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Defining excellence with Tyus Jones

The best backup point guard in franchise history likely won’t be a backup much longer.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Even in an era of the NBA where advanced stats have advanced stats, there is still no single metric that can solely determine how much a player contributes to winning basketball. I’m sure that amusingly-named metrics like RAPTOR, LEBRON or even VORP have some level of value in evaluating players. But as an angry Grizzlies fan once infamously said about former Grizzlies President of Basketball Operations John Hollinger, you can’t make decisions or evaluations just because a MACHINE said so.

For example, Tyus Jones’ numbers aren’t exactly going to jump off the page at you, and nearly every single one of his metrics would seem to indicate that he’s generally a league-average player. So how are we to explain that he has won at a high level at literally everywhere he has ever been?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In high school, Jones was a consensus top-5 prospect as he led Apple Valley to a state championship. As a one-and-done at Duke, he helped lead the Blue Devils to the 2015 national championship while earning the distinction of the most outstanding player in the Final Four. And after signing with the Memphis Grizzlies in the summer of 2019, he has been instrumental in helping the Grizzlies vastly out-perform their Vegas win total each of the last three seasons.

Now, a championship in Beale Street Blue is all that Tyus Jones needs to complete the trifecta.

You would, of course, be accurate in noting that much, if not most, of the Grizzlies success over the last three years should be attributed to Ja Morant, to whom Jones is just an understudy. But that doesn’t erase the objective reality that the Grizzlies have won more consistently this year with Jones as their starting point guard (14-2) than Morant (35-21).

NBA: Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Does that mean that the Grizzlies are, in fact, better with Tyus Jones than they are with Ja Morant? Of course not. Rather, the impressive performance of the Memphis Grizzlies in the absence of Morant speaks to the excellence that the presence of Tyus Jones brings.

Sure, the Grizzlies may have only played five teams with winning records in the 16 games they’ve played with Tyus Jones as their starter. With or without Ja Morant, they are an undeniably good team, and they are supposed to beat bad teams. But that reality has a compelling implication: If we should expect the Grizzlies to remain excellent even in the absence of their best player, then the player who fills his role must be excellent as well.

The excellence of Tyus Jones can best be summarized in a truism: He helps his team by not hurting his team. And there has never been a better player at not hurting their team than Tyus Jones. He has led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio in each of the last four seasons, which is how you end up with some funky stats like the ones that fellow GBB writer Shawn Coleman shared recently.

His incredible ball security becomes even more absurd when comparing it to recent NBA history. His 7.0 assist-to-turnover ratio in 2019 is the best ever since turnovers became a recorded statistic. And his 6.8 ratio for this year would only be the second-best ever if the season ended today.

For a team like the Memphis Grizzlies that currently leads the league in steals (9.1) and generally thrives off the mistakes that their opponents make, it can’t be understated how valuable it is to have an impactful player who consistently creates plays for others—he has a 28.3 AST%, which ranks him in the 90th percentile—while virtually never making mistakes of his own.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

However, Tyus Jones is currently having the best season of his career because of the improvements he’s made beyond being ultra-stingy with the ball in his hands.

He’s always been an underrated defender, but it may be time to remove the “underrated” label. The Grizzlies are 6.1 points better defensively when he’s on the court, and both the eye test as well as the numbers (1.8 STL%, 90th percentile) confirm how impactful he’s been off-the-ball defensively. His offense as a whole has been more impactful than ever, as he’s shooting the second-highest 3PT% of his career (37%) on a career-high 2.7 attempts while averaging a career-high 8.2 points.

If this all sounds wonderful, that’s because it is! Too wonderful. If I were a betting man, I would absolutely put money on Tyus Jones receiving a sizable pay day this summer from another team that wants to make him their starting point guard. And they would be wise to do so. At this point, I doubt there are 15-20 better point guards in the NBA than him. He is simply a winner, there are several teams in the Association that need a winning floor-general; I imagine that LeBron James would agree with this assessment.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

But if Tyus Jones is only meant to spend 10 more regular season games as well as a (hopefully) extended playoff run with the Memphis Grizzlies, then he will have left a lasting legacy of excellence in Memphis.

Stats found via Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass.

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