With another NBA season affected by COVID-19, the depth of NBA teams was put to the test. Particularly in early January, teams had to sign a record of G League Players to 10-day hardship contracts to have enough available bodies to avoid as many game postponements as possible. The Grizzlies, like every other team, had a stretch of the season where COVID-19 was rampant among the team but it allowed them to show off their depth and prove they are one of the deepest teams in the NBA.
The end of the bench isn’t a hot topic in the NBA. Most teams fill out the end of their bench with young guys they’re trying to develop or veterans to impact the team more in the locker room than on the floor. The Grizzlies ultimately decided to use the end of their bench to give a former lottery pick in Jarrett Culver an opportunity to shine. They also were able to promote Killian Tillie from his two-way contract in the aftermath of Sam Merrill’s ankle injury, while filling the two-way spots with Yves Pons and then Tyrell Terry once Tillie got an NBA Deal.
Culver, the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, hasn’t really panned out like many had hoped he would early in his career. Due to his limited minutes, Culver averaged career lows across the board during his time in Memphis. His 3-point struggles continued as he shot 12-47 from deep (25.5%) this season. Culver didn’t get enough consistent minutes to really have a large impact on the team this season, but he did step up with a couple of solid games when he got a chance at extended minutes. His best game of the season was January 3rd against the Brooklyn Nets. The Grizzlies, without Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson and John Konchar, entrusted Culver with 30 minutes of action against the Nets. Culver finished with 12 points on 5-11 shooting while chipping in 3 rebounds and 3 steals against a mostly healthy Nets team. Culver also scored 14 points on 5-16 shooting in the season finale against the Boston Celtics. Those were the only games Culver played 30 or more minutes in.
With the Grizzlies declining Culver’s team option for next season, he’ll enter unrestricted free agency this offseason. Similar to the Josh Jackson situation (minus the off-court baggage history), Culver is likely to sign a veteran minimum deal with another team this offseason. he has shown flashes of being able to contribute when given the opportunity. Albeit in the G League, Culver averaged 18.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game in 4 early season Hustle games. He likely won’t ever live up to his draft night expectations, but a young team like the Orlando Magic or Houston Rockets who can afford to give Culver more consistent minutes might be able to find some value, particularly in Culver’s defensive acumen. Culver has averaged over 1 steal per 36 minutes, and averaged 2.1 steals per 36 this past season with Memphis. Some team will take a low-risk chance on him.
It was a bit of an up and down year for Killian Tillie. Memphis was surprisingly able to re-sign Tillie to a two-way contract last offseason. He played sparingly in the first couple months of the season before finding a relatively consistent rotation spot in December due to injuries and COVID. Tillie appeared in 15 December games and averaged 4 points and 2.1 rebounds while shooting 38% from the field and 35% from deep. Tillie played mostly out of position, getting minutes at the 3 when he’s really a stretch 4. His numbers don’t necessarily jump off the box score at you, but Tillie provided enough value in his 15 minutes per game to get promoted from his two-way contract to a 2-year NBA deal on January 1st.
After a solid January that saw Tillie appear in 9 more games, things went downhill fast for Killian the last couple months of the season. Tillie missed a few games in mid-February with back soreness and found himself out of the rotation as the Grizzlies got healthy. Tillie missed the last 12 games of the season with knee soreness, including a few games where he likely would have gotten extended run (vs. Phoenix, vs. Boston). After the regular season concluded, Tillie underwent a back procedure that knocked him out for the post season.
When on the court for Memphis, Tillie has proven to be a solid floor-spacer and surprisingly agile defender. Injuries, however, will always be a factor with Tillie. Tillie was excellent in college at Gonzaga, but dealt with a multitude of injuries throughout his career. In just 2 seasons with Memphis, Tillie has missed 46 games (18 this season, 28 last year) due to injury. Depending on the Grizzlies roster construction and health, Tillie figures to probably get more than the 3 games he got this season with the Memphis Hustle on assignment. Tillie will need to prove he can stay healthy as he enters a contract year next season. The good news: Tillie’s season-ending back surgery has come across as something planned to prioritize him being healthy next season.
It was a shaky first year in the league for Yves Pons as a rookie out of Tennessee. Like Tillie, Pons dealt with his own fair share of injuries. Pons missed 20 games this season due to injury. He dealt with ankle soreness in both ankles as well as his left thigh. When healthy, Pons wasn’t high enough on Jenkins rotations to really get meaningful minutes. Pons appeared in just 12 games for the Grizzlies and only played double digit minutes in the regular season finale against the Celtics. In that game, Pons did showcase his defensive abilities with 3 blocks.
Pons spent most of his non-injured time in Southaven with the Memphis Hustle. He appeared in 16 games with the Hustle in a few different stints. Pons had a 6-game stint with the Hustle leading into the Showcase Cup where he averaged 11.5 points on 46.3% shooting to go along with 8.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game. During the G League regular season, Pons averaged 9.4 points and 5 rebounds on 50% shooting, including 38.7% from beyond the arc. The 3-point percentage is a bit of a mystery for Pons as he shot 9-35 (25.7%) to start the year, before finishing the season on a bit of a heater from beyond the arc.
Pons is a high-flyer and has used his athleticism to flash some highlight plays (and reveal the gender of his baby). Ultimately though, Pons is mostly just an athlete who doesn’t really excel at one thing. He’s able to use his athleticism to help him on the defensive end, but he’s usually having to recover from being beat off the dribble. Offensively, Pons looked extremely limited even with the Hustle, settling for catch-and-shoot triples while getting most of his scoring off lobs. At his best, Pons was inconsistent when actually driving and attacking the basket with a defender on him. Entering restricted free agency, I’d be surprised if Pons gets a two-way contract anywhere else. I’d suspect he’ll sign an Exhibit 10 or G League Contract and spend next season fine-tuning his game in the G League.
Shortly after the Grizzlies promoted Killian Tillie from a two-way contract to a two-year deal, they signed Tyrell Terry to fill the vacant two-way slot after he had joined the Grizzlies on a 10-day hardship deal. Terry, after totalling 3 minutes across two games on his 10-day, didn’t play a minute for the Grizzlies after signing his two-way contract. Instead, Terry spent the season focusing on his development with the Hustle (ironically the team he played with in the G League bubble as the Mavs G League team did not participate). It was a mixed bag for Terry with the Hustle, as he averaged 12.1 points and 3.8 assists on 34.9% shooting and 26.2% from beyond the arc. Terry, listed at 6’2” and 160 lbs, really struggled with the physicality and size of the G League. Terry ultimately missed the final few games of the G League season with a foot injury.
Terry’s two-way deal goes into next season, but he’s someone to potentially monitor this offseason. Terry didn’t appear to be with the team throughout the playoff run and instead worked out behind the scenes. With one of the two-way spots open, Terry figures to stick around through the beginning of next season but things could change quickly if an undrafted free agent wanted to come to Memphis. If he does make it through training camp, Terry figures to spend most of next season with the Hustle to start.
The Grizzlies have used the end of their bench before to find rotation players. John Konchar was a two-way player before finding a consistent rotational role this past season, while De’Anthony Melton and Xavier Tillman have used limited minutes and turned them into a larger role throughout the last few seasons. Two of the previously mentioned players are likely to be on another team next season, with the potential of having two open two-way spots available. It remains to be seen how exactly Memphis chooses to fill out the end of the bench, but they figure to have a multitude of directions they could go.