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GBB Mailbag: Ja’s Ceiling/Will Memphis be dealing?

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How good can Morant become?

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Phoenix Suns v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies are above .500 after defeating a clear playoff favorite in the Western Conference on national television while not getting any contributions from two of their best five or so players.

What a time to be alive.

Not too long ago, when the team’s young superstar Ja Morant went down with a grade 2 ankle sprain, there were some clamoring for a tank job if Ja were to be out for an extended period. Dreams of Jalen Suggs and Cade Cunningham were running through the heads of members of Grizz Nation. Those thoughts were premature - this young group of Grizzlies, even without the likes of Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and others, has established a culture early in the tenure of Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman and Head Coach Taylor Jenkins where the sum is greater than any individual. This team doesn’t just talk about “next man up” - they walk it as well.

That, along with a strong commitment to the defensive side of the floor and a reliance on extra passes and paint scoring offensively, have Memphis in their current position. Instead of Lottery hopes, playoff positioning is on the minds of fans. And while that, too, is likely premature - we will have a better idea of just who these Grizzlies are a month from now after the team gets healthier and the schedule gets tougher - it is a much better mental space to inhabit.

So much so, in fact, that I decided to open myself up to questions from our loyal Twitter followers. GBB has grown by leaps and bounds on social media in the five years since I have taken over as Site Manager, and in recent times the work of Leanna Ritter, Bryce Hayes, Parker Fleming, and many others have accelerated that even more. So expect more mailbags from Twitter - and follow us @sbngrizzlies if you don’t already do so. Next time, you can get in on the fun.

Morant is moving on up

He certainly looks the part of NBA superstar, doesn’t he? Even Ja admits that he is still working his way back to game shape, and because of that he’s probably around 80% or so of him powers compared to his remarkably hot start to the season. It’s safe to say, however, that his level of play will only improve as he gets his game legs back under him in the next week or so.

This final play, where he brings so much attention off of his dribble penetration only to kick to Grayson Allen in the corner and essentially clinch the win over the Suns on Monday evening, is evidence of his brilliance.

As former GBBer Matt Hrdlicka points out later in that Twitter thread, Morant is almost certainly the only player in the history of this franchise that can make that kind of play. The pass, the handle, the elite ability to play in traffic and still be controlled violence with the basketball...he’s special. In the short-term, he’s an All-Star possibility even after the injury...and interestingly enough, a likely spot just opened up with the trade of James Harden to the Eastern Conference. He will have to get his pre-injury level of scoring back relatively quickly to make up for lost time, but that’s certainly not impossible. And ironically, it may be Ja competing with former Grizzlies captain Mike Conley (who infamously has never made an All-Star team) for that final All-Star selection.

That’s going to be a tough choice for me personally. Most Grizzlies fans are going to vote Ja with a bullet, and that is completely understandable. But Mike is playing some of the best basketball of his career, on a “better team”, and is running out of chances to earn that honor. Morant, assuming health, will get many more opportunities. Even so, Ja would be the rightful selection if he can regain his dominance from the start of the season.

Long-term? John Wall? Russell Westbrook? Allen Iverson? Derrick Rose? A combination of all four on his way to being the first of his kind? The sky is the limit for Morant, not just because of his elite athleticism but because of his elite basketball IQ and leadership quality. He’s seeing the game at a higher level than many expected him to so soon in his NBA career, especially considering he came to the Grizzlies from Murray State. He’s showing a remarkable understanding of winning basketball, and is a worthy standard bearer for the Grizzlies organization.

Memphis is quite fortunate to have him in the fold for the foreseeable future.

Injury insecurities

I found this to be an interesting way to frame the situation. How do you evaluate how well the performance staff for the Memphis Grizzlies is doing when, outside of Morant (who returned early from injury issues last year too), you have no concrete time table for returns of key players? The Grizzlies do themselves few favors in this area. Of course, they don’t owe the media or fans anything in terms of specific lengths of time In the case of Jackson Jr. and Winslow in particular when you combine the nature of the injuries with their supposed importance to the franchise moving forward (especially Jaren, but even Justise is mentioned by Zach Kleiman as a key Grizzlies contributor long-term) it would behoove the Memphis brain trust to err on the side of caution.

Yet without such stable lines of communication, speculation and rumor can make perception reality. Maybe they really are on track in their rehab. But beyond what Zach Kleiman said before the season began - if the campaign had started yesterday, as originally planned back in the Bubble days, Jaren and Justise would’ve been close to playing - we really aren’t sure when we will get to finally see this team at full strength the way Kleiman and company intend it to be. And until that is witnessed, and some data is accumulated regarding the successes and failures of those rotations and lineups, any idea of who/what should be fair game in future trades is tough to weigh/comprehend.

Today? The fact that Xavier Tillman has bounced back from his injury and gotten leaner on his way to becoming the de facto back-up center for Memphis now is a testament to the strength of the performance staff. We hear about how they are in lock step with the coaching staff and how professional the players are with regard to improving their bodies in training and diet as well as their minds in film sessions. The success story of Tillman in particular should allow some flexibility regarding the Jackson Jr./Winslow situations. They seem to know what they’re doing. And while it’d be nice to have better insight in to their whens, whys, and hows, the ends ultimately justify the means - and will be how their are judged.

Melton’s minutes?

This was legitimately shocking. And for some reason those called on in media availability (not GBB this time) did not ask Coach Jenkins why. Hopefully we get some answers as to DeAnthony Melton’s apparent DNP - Coaches’ Decision on MLK Day. In the current debate of wing depth with Memphis, it is usually a conversation of who should see the most time between Desmond Bane, Grayson Allen, and Melton. If you frequent GBB enough, you know my stand - Bane and Melton should play more than Allen, even with Allen’s late game heroics against the Suns. They’re younger, they’re capable of doing more overall in the long run on both ends of the floor, and Grayson can force things at times when he shouldn’t like Dillon Brooks...but without the solid-to-very good defensive contributions on the other end of the floor.

But Coach Jenkins loves Allen. And Bane is truly elite as a three point shooter. So while Melton is Mr. Do Something and is arguably the best defender of the trio, his offensive issues in the half court could perhaps help to somewhat explain why it was analytics darling John Konchar, and not Melton, that got 10th man-style minutes against the Suns...

No. Nevermind. Still doesn’t make sense. It should be Konchar surprisingly sniping minutes from Allen, not Melton. DeAnthony was re-signed last offseason to a four year contract. Melton is the ideal running mate in transition next to Ja Morant. Again, he is the same age as rookie Desmond Bane despite being in his third season in the NBA. He lines up with the trajectory of the Grizzlies...and for some reason he didn’t see the floor Monday evening.

Perhaps there’s more to it regarding health. We don’t know, and that’s strictly speculation. More information will likely be coming in that regard. But it is something that, one way or another, should be rectified as soon as possible.

Trade time in Tennessee?

This was easily the most tweeted about topic. Understandably so - once everyone is healthy, there’s only so many minutes and spots in a rotation to go around.

So, say the following situation plays out if/when everyone is available to play for the Memphis Grizzlies in a 11-man rotation.

STARTERS - Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Justise Winslow, Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas

RESERVE ROTATION PLAYERS - Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman Jr.

Of course you could substitute Grayson Allen for either Bane or Melton as discussed above, and the fact becomes clear that this team is perhaps one of the deepest in franchise history. Gorgui Dieng may be the 13th man...and he is the highest paid player on the roster currently, meaning clearly a team felt his contributions were worthy of such a deal.

But look at the money that Dieng gets paid - roughly $17.2 million on an expiring contract. That deal helps make trade dreams a reality...if Memphis makes the choice to pursue that this season. Dieng, Allen, and two firsts may be enough to get Zach LaVine out of Chicago depending on how things go for the Bulls. Dieng, Melton or Kyle Anderson or even Dillon Brooks or Brandon Clarke (unlikely, but teams will value him highly), and three firsts could potentially steal Bradley Beal from Washington if the Wizards see their season fall apart. The types of contracts on this roster for role players, along with Dieng’s $17.2 million coming off the books and the draft capital Memphis has gained, makes possibilities literally endless.

It could even be smaller than that. Maybe the Grizzlies want to take a swing at Kevin Porter Jr. out of Cleveland and ship out a Konchar or Jontay Porter along with a couple of seconds. Perhaps Memphis wants a Malik Monk reclamation opportunity in addition to a 2nd rounder and the expiring contract of Cody Zeller in exchange for the talented, but possibly on the brink of being pushed out Jonas Valanciunas? The front office has options, and those will certainly be discussed even more in depth by GBB as the trade deadline approaches.

But now? My interest remains focused on the guys that are here...and wanting to see Jaren Jackson Jr. and especially Justise Winslow on the floor. For we have no idea what the team needs until Winslow and Jackson Jr. play alongside the star Ja Morant and the rest of the squad. It is possible the “next great Grizzlies team” has already been assembled...that they’re here as of now. We don’t know yet. Until we do, internal development and process should be prioritized.

Maybe we never know - health can be a tricky thing. But this front office has put themselves in a position to be able to react to the coming days and months however they see fit. And that is reason for celebration - being proactive has allowed for them to wait and see what they are before making a decision regarding what they want to be.

What a time to be alive, indeed.

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