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Under the radar Memphis Grizzlies storylines

Everyone will pay attention to Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s leaps, as well as how 10th pick Ziaire Williams looks, but here are some storylines worth some attention for the upcoming season.

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Updated: Reflects correction in Jarrett Culver’s contract situation.

The Memphis Grizzlies start training camp in about a week. Finally, all the narratives and discussion we’ve had here over the past couple months will start to materialize.

And throughout the season, there will be plenty of things everyone keeps a close eye on.

With a potential extension looming, we’ll see how Jaren Jackson Jr. looks after a fully healthy offseason. After a marvelous playoff performance, Ja Morant’s encore could net him an All-Star appearance.

Then, there are some items towards the back half of the roster that’ll certainly generate a lot of eyeballs. For ones the Grizzlies roster crunch during training camp will be interesting. Then, after taking a big swing in the draft, the performance and utilization of Ziaire Williams will garner a considerable amount of noise as well.

Obviously, these storylines deserve lots of attention. However, there are a few secondary storylines that I’m wanting to pay attention to this season, as they all have implications on this year and on the team’s further roster construction.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Miami Heat v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Who else takes a leap?

All eyes are on Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. and the strides they make in their developments. It’s absolutely fair to put a primary focus on that, since they are two former top-5 picks who are considered the cornerstones of the franchise.

However, whoever follows them in taking a leap this season is going to be fun to see, and it’s going to be instrumental in the team’s success as well. Even if Morant and Jackson take the expected leaps, the Grizzlies will need somebody — or a few players — to make a jump as well to compete in the tough Western Conference.

And we’ve seen others rise to the challenge in this new Grizzly era. In the 2019-20 season it was Dillon Brooks, and Kyle Anderson was that guy last year.

That leap may not translate into points per game either. If you’re accounting for 40 points between Jackson and Morant, as well as another 15-17 from Dillon Brooks, there are only so many points to go around. So when assessing internal improvement, it’d be smart to look at leaps in efficiency, playmaking, and defense.

So who’s next?

De’Anthony Melton strikes me as a good bet to do so. He still has improvements to make as a creator, but he took a big leap as an outside shooter last season. He’s also a per-minute stat machine, so more playing time could translate into a jump in raw average, if his production maintains.

Brandon Clarke struggled towards the end of last season, and his shooting declined from his rookie season. A healthy offseason though could be what allows him to take a leap. For Clarke, that’ll likely mean returning to his rookie shooting percentages, making strides defensively, and building on his tertiary playmaking. If so, he could return to dark-horse status for 6th Man of the Year.

Xavier Tillman seems like a good eye-test leap candidate as well. I don’t know what his raw numbers will look like, but his budding above-the-break shooting and playmaking are intriguing. He got to flash it with more usage in Summer League, and how he builds on it will be pretty insightful for his trajectory going forward.

The player you should pay the closest attention to though is Desmond Bane. Last season he didn’t have the luxury of a normal NBA offseason, as he immediately jumped into training camp and regular season action all within a month of being drafted. After an offseason under a NBA regime and a Summer League session under his belt, Bane seems poised to take a big leap in year 2. His efficiency from 3 is already superb, so an improvement in this area would likely lead to maintaining his percentages while increasing his shot volume and sprinkling some pull-up shooting in his bag.

Keep an eye out on the shooting marksman’s playmaking as well. He was praised for his playmaking expertise coming into the draft, and he also looked more comfortable and daring whipping the ball around last year — 2.0 assists per game after the All-Star break. With a year of reading NBA defenses under his belt, as well as a Summer League to get more reps with the ball in his hands, Desmond Bane could take a leap as a more deadly player off the dribble.

Internal improvement is always fun to monitor with young teams, and how some of these complementary players evolve around Ja and Jaren could help them in their playoff contention efforts. It’d also help the front office gather a better idea of who can stick around for the next iteration of contending Grizzlies teams.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Management of Expiring Contracts

The Memphis Grizzlies have shown the willingness to cash in on value with their expiring contracts.

They did so with Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill. They wanted to do the same with Gorgui Dieng but to no avail. This offseason, they dealt Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen ahead of their contract years.

Coming into the season, Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones are the two veterans under contract. Both players were in trade rumors this offseason, though Spotrac’s Keith Smith reported they weren’t going to deal Anderson for “spare parts.” Rightfully so, as he’s proven himself as a starting-quality combo forward that can defend across positions 1-4, move the ball well, and now shoot the 3-ball. He was arguably the most impactful player for a good portion of the season in Memphis. As he enters a contract year, will the Grizzlies try to find the right price in terms of a trade or an extension? I’d bet on him being a sneaky extension candidate.

Tyus Jones is an interesting case. As we saw last year in the Winslow experiment, Jones’ ability to orchestrate the offense and get his teammates involved became a big realization. He’s elite at taking care of the ball, and he keeps the offense afloat when Morant is not on the floor. After being rumored on the trading block this offseason, is he a trade deadline candidate? I’d tie it to the internal development of others on the roster — primarily Melton, Bane, and potentially Kris Dunn.

It’s going to be interesting to see if movement happens around these 2 players. However, it’s not a total loss if the Grizzlies keep them through the season and potentially get priced out in the offseason. It’s a common misconception in the league that you have to extract value from expiring contracts. Anderson and Jones provide value in terms of winning games and raising the team’s floor, and for a young squad looking to achieve sustainable success and reach the playoffs, they’re worth keeping — especially if the price isn’t right.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The utilization of Jarrett Culver

Ziaire Williams wasn’t the only swing the Grizzlies took this offseason. Zach Kleiman turned Patrick Beverley’s expiring contract into Jarrett Culver and Juancho Hernangomez (who was later traded).

Jarrett Culver is a swing. The former number 6 pick has not panned out thus far, looking like a clear negative on both sides of the floor. This move is a clear demonstration of the “let’s get him in our culture” principle. Culver didn’t have the best developmental infrastructure in Minnesota. Ryan Saunders wasn’t the right coach for them, Culver’s rookie season was cut short due to the pandemic, and then there was a midseason coaching change last season too. The fact that he couldn’t crack the rotation for one of the bottom 10 teams last season isn’t promising, but he’s still young. It’s worth a shot.

Culver’s performance will garner attention, but the utilization should catch more eyes.

Will he get the Josh Jackson experience and spend the majority of his time with the Memphis Hustle? He’s probably outside a 10-man rotation as of now, competing with Ziaire Williams and John Konchar for the honors of being the 11th man. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets reps down in Southaven, given the intense rotation crunch at the moment, but how long he’s down there will generate attention.

The biggest key in his utilization though is his pending team option. The Grizzlies have until October 31st to make a decision on Culver’s status. Opting in would give them one more season with him, while opting out would make him an unrestricted free agent in the 2022 offseason. GBB Senior Staff Writer and “Locked on Grizzlies” host Shawn Coleman went into it in more detail, but how they navigate that decision could give a decent indication of his utilization going forward.

Opting out could be a similar experience to Josh Jackson — a “let’s see what he can do” shot where he’s primarily in the G-League while getting limited minutes on the main roster. Opting in though could lead to more investment in his personal development, even if he’s getting similar minutes distribution to the path mentioned above. If they did that, he could be a throw-in for a consolidation trade ($8.1M next season) or a back-half rotation piece in a post-consolidation deal.

Jarrett Culver is an upside swing for sure, but taking a flier on a former lottery pick two years removed from his draft isn’t a bad idea.

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

These storylines aren’t as sexy as All-Star leaps, Most Improved Player campaigns, or a playoff push. However, there are instrumental when it comes to the short-term success and long-term construction for this team.

The players on expiring contracts and the young players primed for leaps are a critical part of the team’s success this season. They’ve embodied a “next man up” approach that has highlighted the team’s depth over the past 2 seasons, and that needs to continue to hit on their playoff aspirations.

In addition, those 2 storylines and the Culver situation could be a factor when it comes to the team’s construction long term. It’ll help them figure out who could complement Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., and it could also set them up for their next transactional domino as well.

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