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The Kenneth Lofton Jr. Conversation

Expectations should be tempered for the rookie

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Memphis Grizzlies v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

One of the most popular topics amongst Grizzlies fans this past offseason has been new two-way player Kenneth Lofton Jr. The rookie big man made a name for himself in preseason, as Lofton’s exciting offensive game reminded many Grizzly fans of the legendary Zach Randolph. The 6’7”, 275 pound rookie out of Louisiana Tech put on a show in Summer League where he averaged nearly 15 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 56.8% from the field in 7 appearances in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. Junior followed that up with an impressive preseason debut where he scored 17 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in just 24 minutes against the Bucks. He also shot an efficient 6-8 from the field against the veteran frontcourt of Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and Serge Ibaka. He was a key contributor as the Grizzlies outscored the Bucks 41-26 in a thrilling 4th quarter to defeat the Bucks 107-102.

There is a ton of hype around Junior, and understandably so with the way he has played since signing a two-way contract with the Grizzlies shortly after the 2022 NBA Draft. He has played so well, many amongst Grizzlies Twitter have been clamoring for him to have his two-way contract converted to a full guaranteed NBA contract.

I am a big fan of Junior, and think he has a really interesting skillset that could make him an extremely effective big man at the NBA level. That said, Grizzly fans should pump the brakes on their expectations for Junior this upcoming season.

NBA: Preseason-Memphis Grizzlies at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a strong Summer League, Junior wasn’t mentioned by Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman or Head Coach Taylor Jenkins as a candidate to get minutes in the frontcourt with Jaren Jackson Jr. out to start the season. While the competition has been described as a “healthy, open competition” it certainly sounds like Santi Aldama, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy and Xavier Tillman are all ahead of Junior on the depth chart to start the preseason.

While I wouldn’t be surprised if Junior’s play in the preseason helps him make a statement and earn minutes down the road, it’s clear the Grizzlies plan to be patient with his development. While his offense is already proven more than capable, there are valid concerns regarding his ability to defend and rebound once the games start to count. The Grizzlies are not shy about playing their rookies, and Junior will certainly get the chance to earn minutes over the next couple of weeks, but fans should temper their expectations on his role this season.

From a business perspective, it also makes no sense for the Grizzlies to convert Junior to a standard NBA deal with the way the roster is currently constructed. The Grizzlies already have one too many guys signed to an NBA contract and will have to make a move to get their roster down to the 17-man limit. The most common prediction to get down to 17 is the Grizzlies waiving Killian Tillie, who has dealt with injuries over the years and is still recovering from a back procedure late last season. Assuming the Grizzlies go that option, they’ll still need to create an open roster spot.

After Media Day last week, it doesn’t sound like waiving Danny Green is an option (nor should it be). The Grizzlies could pursue Xavier Tillman trades and see if they can get a future 2nd round pick or two for the big man, but then the Grizzlies are short on size and lack another pure 5 behind Steven Adams. Even if Xavier Tillman isn’t in the game-day rotation, it would likely benefit the Grizzlies to keep him around at least until Jaren Jackson Jr. is healthy. If the Grizzlies had the roster spots available, converting Junior to an NBA deal would be a no-brainer. With a roster crunch already on their plate, it makes much more sense to convert Junior later in the season. Depending on how the season and trade deadline shakes out, the front office can reevaluate the roster and sign Junior to an NBA deal — should they open up a roster spot.

Despite being on a two-way contract, that doesn’t necessarily rule out Junior being in Taylor Jenkins rotation this season. Being on a two-way contract limits Junior to 50 games unless converted, but with a fully healthy roster it would be unlikely Junior would play 50+ games regardless. Junior can play himself into the rotation and then ultimately sign an NBA deal before the regular season ends to make him eligible for the playoffs. This is a pretty common process amongst NBA teams, as both the Brooklyn Nets with Kessler Edwards and the Utah Jazz with Trent Forrest utilized players on two-way contracts in the rotation and finalized converting them to an NBA contract in early April in preparation for the playoffs.

Even if things don’t quite work out the way mapped out above and Junior ends the season on his two-year contract, he’ll be a restricted free agent for the Grizzlies meaning the team can re-sign him then or match any offer sheet he gets next summer.

Put simply, the Grizzlies have the power to keep Lofton in a Memphis uniform past this season assuming they want to.

Memphis Grizzlies v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Josh Selby proved back in 2012 that Summer League and preseason success doesn’t guarantee an even mediocre NBA career. Junior’s offensive skills are legit, and I think he has a higher chance of NBA success than Selby ever did, but it’s another reason why the Grizzlies may choose patience with his contract status.

The next couple of weeks will definitely tell us more about the Grizzlies plans. There’s the possibility they’re able to package Xavier Tillman and Killian Tillie together for a second round pick or two to create the roster space needed to sign Junior, but it seems unnecessarily difficult to create two open roster spots by October 17th. Instead it would be much more beneficial to the Grizzlies to keep Junior on his two-way contract and see how the season progresses. If he plays his way into the regular rotation and into an NBA deal, the Grizzlies will have more flexibility and options to create the open roster spot needed as the season progresses.

While Kenneth Lofton Jr. has earned the chance to get a guaranteed deal based on his summer league and preseason play, there is no rush on the Grizzlies end to convert his contract prior to the regular season beginning. Time and time again the Grizzlies have proven they’ll reward two-way players who stand out, and I don’t think Kenneth Lofton Jr. will be any different, even if it takes longer than Grizzlies Twitter would like.

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