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The Jarrett Culver Conundrum

Once again, the Grizzlies have acquired a lengthy wing with highly intriguing defensive upside. How much time and resources will Memphis invest in Jarrett Culver?

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NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the summer of 2019, the Memphis Grizzlies have been one of the more active teams on the trade market in the summer of 2021. Back then, the goal was attempting to create a young roster and core on the fly for first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff to work with. As a result of that goal being met, two years later, the goal this summer was to create a more intriguing and complete roster to support Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and others into the future.

Whether or not the goal of “more intriguing and complete” has been met is certainly up for debate. At the very least, the Grizzlies have moved on from expiring contracts in Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen and acquired future assets, cap flexibility and talented young players, such as Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama, in return. Furthermore, through various moves, the Grizzlies also traded for Jarrett Culver, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft.

Culver represents the latest in one of the most clear talent trend preferences for the Grizzlies’ front office. From Josh Jackson in the summer of 2019 to Justise Winslow at the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline to Culver in recent days, Zach Kleiman and his team have consistently targeted lengthy wings with high defensive upsides with the pedigrees of being top-10 picks. Like Jackson and Winslow before him, Culver was available via trade due to falling out of favor in Minnesota.

For Jackson, the issue was off the court incidents. For Winslow, the issue was consistent injuries. For Culver, the issue seems to be an injury last season plus less-than-ideal utilization of his skillset. Simply put, in each of these cases, all three players struggled more than they succeeded with the teams that drafted them. However, like Jackson and Winslow before him, Culver did offer at least some intrigue in being apart of many of the Timberwolves’ best defensive lineups during his rookie season. Culver’s size, length, and defensive upside were major reasons as to why he was well thought of in the 2019 draft.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

When it comes to what the Grizzlies are getting with Culver, there certainly is plenty to work with skill wise from a defensive standpoint. However, offensively, there has been very little positive production from Culver’s first two NBA seasons. In fact, when comparing Culver’s offensive production to other two guards/wings who were top 10 picks and struggled mightily to begin their careers, it’s hard to have faith Culver will ever emerge as a relevant NBA talent. However, the Grizzlies have certainly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to developing the offensive games of intriguing defensive talents, such as De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks, and Kyle Anderson over the past two years.

Perhaps they can do the same once again with Jarrett Culver.

While what Culver can become will only be discovered with time, the more pertinent question than his development is how much time are the Grizzlies prepared to invest in making the most of Culver’s acquisition. This could be one of the more interesting narratives leading up to next season. Through acquiring Culver, the Grizzlies now have three first round picks from the 2019 draft on their roster. This means Memphis must decide on whether or not to pick up the 2022-2023 fourth year team options on the rookie contracts of Morant, Culver, and Brandon Clarke before the 2021-2022 season even begins.

Obviously, there is no doubt the Grizzlies will exercise the options for Morant and Clarke. For Culver, the decision could be a bit more of a conundrum. In terms of pedigree and potential, a case could certainly be made for Memphis to make a multi-year investment in development Culver’s talent. However, in terms of a lack of production and progress through his first two NBA seasons, there is plenty of sense in declining the fourth-year option without much hesitation.

Currently, it seems more logic supports the Grizzlies going with the latter option as their decision. Beyond Culver’s struggles up to this point in his career, the Grizzlies already have a deep roster with plenty of young talent that will make it hard for Culver to find playing time this season. Furthermore, it seems Memphis has a desire to keep their cap sheet as clean as possible next summer. It would be odd for Memphis to trade Eric Bledsoe to avoid paying him just under $4M to keep him off the roster next summer simply to acquire an unproven talent in Culver and commit to paying him $8M to be on the roster beyond next summer.

Much like they did with Jackson, if the Grizzlies were to decline Culver’s fourth year team option, that means Culver would be a free agent in the summer of 2022. While that would not guarantee Culver would only be in a Grizzlies uniform for one year, Memphis could only offer Culver up to one year and $8.1M in a contract next summer. If Culver did show any intriguing development, its likely another team could easily outbid the Grizzlies for his services. However, the odds of that happening are not great at the moment. As a result, the reason why declining Culver’s fourth year option remains the most sensible decision is due to Memphis only owing him money through this season.

That decision would certainly be simple and straightforward for the Grizzlies. However, the Memphis front office loves for its options to be creative and proactive as much as it does simple and straightforward. In acquiring Culver, the Grizzlies have gained a player that could be beneficial to them in multiple ways in the future due to the potential of controlling him beyond this season.

This idea stems from the fact that, while the Grizzlies roster may be crowded for this season, rotation minutes could become available next summer. For one, Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones will be free agents. Furthermore, Memphis seems to be one of the more likely teams in the league to consolidate roster pieces into a singular roster upgrade next offseason. If the Grizzlies trade multiple players for one and other current roster members leave in free agency, as many as four to five roster spots, and perhaps three rotation spots, could be open next summer.

Obviously, the main hope is that Williams or Aldama could step into those roles. However, the team has certainly acknowledged they could see it taking multiple years for both of their rookies to develop. With another year of development, John Konchar could certainly assume a regular spot in the rotation. However, Culver could also certainly make sense, if his option is exercised and he has had a year to get on the right track with Memphis. If Anderson and another wing/guard were to leave via free agency or a trade, entering his fourth season, Culver could emerge as a sensible option for the Grizzlies to maintain depth on the wing.

Culver could also be a potential trade asset himself. If the Grizzlies picked up his fourth year option, Culver would be owed just over $8.1M during the 2022-2023 season. Though he will likely not be of significant value individually, he could be attractive as a money matching trade asset in a deal. For instance, if the Grizzlies were to offer Steven Adams and Jarrett Culver with another player and/or pick assets in a deal next summer, that would be over $25M in expiring contracts plus future assets for an acquiring team. That could be attractive to a rebuilding team looking to trade a significant talent without taking on long-term financial commitments. It also would allow the Grizzlies to potentially acquire their needed roster upgrade to combine with Morant and Jackson Jr. without taking away too much from their current supporting cast.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Of course, the Grizzlies could simply see something in Culver’s talent that makes the franchise feel it could easily make him a part of the regular rotation over the next two years. For whatever viable reason the Grizzlies feel may have merit, there are multiple ways that Culver’s value to Memphis could certainly improve over time. And while the chances of it actually happening may be low, the creativity that the Grizzlies front office could gain with Culver becoming an asset may be worth the investment.

In the end, it certainly seems the Grizzlies placed a higher preference on Culver’s upside than keeping Patrick Beverley next season. It could simply be because Memphis did not find a deal for Tyus Jones, and in keeping him, wanted Culver over Beverley for this season alone. If that is the case, they can simply decline Culver’s option, and be fine with more cap space cleared next summer if he goes elsewhere, which seemed to be the overall intention of trading Bledsoe in the first place.

However, this has been a summer of moves in which the Grizzlies have seemed fine with taking risks they know will take time to potentially payoff, if they even ever payoff at all. Though adding Culver to that mix with Williams and Aldama may seem like overkill now, the Grizzlies could start reaping the rewards of these risks in a year. Being creative and proactive are two of the biggest reasons this front office has allowed the Grizzlies to be in such a good place only two years into this new era of the franchise. While more logic may support not committing to Culver beyond this season, if Memphis stayed true to preferred player profile trends in acquiring him, there seems to be sense in staying true to roster building trends and keeping Culver in the fold beyond next summer.

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