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Grizzlies can sustain success with self-creation

They Grizzlies wanted to get better shooting from distance. They have, and self-creation is a big reason why.

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NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

For many reasons, the Grizzlies victory Monday night over the Denver Nuggets was impressive this past Monday night. For the second time this week, Memphis bounced back to beat a potential Western Conference contender following an embarrassing loss the game before. Ja Morant had another All-Star performance and established career milestones. Tyus Jones had one of the best games of his career, and the defense and bench had their best performances so far this season.

Another small yet significant source of success also played a big role for the Grizzlies on Monday, continuing a very encouraging early season trend. Against the Nuggets, the Grizzlies produced 20 assists. Since Taylor Jenkins became the coach of the Grizzlies, this was only the sixth time Memphis had produced 20 or less assists in a game. In addition, it was only the second time they had earned a win in a game with 20 or less assists under Jenkins.

The secret to their success was self-creation shining through.

The Grizzlies were 12-25 versus the Nuggets in pull-up shooting opportunities. This included 4-8 from 3, and an overall effective field goal percentage of 56%. Ja Morant went 5-11 via pull-ups, Desmond Bane was 3-5, Tyus Jones made 2 of his 3 pull-up threes. Against a team that was arguably a top five defense in the league coming into Monday’s game, the Grizzlies were able to find offensive consistency by creating their own shot.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

This truly is one of the most encouraging trends for Memphis so far this season.

Through seven games, the Grizzlies are 59-140 on pull-up opportunities. This includes 26-67 from three. This equates to 20 overall pull-up attempts per game, and 9.6 attempts from 3. During the 2019-2020 season, the Grizzlies averaged 21.4 overall pull-up attempts per game, and 7.8 from 3. Last year, the Grizzlies averaged 22.3 overall pull-up attempts per game, and 7.2 from 3. While the Grizzlies are averaging less pull-attempts per game so far this season, they have significantly increased their attempts from three. This follows along with the “Let It Fly” mentality Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies coaching staff heavily emphasized over the summer.

The Grizzlies were 23rd in the NBA in overall pull-up attempts per game in 2019-2020 and are currently 28th in the league this season. However, while they ranked 24th in pull-up 3PA per game two years ago and tied for 26th last year, they are currently 21st in the league this year. It is fair to suggest that the Grizzlies still remain below average when compared to the rest of the league in terms of collective shot creation talent on their roster. However, due to increased preference and tutelage from Jenkins and his staff, the Grizzlies have not only increased their confidence in shooting the three more frequently, but their accuracy and quality as well.

No better indication of this is present than the eye-opening improvement the Grizzlies have made in terms of their accuracy of pull-shots this year compared to the past two seasons:

2019-2020: Overall Pull-UP FG%—37.8% Pull-UP 3PFG%—29.3 % Pull-UP eFG%—43.1%

2020-2021: Overall Pull-UP FG%—39.1% Pull-UP 3PFG%—32.1% Pull-UP eFG%—44.3%

2021-2022: Overall Pull-UP FG%—42.1 % Pull-UP 3PFG%—38.8% Pull-UP eFG%—51.4%

In their first season with Jenkins as coach, the Grizzlies ranked 12th, 30th, and 10th in these respective categories. While the numbers may look encouraging, they are a bit skewed by how well the Grizzlies performed with floaters and short mid-range jumpers, as their struggles creating their own shots from three were evident. This season, the Grizzlies rank fifth, fifth, and third so far. While the improvement in the numbers themselves is encouraging enough, the fact that the Grizzlies are also incorporating more frequent and accurate self-created shots from three is significantly exciting.

Of course, with this big of a positive jump in a small sample size, it is completely fair to question just how sustainable the Grizzlies ability to keep up this level of self-creation quality actually is. Logic would suggest that, as is the case of nearly all early season data, production will normalize over time to more accurately reflect the true talent level of teams. For the Grizzlies, this likely will mean a bit of regression of their current production. However, last year offered plenty of proof that a big leap in self-creation quality certainly was possible for the Grizzlies this season, especially from three.

As seen above, the roster overall took a step forward in the quality of their self-creation efforts. They also became more consistent at finding pull-up attempts from three as the season went along (6.4 3PA per game before the All-Star break, 7.9 3PA attempt per game after.) The big improvement across the board were the individual jumps several of the Grizzlies experienced during parts or the entire season last year compared to previous numbers.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For instance, while Ja Morant averaged around 2.0 pull-up 3PA per game last year overall. His accuracy jumped from 18.8% from three and an eFG% rate of 34.8% before the All-Star Break to 37.2% from three and an eFG% rate of 46.9% after the All-Star Break, which explains his spike in production from beyond the arc to end last season. This season, on 2.7 attempts per game, Morant is shooting 36.8% from three with an efG% rate of 53.8%.

One of the biggest surprises last year was De’Anthony Melton’s production from three, an unexpected leap that was fueled by his improvement in the quality of creating his own shot. In 2019-2020, on just over 40 pull-attempts from three, Melton shot 17.5% from three with an efG% rate of 30.7% overall. Last year, basically out of nowhere, Melton became a legit 40% shooter from three overall for much of the season. A major reason was that, on 1.1 pull-up 3PA per game, Melton made 36.2% of his shots from three with an eFG% rate of 51.4% overall. So far this season, Melton has made 50% of his threes on 1.7 pull-up 3PA per game with an eFG% rate of 52.2% overall.

Another big reason why the Grizzlies have made clear strides in their production from three since the start of last season is the immediate production of Desmond Bane. The main source of Bane’s elite three point production is his accuracy on catch and shoot opportunities. However, Bane has also made clear strides in his comfort and quality in creating his own shot. In the first half of last year, Bane attempted 0.5 pull-up threes per game, making 33% of them with an eFG% rate of 42.2% overall. In the second half, those numbers increased to 35.7% and and 45.1% respectively, but occurred on double the frequency as Bane averaged more pull-up opportunities overall, included 1.1 3PA per game. This year, Bane is averaging 3.3 pull-up 3PA per game, shooting 34.8% from three with an eFG% rate of 53.8% overall. It was already clear Desmond Bane was one of the better young three-point specialists in the NBA at the start of the season—Bane is now quickly transforming into one of the more reliable overall shooters in the league.

Without a doubt, the initial quality of shot-creation so far this season from Morant, Melton and Bane has been spectacular. Even when shot variance normalizes and obvious regression occurs, the leap in shot quality by all three players this year that last year suggested could be likely is actually happening, and to a higher level than anyone expected. If Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks (once he returns) can also find their strides, the Grizzlies will now have a multitude of options that can make life tough on defenses. Tyus Jones returning to his 2019-2020 form, when he arguably was the Grizzlies best pull-up producer, is also a wonderful development for the Memphis reserves.

It is very unlikely that the Memphis Grizzlies remain among the best in the league when it comes to self-created shot production, especially from beyond the arc, as this season progresses. However, it is very likely that the Grizzlies are taking the step forward in a critical area of team development for them to transition from a rebuilding team to a sustainable winner. Teams that can reliably produce from three and distance in multiple ways, through good ball-movement or self-creation, are rosters that not only can make the NBA Playoffs, but thrive once they get there. That Grizzlies goal before the season was to begin the process of becoming that type of team. Once again, that evolution seems to be happening much quicker than anyone expected.

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