. While the number isn’t encouraging, you have to consider who he’s sharing the floor with. The two biggest negative net ratings (-77 and -46.7, respectively) that swung this number had Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill on the floor together...without Ja Morant. The numbers are more encouraging with players on the current roster:

Brandon Clarke - 5

Lineup Possessions Point Diff / 100 possessions
Lineup Possessions Point Diff / 100 possessions
Jones - Allen - Guduric - Anderson - Clarke 35 11.4
Morant - Allen - Brooks - Tolliver - Clarke 25 28
Brandon Clarke - 5 Cleaning the Glass

To maximize lineups with him at the 5, with the statistical evidence we’ve seen, the better lineups typically involve players that can put the ball on the floor and make plays on offense, while generating turnovers and helping on the glass defensively. Just imagine what happens when they replace the Crowder and Hill minutes with a better playmaker, and better scorer, like Justise Winslow.

While Brandon Clarke has the makings of this elite role player fit for the modern NBA, there are some adjustments to thrive at this spot. He needs to become more of a rebounding threat, but it’s also encouraging that he averages 8.5 and 6.3 rebounds when he plays 30-39 and 20-29 minutes, respectively.

The biggest thing he’ll need to do is expand his offensive game as a perimeter threat. I’ve highlighted his playmaking potential before, and that’ll be a key element to his development as a modern big. The most crucial area of development though is his shot volume.

Clarke proved doubters wrong this season, as he shot 35.9% from 3 on 64 attempts. However, it’s important that he continues to build on it and become more of a threat to shoot it from out there. I’m not saying that he needs to become Jaren Jackson Jr. from 3, since he’s super efficient inside the arc. However, if he can shoot 2 more 3-point attempts per game, what happens to the rest of his offense? Opponents will have to respect him from there, and he could then attack the closeout for a floater in the paint or something at the rim.

His 3-point volume could be the difference between him becoming Montrezl Harrell — who’s looked like a liability this postseason, despite the successful regular season — and Paul Millsap — who’s still a reliable, starter-level modern big man at age 35.

Brandon Clarke has the makings of an elite role player similar to the Tuckers and Draymonds of the world with his ability to defend in space, his rim-protection, insane scoring efficiency, and his budding offensive game. His development as an offensive weapon and small-ball 5 will be massive for the Grizzlies’ ceiling.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaren Jackson Jr. is a neutralizer for small-ball basketball. At nearly 7-feet tall, he shoots 3’s like Klay Thompson and blocks shots like Serge Ibaka. As we saw in the bubble, he can take anyone off the dribble and get to the rim. He can also take smaller opponents down into the post. He also does a great job defending in space, which bodes well when having to switch onto smaller players. The most enticing part is he flashed the capability to become a legitimate go-to scorer.

Going forward, for Jackson to take over minutes at the 5, he’ll need to improve on his rebounding and not fouling. We’ve known this. If the Grizzlies continue to rebound by committee, Jackson would be perfectly fine even if he bumped his numbers to 7 or 8 a game. When it comes to his fouling, the biggest thing with Jackson is avoiding ticky-tack calls and picking them up in bunches. If he can even get his fouling down to 3.5 a game (down from 4.1), and have them more spaced out, his defensive impact would be felt more.

Despite the concerns, the early returns of Jaren at the 5 are strong. With Jackson at the 5 — without Crowder or Hill — the Grizzlies were lethal, outscoring opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions in 665 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Despite his rebounding woes, the Grizzlies wrecked havoc causing turnovers, ranking in the 95th percentile in turnover percentage (17.2%). Pairing Jackson with another switchable 4 like Clarke and Kyle Anderson creates an advantage, as it gives them at least 5 rangy players that can switch off screens and use their length and movement to generate turnovers.

Jaren Jackson Jr. could become one of those big men that can stay on the floor and thrive in the small-ball world, similar to guys like Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo. With his perimeter-oriented play, he can also be one of those big men that plays more traditional centers off the floor. And as teams go smaller, he can also punish small-ball 5’s with his size and post game. At newly 21 years old, he’s already one of the most unique bigs in the league. However, improving on his rebounding and fouling — while emerging as a potential go-to scorer — will make him one of the league’s scariest matchup problems.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have a formidable trio in its frontcourt with Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanaciunas, and Brandon Clarke. As the league evolves, it’ll be interesting to see how they construct their roster in the middle of the small-ball revolution.

It all starts with Jaren Jackson Jr., and whether he’s the 4 or 5 of the future.

If it’s like it’s current situation — where he starts at the 4, and ends at the 5 — it’ll be interesting to see what 5 archetype they go for. Do they continue to lean with a traditional, rebound-gobbling big man like Jonas Valanciunas? Another stretch-5? Or even a rim-running big man that’s more of a low-usage, high-efficiency offensive weapon?

If the direction is to use Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5 spot, they have their 4 with Brandon Clarke. And as Clarke evolves as a modern big, that 5 rotation could be those two players. If this is the end goal for the next great Grizzly team, they must build around these two and Ja Morant with wings with size that can space the floor and create off the dribble, while defending and playing multiple positions. They’re already off to a great start, as Dillon Brooks and Justise Winslow fit that prototype. The best routes to build its wing depth will be in the 2021 draft and 2021 free agency, where both are deep with perimeter talent.

The league is changing, growing faster and smaller each passing year, but this year’s Finals can determine the fate of the center position. The league is a copycat league after all. And with their frontcourt personnel, the Memphis Grizzlies are in great position to pivot and thrive in either direction.

Stats found on basketball-reference and Cleaning the Glass

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