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The realized potential of Kyle Anderson

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The Grizzlies have been trying to crack the code on Kyle Anderson, and they’ve finally solved it.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game Five Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Kyle Anderson took a leap this season. A lot of it is credited to his emergence as an outside threat, shooting 36% from 3 and quadrupling his career-best in total 3’s made.

One of the biggest, more low-key reasons for his renaissance was the Grizzlies putting him in the optimal role where he had the ball in his hands more often.

In his first season, the usage of him was borderline criminal. He was stuck primarily at the 3, which is fine in the right lineups. Chandler Parsons had a higher usage rate and ran more pick-and-roll’s than Kyle Anderson. However, he was really only a playmaker within the flow of the offense and never really had a chance to have the ball in his hands. Year two, his fit within the newly-integrated “let it fly” system looked murky, and he was losing minutes to Solomon Hill at times.

However, Taylor Jenkins cracked the code on Kyle Anderson, and he flourished as a result. He had career highs in — [takes breath] — points per game (12.4), assists per game (3.6), field goal attempts per game (9.5), 3-point makes and attempts (3.8), PER (17.2), Offensive Box Plus/Minus (1.4), Usage (18.5), Offensive Win Shares (2.9), and On/Off Point Differential (+2.7).

He was awesome and looked like the team’s MVP for a good portion of the season.

Kyle Anderson should’ve gotten more recognition for the Most Improved Player award. Getting only two third-place votes was completely asinine. His shooting improvements generated the buzz for his case, but the Grizzlies finally putting Anderson in a spot to thrive and play his game served as such a massive part in it as well.


Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game One Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

To start the season, Kyle Anderson was labeled as a “non-shooting 3,” which is an anomaly in today’s NBA. It’s been not exactly a secret that he’s typically better at the 4-spot. Last year, the Grizzlies outscored opponents by 6.0 points per 100 possessions with Anderson at the 4 (20% of total time) — as opposed to getting beat by 6.1 points per 100 possessions with him at the 3 (75% of the time), per Cleaning the Glass.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s injury shifted him down to the starting 4 spot pretty much all season long. That positional shift allowed Jenkins to add in another shooter/playmaker into the wing spots — whether it was Grayson Allen, Desmond Bane, or De’Anthony Melton. It opened up the floor and put Anderson in a spot where he could showcase his versatility — both defensively as a switcher and weak-side rim protector, and offensively as a creator.

The Grizzlies reaped the rewards from it.

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies outscored opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions with Anderson at the 4-spot, which putting him in that role for 80% of his minutes. On the flip side, they scored 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than their opponents, while only playing him there for 19% of his minutes.

In addition, most of the Grizzlies best lineups that played more than 100 possessions together featured Anderson at the 4:

  • Morant-Melton-Brooks-Anderson-Valanciunas: +15.3 (108 poss.)
  • Morant-Brooks-Bane-Anderson-Valanciunas: +10.6 (469 poss.)
  • Morant-Allen-Brooks-Anderson-Valanciunas: +9.2 (971 poss.)

These successes could be tied to the additional playmaker and shooter in the form of the 3 shooting guards, but it also merges all of Anderson’s strengths. Sliding down a position allows him to make plays defensively out of switches or blocks, which ignites transition offense. His solid rebounding allows him to be a grab-and-go playmaking threat off the defensive glass, especially when at the 4.

Coach Jenkins has embodied his players to play their games, and this shift has allowed Anderson to do so.

Most of Anderson’s career, he’s been casted as a 3 that’s a great playmaker, but isn't in enough actions where he can create. This season, he got that opportunity to do more stuff in the proper positional layout and had a career year for a playoff team as a result.

Probably not a coincidence.


Memphis Grizzlies v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyle Anderson got the ball in his hands way more this season, and he proved why he’s one of the elite secondary playmakers in basketball.

His non-garbage minutes usage rate spiked to a career-best 19.4% — up from 14.6% and 13.6% in the 2019-20 and 2018-19 seasons, per Cleaning the Glass. He continued to showcase his brilliance as a playmaker, boosting his assist percentage from 15.2 and 16.2 to 18.2%. He also averaged a career-best 3.6 assists per game this season.

Now to circle back to my “secondary playmakers” comment. It’s not hyperbolic as you may think. Of any non-guard that had a usage rate lower than 20%, Anderson was 4th in assist percentage and 3rd in assist per game, per Stathead.

The only players in front of him? Draymond Green, Joe Ingles, and Mason Plumlee (don’t laugh, he’s actually a sneaky playmaking big). That’s elite company.

A revamped Kyle Anderson has been an underrated playmaking cog for the Grizzlies. He can add the sauce on passes when he wants to, but where he thrives is moving the ball through the flow of the offense. Whether it’s making a kick off the drive, or a simple extra pass on the perimeter, Anderson’s going to make the right play — style (sometimes) be damned.

There are many nights where you look at the box score and think to yourself, wait Kyle Anderson had this many assists? The sneaky brilliance of Slo Mo is evident across the box score. Just take a look at how he gets these assists. I took these from Anderson’s 3 highest assist-total games — excluding the time Ja Morant was out with injury.

There are a few things you notice in these clips. He makes quick, simple reads and extra passes. He’s also great at that little slip pass out of the pick-and-roll, finding crevices in the defense to drop an easy dime to a rolling teammates. The biggest thing in this is how he finds Ja Morant. The Grizzlies get going when Morant gets going, and sometimes that means moving him off ball. Surrounding him with smart playmakers like Kyle Anderson help optimize that Ja off ball.

Anderson has had the ball in his hands all his life leading up to the NBA. Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies squad placed trust in him creating in the half-court and in transition, and all parties involved thrived as a result.


Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game One Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Kyle Anderson had an awesome season, and everyone’s opinion on him has flipped. He’s been a crucial component to his team. In the process, he’s proven that his optimal role is as a playmaking 4 that thrives with limited usage, connects on spot-up jumpers, guards and switches on multiple positions, crashes the glass hard, and creates plays on both ends of the court.

He’s everything you want in a role player.

Now, they got some fun questions about him ahead.

With his emergence at the 4, what does that mean for the team’s construction? Jaren Jackson Jr. was a mixed bag at the 5 this season, but was steady at the 4. In terms of finding frontcourt minutes, Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman look like interesting components to the future, so how would they squeeze minutes for him?

Can he also play the 3? He’s always been solid playing the 3 when sharing the floor with mostly starters — the playoff starting 5 of Morant-Brooks-Anderson-Jackson-Valanciunas had the best regular-season net rating (19.3) over all lineups with 100+ possessions. Whenever more starters come off, especially Jackson, there aren’t many combinations that are positives.

It’s surely going to be a fun obstacle for the front office and coaching staff to figure out, especially with his contract expiring in the 2022 offseason. Nonetheless, Kyle Anderson deserves strong consideration when evaluating who sticks around for a contending-iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies. It helps he wants to be here too.

When it comes to Kyle Anderson’s “Most Improved Player” case, his career year, and his emergence as a fixture into the team’s short and long-term plans, the shooting improvements will be at the forefront of most conversations regarding his performance — as it should. The Grizzlies realizing how to properly utilize Kyle Anderson, positionally and stylistically, belongs in those discussions as well.

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