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Ziaire Williams is a conundrum for the Grizzlies

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What will he be as a rookie for the Grizzlies?

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NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

To a certain degree, the Memphis Grizzlies have a strange tension between their desire for a competitive present and also an idealized future.

For example, Zachary Kleiman has made it absolutely clear that they want to make the playoffs this coming year just like they did this past season. However, while there is some reason to believe that the Grizzlies could match and even surpass their success from this past season (i.e. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. taking leaps), it’s difficult to argue that they didn’t hurt their short-term competitiveness by trading Jonas Valanciunas, arguably their most important player last year, in an attempt to bolster their future.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Obviously, the Grizzlies are betting that being competitive next season and prioritizing the future over the present aren’t mutually exclusive. They believe that they can remain relevant in the present while ultimately acting as if the present itself isn’t particularly important. And let me be clear: I have no strong desire to again discuss the possible benefits and pitfalls of this approach like I did last week to the chagrin of, well, everyone.

Yet even with this apparent approach in mind, I don’t really know what the Grizzlies plan with Ziaire Williams will be during his rookie season. Considering the Valanciunas trade, it’s easy to assume that his development will be a top priority, but how his development will come about seems a bit hazy when taking the overall context into account.

NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Southhaven could provide Ziaire a low-pressure environment to grow into his body and develop his tantalizing skill-set. But there just aren’t many top-10 picks that spend significant time in the G-League, not ones that are successful anyway. Over the last five years, some notable top-10 picks that have spent significant time in the G-League include Thon Maker, Dennis Smith Jr., and Jalen Smith - not an inspiring list.

To put it bluntly, Ziaire probably isn’t going to be any good if he ends up having to spend a significant portion of his rookie season with the Memphis Hustle. So if he’s going to become at least some semblance of what the Grizzlies hope that he’ll be, we can safely cross out an extended stay in the glorious abode of Southhaven as part of his rookie experience.

However, finding rotation minutes for him with the Grizzlies’ current roster construction is going to be tricky. No matter how good he may be as rookie, whom is he going to bump out of the Grizzlies’ current projected rotation next year? Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies coaching staff will, of course, prioritize his development, but they will also seek to maximize their opportunities to win basketball games in year 3 of the franchise’s rebuild.

NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As it stands right now, the Grizzlies’ projected rotation after the NBA draft is:

—Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr, Steven Adams.

—Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke/Xavier Tillman,

There’s some other rotation kinks (Tillman v. Clarke in particular) that will be up to Jenkins to figure out, but it’s glaringly obvious that it’s hard to carve out a consistent role for Ziaire Williams in this mix.

The Grizzlies could give him spot minutes as the 10th or 11th man, but I wouldn’t expect that to be the norm outside of maybe the beginning stretch of the season; you don’t trade your second best player from the year before only to barely play the main player that you got back in return. It’s entirely understandable to prioritize the future over the present, but you simply can’t do that by keeping the future glued to the bench. Ziaire Williams needs to play.

After a difficult sophomore season in which he struggled, it might be easy to once again make Brandon Clarke the odd man out and play Ziaire as the backup three and move Kyle Anderson to his best position at the backup four.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

While this might be the most preferable option, I don’t like it for two reasons. First, I think it’s very likely that Clarke bounces back from a tough season that was marred by injuries for him personally and the pandemic as a whole. If he’s given the opportunity, I believe he’ll once again demonstrate why he was generally considered an elite role player as a rookie, and he’ll be hard to keep off the court. He could still very well start next to Jaren Jackson Jr. in the Grizzlies’ front-court of the future.

The second reason is related to the first: I just think it’s rather unlikely that 19-year-old Ziaire will be better or more impactful than Clarke. Ziaire does need to play, but he also needs to earn his minutes and prove that he can help the team more than the player whose place in the rotation that he’s taking. In year three of their rebuild after just making the playoffs last season, the time for mere data analysis and player evaluation is over. Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks expect to be in the playoffs again next year, and Ziaire must be at least somewhat helpful in that goal.

That last point is important. While the Grizzlies are planning for a brighter tomorrow, they still need to be as good as they reasonably can be in the present. The Grizzlies could make another consolidation trade and move, say, Brandon Clarke to open up rotation minutes, but I have my doubts that trading good young(ish) players to help out unproven young players is a particularly wise team-building strategy for the present or future. In short, you probably don’t help your future by getting rid of a player who may still be an impactful part of your present.

And the future is the primary source of the conundrum that Ziare Williams presents. Since the Grizzlies consider him to a major part of their future and are ultimately future-focused, he has to get consistent minutes as a rookie to jumpstart his development. But considering where they are in their rebuild after making the playoffs, he must also be impactful to winning basketball in his minutes. Whether he can do that or not is still very much an unknown, and that uncertainty creates a certain level of tension between the team’s present reality and its future-focused philosophy.

To be sure, there is no easy answer for how to properly kickstart Ziaire Williams’ development or solve the philosophical tension that his presence on the team next year presents. He could, of course, erase by just immediately being flat-out awesome like his size, skillset, and overall demeanor suggest he can be (seriously, go watch his interview with Grind City Media’s Chris Vernon; it’s impossible not to root for this kid to succeed).

NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Memphis Grizzlies Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As associate editor Parker Fleming pointed out earlier this week, the Grizzlies have the culture and developmental chops to maximize him over the course of a hopefully long career. But if he can prove to be immediately impactful, then the rotational issues will solve themselves and the hard decisions will become much easier.

I’m sure that Taylor Jenkins would appreciate it.

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