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How opportunity has built the Memphis Grizzlies

Injuries haven’t stopped the Grizzlies this season

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NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an unfortunate reality of every NBA season. Players get hurt, and it drastically impacts the way the games go. Some teams are affected more than others, but every team has to deal with the injury bug at some point or another during the marathon trudge to the playoffs. The COVID-19 pandemic and the protocols in place because of it have added another wrinkle to how teams handle and respond to the adversity of being down players. Some teams fare better than others. For example, the Los Angeles Clippers are fighting for a playoff spot despite not having Kawhi Leonard all season and just 26 games from Paul George. The Denver Nuggets figure to avoid the play-in tournament despite not having Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. for much of the season. On the other hand, the Brooklyn Nets have struggled with Kevin Durant sidelined with an MCL sprain. The Nets issues overall this year are rooted in Kyrie Irving being a part-time player, which started well before James Harden decided to pout his way to Philadelphia.

The Memphis Grizzlies, like every other team in the NBA, have dealt with their fair share of injuries in this campaign. According to Spotrac, as of 3/3/2022, The Grizzlies were tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for 10th most games missed in the NBA this season at 208. In a weird way, however, the injuries the Grizzlies have had to deal with have helped them more than they have hurt them. The injuries have presented the team and it’s players with moments of growth, with players typically making the most of the opportunity given to them.

With that said, it’s time to analyze the larger injuries the Grizzlies have had to go through this season and how it helped them become a better team.

Ja Morant

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves David Berding-USA TODAY Sports

When Ja Morant got hurt against the Atlanta Hawks, it was arguably the turning point of the Grizzlies season. The Grizzlies dropped to 9-10 following the 132-100 loss to the Hawks in which Ja Morant sprained his left knee. The Grizzlies have since gone 34-10, including a 10-3 record with Ja sidelined with the knee sprain. The Grizzlies were inconsistent in the first 19 games of the season, earning some big wins but usually followed with some blowout losses. The players have since admitted that Ja’s injury helped get them on the right track. The players have credited the added pressure to step up with Ja out, saying they had to fight to get on the right track - especially after all the work Ja put in during the offseason. The players stepped up in Ja’s absence and have carried that momentum with them throughout the rest of the season.

Tyus Jones was the initial beneficiary to Ja going down. Jones has already been having a career season, averaging a career high 8.1 points to go along with 4.1 assists and is once again leading the NBA in AST/TO ratio with a 6.1, a whole 1.5 more than Chris Paul who is in second. As a starter, Jones has averaged 12.1 points, 6.2 assists and 1.2 steals and leading Memphis to a 12-2 record as the starting point guard. The run Tyus has had in Memphis, especially this season, will likely earn him a big payday - and potentially a permanent starting role for another team this offseason. Jones has filled in admirably when Ja has been out, and he’ll have the opportunity to benefit from that this upcoming offseason.

Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. stepped up and were huge for Memphis when Ja went down. Already growing into a larger offensive role, Desmond Bane was able to continue his success with Ja Morant on the sidelines. Bane kept up his season averages (17.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg) with Morant on the sidelines but with more attention to his offensive skillset. It was really the first time teams started to scheme their defense into slowing Bane down, but they just couldn’t do it. After mostly struggling in the first 19 games of the season, Jaren took on a larger role on both ends of the court. He bumped his points per game up 5 points (from 14 to 19) and shot an efficient 47.7% from the field while also setting the tone defensively. The Grizzlies run without Ja allowed Jaren to step up and get comfortable for really the first time since he injured his knee in the bubble.

Dillon Brooks

Memphis Grizzlies v LA Clippers Photo by Tyler Ross/NBAE via Getty Images

Dillon Brooks was the 2nd best player for Memphis in their playoff run last season, but has been available for just 21 games this season. He missed the first 10 games of the season nursing a broken hand suffered in the offseason. Brooks was able to return a bit before a stint in Health & Safety Protocols sidelined him again. Brooks then sprained his ankle in his second game back from protocols in mid January against the Los Angeles Clippers and we have yet to see Dillon since (although a return is near). It’s really been a season from hell injury wise from Dillon, who was looking to take that next step after his performance at the tail end of last year. There have been some positives, however, in Dillon’s absence.

Heading into the season, most everyone would have expected John Konchar and Ziaire Williams to battle it out for the 10th man in Taylor Jenkins’ rotation. Brooks’ injuries have allowed Jenkins to play both Konchar and Williams - and the results have been mostly promising. They’ve had their struggles, but both Konchar and Williams have proven to be capable players off the bench or in a starting role. Williams’ own injury was a blessing in disguise as it forced him to sit back and watch film and soak the game in from the sidelines. His play since his return from his injury has been much improved, and the Grizzlies had gone 16-6 prior to Thursday night’s game against Boston with Ziaire in the starting lineup. Instead of both players battling it out for a rotation spot, they both got ample opportunity to show their worth and grow their games in Dillon’s absence. Somebody (likely Konchar) figures to be the odd-man out when the Grizzlies get healthy, but the team is pretty comfortably 11-12 players deep.

Dillon’s injury also forced guys like Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton and Williams into larger roles defensively. Without their best POA defender, the Grizzlies have relied on all 3 players to defend the other teams best perimeter threat. It hasn’t always been pretty, but all 3 have grown from having to guard the Steph Curry’s and Luka Doncic’s of the world.

COVID Protocols

Memphis Grizzlies v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Santi Aldama, Jarrett Culver, Sam Merrill, Killian Tillie and Yves Pons figured to spend more time this season down in Southaven than in Memphis with the Grizzlies. Due to the various different Grizzlies players to enter Health & Safety Protocols, the Aldama, Culver, and Tillie trio have appeared in 20+ games for Memphis and have played meaningful minutes, and not just the final 3 minutes of a blowout. Santi Aldama had a solid performance off the bench against Brooklyn, even blocking James Harden before he started to quit on the team. Killian Tillie has started 3 games and has found himself as one of the first non-rotation guys off the bench if someone is out with a minor injury (most recently as the 10th man against the Spurs on Monday with Konchar out). Culver went from likely getting the Josh Jackson treatment to showing off his defense prowess while also flashing some offensive potential that disappeared during his time in Minnesota. Yves Pons, unfortunately, has been injured throughout most of the season and hasn’t been able to get much time on the court, appearing in just 14 games between the Grizzlies and Hustle.

Sam Merrill has a small but beneficial role in the Grizzlies growth from injuries. Merrill shined with the Hustle in Southaven, but hurt his ankle in his 6th game with the Grizzlies. The lengthy rehab process prompted the Grizzlies to waive Merrill and sign then two-way player Killian Tillie to an NBA deal. The move also opened up a two-way spot which the Grizzlies used on Tyrell Terry. It’s been a mixed bag for Terry in the G League, but he provides the Grizzlies with a low-risk, high-reward type flyer on a former first round pick.

With Dillon Brooks set to return in the next week or so from his ankle injury, the Grizzlies will presumably soon be the healthiest they’ve been all season long just in time for the stretch run into the playoffs. Despite the growth created by the injuries, teams obviously want to be healthy when the games really start to matter. Time will tell how the Grizzlies fare this postseason (and if they’ll be truly “healthy”) but no matter what, the team already has learned a lot about themselves thanks to the injuries they’ve dealt with.

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