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Who is the third best Grizzlies player?

Ja is 1, Jaren is 2, now who’s 3?

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Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Ja Morant is the undisputed best player on this team. Though we haven’t seen him this season, we have enough evidence that Jaren Jackson Jr. is right behind him at 2nd. So let’s ask a question just for fun: who’s number 3?

A few years ago, I introduced a theory called “Fleming’s Law of the 3rd Power” where I state how teams are as strong as their 3rd-best player. I brought this up a few years ago on the blog to talk about the playoff window with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the 1/2, with questionable 3rd options — JaMychal Green, sophomore Dillon Brooks, a raw Jaren Jackson Jr., or a hobbled Chandler Parsons.

Now I use it to present a different route. The Grizzlies have great roster versatility, and really any player can come up and emerge as a 3rd guy on any given night. And going forward, it’s interesting to build a pecking order on who sticks around for the contending iteration of this team. At this current state of the Memphis Grizzlies, who’s the team’s 3rd-best player? I broke it down into 3 different categories.

The Interesting Ones with Convincing Arguments

  • Dillon Brooks
  • Kyle Anderson
New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

You’re going to roll your eyes. Even as one of the strongest Dillon Brooks truthers, it’s hard to deny his inefficiency thus far. Of all the players this season with 15+ shot attempts per game, only Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker have a worse effective field goal percentage than Dillon Brooks (45.9%).

Yes, some of it is his erratic shot selection, but a lot of it is his current role, as he shouldn’t be a team’s second perimeter option. His value will shine more once Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow return to play, as evident through his play alongside Jackson last season. He’s someone who could be a 3rd-4th scoring option as a starter, or a 6th man bucket-getter. A Dillon Brooks that’s in the right role is a good player to have on this team. He’s a big wing that can create his own shot at 3 levels, defend and play multiple positions, and add a dose of swagger and tenacity to the team.

The reason why he’s on this list though is, his ceiling is one of a 3rd-best player. We saw that when the Memphis Grizzlies had that hot stretch from December-January last season, when he averaged 17.9 points on 43.7% shooting from the field and 40.8% from 3 (5.8 attempts per game) in that span (33 games). Those numbers are what you’d like to see from a wing option next to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

However, his woeful inconsistency is probably what stops him from being a likely 3rd option. When he’s on off-shooting games with wild shot selection — or “Bad DB” as his biggest critics love to say — it’s even hard to justify having him play more minutes than the other wing options in the rotation.

If somebody wanted to say that Brooks is the team’s best 3rd player, they’re in a minority, but they might have a convincing argument.

Memphis Grizzlies v Sacramento Kings Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Meanwhile, what a season it’s been for Kyle Anderson this season. Anderson has also been a good player, but it was tough to gauge his fit with this “nxt-gen” squad because of his shaky outside shot.

With the 3-point jumper now, holy smokes.

Anderson’s evolving shooting stroke has been one of the most positive developments, as he’s already surpassed his career-high in single-season 3’s. He’s also seen spikes in his scoring (5.8 to 13.8), 3-point percentage (28.2 to 38.8%), shot volume (4.9 to 10.7 FGA/g, 1.3 to 4.3 3PA/g), rebounds (4.3 to 6.3), and assists (2.4 to 3.8). His newfound 3-point shot has instilled confidence in his game, and it’s led to him being the most consistent player on the roster.

Anderson’s emergence as a 3-point threat also solidifies him as an ideal 3-and-D wing. Though he can facilitate and hit top-of-the-break 3’s, he’s also been cash spotting up in the corner — 42% on corner 3’s, per Cleaning the Glass. He can defend all 5 positions, as he’s good with switches, and has the footwork and size to guard any archetype of players — from LeBron James and Luka Doncic, to Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson.

Where Anderson also stands out is as a secondary playmaker, as he’s been within the top-14th percentile in Assist Percentage, per Cleaning the Glass. His “slow” style of play often clouds how much patience and poise he plays with, as it allows him to make moves on the drive — both as a playmaker and a scorer. That sort of secondary playmaking, especially at his size, is a huge asset for the coaching staff, as it gives them lots of lineup interchangeablility.

That sort of versatility allows him to potentially be the team’s 3rd-best player on any given night. He allows them to go big or go small, to alleviate rebounding responsibilities off Jaren Jackson, and to get Ja Morant off the ball. With his versatility and his budding outside shot, he’s a seamless fit next to anyone on the roster.

Very Strong Cases - Optimal 3rd choices

  • Brandon Clarke
  • Justise Winslow

If you asked most people around the Grizzlies (fans or people who cover) who they need to be the Grizzlies’ 3rd-best player, they’d say either Brandon Clarke or Justise Winslow. The former was the standout rookie whose a perfect fit for whatever the Grizzlies are trying to do, and the latter is a big playmaker with a strong pedigree that was the prize out of the Andre Iguodala fiasco.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, there was a very valid argument for Brandon Clarke to be the team’s 3rd-best player. He paced the team, alongside Jonas Valanciunas, in most advanced statistical categories. Most of the Grizzlies’ killer lineups featured him in it, and his versatility made him a perfect fit wherever he was slotted — as a small-ball 5 off the bench, or at the 4 next to Jaren Jackson Jr. or Jonas Valanciunas.

Though he’s not on par with his efficiency from his rookie season (and it’s quite a bar to clear), he’s still made leaps to his game. Despite the dip in efficiency, he’s been more aggressive looking for his shot — increasing his shots per game from 8.3 to 11.1, and his points per game from 12.1 to 13.0. He’s still a threat in the pick-and-roll, because of his floater in the mid-range and his lob instincts around the rim.

Where he could really make that step as a third fiddle is with his defense and his playmaking. Defensively, his advanced numbers don’t pop like last season, seeing drops in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (0.7 to 0.0) and opponent field goal percentage differential (3.1 percentage points worse against Clarke, to 5.9 percentage points better). He’s making incremental improvements creating steals (88th percentile in Steal Percentage, 2.0%, per Cleaning the Glass) and not fouling (90th percentile in Foul Percentage, 2.5%). As a playmaker, his assist numbers haven’t made many improvements, but he has been making strong reads this season, and he possesses a very low turnover rate (5.5, tied for 2nd in the league).

The jumpshot may hold him back the most, as his shot overhaul has hindered his offensive efficiency. However, strides and consistency in these areas would still make him a part of the Grizzlies’ success.

2020-2021 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Now if you ask most people who the 3rd-best player is on a healthy Grizzlies team, the popular answer would probably be Justise Winslow. Unfortunately, a little over a year has passed since the trade, and we still haven't seen him in a Grizzlies uniform.

Prior to his injury in the bubble, many raved about how Winslow looked in the mini training camp leading up to the return to play. Then, a “one in a million” injury happened.

So why does he still get to be considered in this conversation? Because of who he was before this injury-riddled year.

Justise Winslow can play any role — makeshift point guard, combo guard, either forward spot, and a dash of small-ball 5. He’ll simply unlock a lot of different combinations for the Grizzlies. They can have Ja off the ball more often with Winslow on the floor. They can go big with him at the 1 around Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr., or they can run him as a playmaking 4.

All that is possible, because of Winslow’s physicality and playmaking. When he’s playing down a position, or even his natural position at the 3, he can use his body to gain separation inside. And whenever he’s playing up to the 4, he can use his speed to get by larger opponents. This malleable quality also bodes well on defense as well, as he can defend positions 1-5, and probably take on the most difficult perimeter assignment on any night. As a playmaker, he’s been one of the better distributors from the forward spot — generating assist percentages within the top 15 percentile for most of his career.

Justise Winslow - Assist Numbers

Season Assist Percentage Percentile Assist:Usage Ratio Percentile Assists Per Game
Season Assist Percentage Percentile Assist:Usage Ratio Percentile Assists Per Game
16-17 14.90% 90th 0.7 85th 3.7
17-18 13.20% 86th 0.81 92th 2.2
18-19 21.10% 96th 0.95 97th 4.3
Justise Winslow - Assist Numbers Cleaning the Glass and Basketball-Reference

Obviously, health is the biggest factor for Winslow’s success with Memphis. In terms of on-court production, shooting will move the needle for his fit here the most. In his past 2 healthy seasons, he shot 37.7% from 3 on 385 attempts, which is ideal for a Ja Morant-centric system. If his shooting trends more in that direction, and less in the sub-25 ballpark where he was last season, that’d be a big boost for the Grizzlies.

Neither of these players are expected to be the 3rd-best player for this iteration’s apex, as it’ll likely need to be another wing scorer in that slot. For the short-term outlook though, it’s a promising sign going forward if either one of these players is the Ja and Jaren’s third wheel.

Charlotte Hornets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Favorite?

Jonas Valanciunas is probably the team’s most impactful player. He’s one of the best per-minute players in basketball, and he’s a mainstay around the top in most advanced metrics:

  • PER - 1st, 22.1
  • True Shooting Percentage - 3rd, 63.9%
  • Total Win Shares - 2nd, 1.8 (1st in Offensive Win Shares, 1.2)
  • Box Plus/Minus - 4th, 1.0
  • Point Differential - 3rd, +7.9 (per Cleaning the Glass)

In addition, he’s one of the best rebounders in basketball — 5th in the league in total rebounding percentage (21.6) and 11th in Rebounds per Game (10.8) — and his presence on the glass is massive for this young team.

Valanciunas has his shortcomings as a defender and as a floor-spacer, but his value is clear. His screen-setting opens up driving lanes for Ja Morant and the other perimeter defenders, and he’s a consistent bucket when the team needs it. His low-post presence is immensely valuable. His footwork and his physicality down low help keep the post game in style, and he uses that same aggression to attack the glass and remind Grizzlies fans of Zach Randolph.

Yet, his limitations are why some see him as expendable. In the midst of the Twitter discourse, Valanciunas is having a career year, notching career-high’s in points per game (16.5), assists per game (2.1), true shooting percentage (63.9), and steal percentage (1.1). He’s doing that without any dips in efficiency either.

Jonas Valanciunas is the prototype of the classical NBA center, but he’s clearly still valuable in today’s NBA. His impact and the little things he does for this young Grizzlies team give him the most compelling argument to be the team’s 3rd-best player.

There isn’t really a totally wrong answer between any of these players I mentioned. In fact, it highlights the team’s depth and versatility of this roster.

If the Grizzlies are having to ground-and-pound their opponent and take advantage of Jonas Valanciunas’ mismatches, his value shines. The worth of secondary playmaking and lineup versatility is evident with Kyle Anderson and Justise Winslow. There are nights where the growth of Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks is on display, and you can see the fits alongside Ja and Jaren.

The team has 5 players — at least — that can step in as the third wheel on any given night, and that doesn’t even include guys like De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, and Tyus Jones who are an integral part to the team’s success.

So don’t take this as choosing between players. Use it as a means to celebrate the number of directions and options the Grizzlies have now and going forward.

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