Zach Kleiman and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies’ front office shocked many people tuned in with the team when they made four draft picks in Thursday’s draft. Coming in the draft with 3 picks (22, 29, and 47), most predicted they would trade 1 of the first-round picks — perhaps consolidating 22 and 29 for a higher pick. Or they would make all 3 picks.
Kleiman didn’t have the expectation to make that many picks either. How did those plans change?
Tennessee’s Kennedy Chandler was widely projected to become a first-round pick this season, getting slotted to teams in need of a change-of-pace backup point guard — more often than not, the Grizzlies. However, he started to slide down the draft boards into the late 30’s.
Kleiman knew they had to acquire him, as he started to aggressively pursue a prospect who was high on their board.
“It was really Kennedy being on the board there, slipping into the second round. Kennedy was very, very high on our board as well going into the night,” Kleiman on how the Grizzlies’ plans changed. “He easily could’ve been a first-round pick of ours. It was Kennedy being there and us aggressively trying to pursue and bring him into our organization that caused us to go out and say ‘no, we certainly have no issue going out and adding another person we think is going to be a real contributor and a significant part of this organization going forward’. We were absolutely shocked that Kennedy was still on the board.”
So now, former UT Vol, Memphis native Kennedy Chandler is a Memphis Grizzly. And with an important offseason for the point guard rotation, there’s a new foil in the mix.
The first reason for importance is simple: extending Ja Morant to a super-max extension. The biggest question in this angle though revolves around Tyus Jones. How will Grizzlies navigate Tyus Jones’ free agency is a big topic for the offseason? And now, how does Chandler’s acquisition factor into this decision?
Let’s get to Chandler first.
There will be questions circulating around his potential fit as a backup point guard initially. His size (6’0” with a 6’5” wingspan) doesn’t make for the best pairing with Ja Morant for spot minutes. In addition, people might wonder if a rookie point guard drafted in the second round is ready for regular rotation minutes for a team with title aspirations.
However, Chandler has the tools and the upside to be a day-1 contributor, if his number is called upon.
As a floor general, there are two areas in which Chandler excels: pick-and-roll facilitation and playmaking. Per Synergy Sports, he scored 0.847 points (classified as a “very good” rating) per PNR possession last season at Tennessee — utilizing his burst and change of pace to burn defenders in those situations. For a team that finished 8th in pick-and-roll frequency (15.8%), he could be an asset in that regard.
In addition, he was also the only player drafted that posted an assist percentage greater than 30%, while sporting an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1.5 — as Chandler finished with a 32.4 AST% and a 1.9 AST/TO ratio. The Grizzlies might be replacing one of the most efficient playmakers in the league. While Chandler is still a mystery box in this regard, it’s encouraging there’s a track record for steady play at the helm of an offense.
How Chandler can really strive on the floor, especially in situations alongside Ja Morant, is with outside shooting and defense.
Last season, Chandler shot 38.3% from 3-point range on 3.8 attempts per game. In addition, he accumulated 1.215 PPP on catch-and-shoot halfcourt possessions, per Synergy Sports. The Grizzlies tend to move players on and off the ball, when initiating the offense. Their flow and ball movement often times leads to ample perimeter opportunities. His ability to knock down jumpers could dictate how big his role is in his rookie season, and how many minutes he receives next to All-NBA guard Morant.
Chandler’s defense stuck out to the Grizzlies’ front office.
“He takes a lot of pride defending on the ball,” Kleiman said after Thursday’s draft. “Kennedy Chandler is really going to surprise some people.”
Kleiman went on to praise his screen navigation, his disruption, and his IQ as a team defender. The defense is what could really aid Chandler in the possibility of a key role as a rookie. This past season, Chandler possessed a steal percentage of 4.1; the only player drafted with a higher percentage was Tari Eason. Though at a height disadvantage, he uses his 6’5” wingspan and his lower center of gravity to hound offensive players, and his speed is a positive for him when jumping in passing lanes.
I compare Chandler’s rookie outlook to Jose Alvarado of the New Orleans Pelicans. Despite his lack of size, Alvarado’s defense helped him stay on the floor in big moments alongside another small guard in CJ McCollum. He was served as a big energy booster for the Pelicans on his way to impacting winning basketball as the backup point guard. Could Chandler make a similar impact next season? Perhaps, though cases like Alvarado are special ones. Nonetheless, it signifies a pathway towards securing the backup point guard role.
These elements of Chandler’s game could help him take over the backup point guard job, and it could benefit the Grizzlies in lineups alongside Morant. There will be concerns over the size of the backcourt, though Jones and Chandler have similar measurements. It’s a positive that the Grizzlies outscored opponents by 14.9 points per 100 possessions (383 total possessions) with Morant and Jones on the floor. Granted, Jones is a better player right now, and Chandler is a mystery prospect, but there’s a track record it could work out for the Grizzlies.
Now to the Tyus Jones element. Does the Kennedy Chandler pick show the Grizzlies’ hand on what might transpire with Tyus Jones’ free agency over the next week or so?
Maybe, but unlikely. The money factor is interesting, as Chandler will be a bargain for a backup point guard with his rookie contract — whereas Jones will receive a well-deserved payday.
Jones’s departure may be more dependent on who offers him a starting gig elsewhere, as the Washington Wizards have rumored interest in him — and the Knicks have been a popular target for him as well. After a career year — one that saw him sport a 20-6 record as a starting point guard — there’s the overwhelming assumption he’s going to get a bag and a lead guard job.
However, there’s a chance that opportunity may not be out there. Both Malcolm Brogdon and D’Angelo Russell are rumored to be on the trade market. Kyrie Irving is likely the start of a chain reaction for the point guard carousel this summer.
If there isn’t a starting spot out there for Jones, then he might be back in Beale Street Blue next season. That scenario could be beneficial for the Grizzlies’ outlook next season and for Chandler’s development going forward.
The Grizzlies could offer Jones a 2-year, $20M contract — maybe with a descending deal starting at $11-12M next season. It allows him to enter the market one more time before he enters his 30’s, and his expiring contract can be a trade chip next summer. In the meantime, Chandler could receive developmental reps in Southaven with the Hustle, easing his way into running a NBA offense before eventually supplementing Jones as the backup point guard.
The opportunity to learn under Ja Morant and Tyus Jones seems like a great start towards development as a NBA point guard.
In terms of the Grizzlies’ trajectory for next season, it opens up the clearest pathway to sustain their momentum in title contention. If Ja Morant goes down for an extended period of time, we don’t know if a rookie point guard like Chandler can help them keep things humming. We know they can with Jones. That potential reality could force them to explore the market for cheaper veteran point guards, if Jones and the Grizzlies move on from each other this summer.
Regardless of what happens this summer with the backup point guard situation, there’s a confidence in Kennedy Chandler, in his impact on winning, and in his ability to step into the point guard rotation.
Those opportunities could come early.
“Obviously we think he’s a big part of our future,” Taylor Jenkins said. “the excitement to be able to bring Kennedy into the fold — irregardless of where he was at — the talent he has, the winning background he has, the care factor he has. That’s what we look for in our point guard position.”
Kennedy Chandler changed the draft night plans for the Memphis Grizzlies, bringing in more rookies than expected. From what we know about Chandler’s body of work, and from the coaching staff’s willingness to play rookies early, there’s a possibility the UT Vol impacts the Grizzlies’ offseason plans as well.