Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies are rebuilding the right way

The Grizzlies added two perfect complements to Jaren Jackson Jr. — Brandon Clarke and Ja Morant — which should make for a formidable trio at both ends of the floor.

It’s rare that a team with a pair of first-round picks is able to draft two guys who are both the best available player and the best fit for the franchise. When the Grizzlies nabbed Ja Morant second overall and Brandon Clarke 21st overall during last Thursday’s draft, they accomplished exactly that. In Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies nailed two parts of their initial team-building phase by incubating the defensively challenged Morant with All-Defensive-caliber players. Clarke and Jackson are switch-able, rim-protecting front-court partners whose offensive skills are complementary to Morant, as well as each other.

Morant projects as the star point guard, replacing Memphis mainstay Mike Conley. Clarke is the high-flying (40.5-inch vertical), weakside rim-protecting power forward. Jackson is a stretch-5, defensive anchor with some ball-handling skills and individual scoring prowess. In time, Clarke should develop into an adequate spot-up 3-point shooter, given his finishing touch (79.7 percent at the rim), efficiency on 2-point jumpers (52.8 percent) and improved mechanics, which yielded a 12.2 percent jump at the free throw line (57.2 to 69.4). But for now, he’s the perfect candidate to alter defenses with vertical gravity while Jackson pops to the 3-point arc and Morant handles point on double-drag actions, something the Atlanta Hawks ran a ton of with Trae Young last season:

Young’s pull-up shooting and exquisite touch on floaters — two skills Morant currently lacks — allowed that set to become a staple for the Hawks. Even so, Morant is a much more explosive downhill driver with better athleticism to put pressure on the rim and works the angles of ball screens quite well. Those traits can help compensate for his other shortcomings and ensure it’s a valuable action. Morant’s partners, Jackson and Clarke, are also far more dynamic with the ball in their hands than Young’s crop of options: John Collins, Alex Len and Dewayne Dedmon.

Jackson is capable of attacking closeouts and, as he approaches his prime, has flashed enough go-to scoring upside to potentially beat switches, either off the dribble or in the post. Meanwhile, Clarke possesses some untapped playmaking skills that hint at short-roll playmaking opportunities Or, if the runway is relatively clear, he’ll unleash his elite finishing repertoire, fueled by innate balance and ability to contort his body in midair. Plus, Morant’s quick burst means switch bigs will have to sag off in anticipation of the drive, providing him ample room to either load up and attack or dance into his preferred step-back 3s. Not to mention, his near-elite court vision and ambidextrous passing mesh well with Clarke’s vertical spacing. If defenders collapse inside to swarm the rolling Clarke, Morant’s live dribble passing can create open 3s for shooters stationed around the arc.

The primary issue with this seemingly unstoppable double-drag action is that it’s an early offense concept utilized before the defense is set. Throwing bodies in front of an already-compromised defender and having said bodies make moves aimed at scoring is difficult to contain before the opposition is properly coordinated. Once they are, though, it becomes easier to negate. Double-drag action will be a sustainable source of offense in semi-transition for the Grizzlies but they need more halfcourt creativity to optimize Morant, Jackson and Clarke. Horns Flare, also involving two screeners, should be a common play for the Grizzlies, where Jackson serves as the shooter:

Another simple yet effective route in the half-court is the recently popularized Spain pick-and-roll (word to @rolNBA), which, again, connects all three franchise pillars. Morant is the ball-handler; Clarke sets the initial pick before diving to the rim; Jackson — who forecasts as nimble and coordinated enough to shoot off-movement — screens Clarke’s man before drifting out for 3. Having Clarke set the first screen well beyond the 3-point line and allowing Morant to collect a head of steam, would be prudent, too. Ideally, it could follow in the footsteps of the Thunder, who have established one of the most efficient Spain pick-and-roll trios in the league:

Obviously, Morant, Jackson and Clarke aren’t on that level. Morant is nowhere near as strong or punishing as Westbrook when he sets his mind on the rim. Jackson isn’t the smooth or elite shooter George is. Clarke isn’t a hard-nosed screener like Adams. But for now, that’s perfectly fine. The goal is to construct an offensive scheme for the long haul and this group has yet to practice or play a game together. The Grizzlies have time to concoct offshoots of the Spain pick-and-roll while drawing upon the same principles: Morant’s passing and the threat of dribble penetration, Clarke’s vertical gravity and Jackson’s versatile shooting. Regardless, the important point is Morant, Clarke and Jackson are multifaceted offensive weapons who complement one another and provide a host of schematic options.

Memphis also can leverage Jackson’s shooting gravity with off-ball screening as Morant and Clarke run a pick-and-roll. Jackson showed some off-movement/relocation shooting as a rookie; there’s definitely potential waiting to be unearthed. Morant, a daring and crafty lead guard, and Clarke, a jet-powered leaper with a huge catch radius on lobs, fit perfectly together in ball-screens. If defenses have to account for them while navigating off-ball action with Jackson, the odds are high that a breakdown occurs. As the top playmaker in this draft class, Morant is well equipped to manipulate any defensive shortcomings, especially if he sharpens his decision-making

Beyond pick-and-rolls, Morant and Clarke should link up in transition and push the tempo whenever possible. Morant (78th percentile in transition, per Synergy) made a living on the break at Murray State, exploding to the rim for buckets or gliding through pockets of space and creating for others. Meanwhile, Clarke boasts some grab-and-go scoring ability but overwhelmingly, was a lethal play finisher at Gonzaga (90th percentile in transition). I’d imagine we’ll see a fair amount of fastbreak alley-oops from Morant to Clarke next season. At the very worst, they’ll force defenses to emphasize paint protection, enabling Jackson to step into open 3s as a trailer:

With off-the-dribble shooting, isolation scoring (72nd percentile) and a bit of playmaking potential, Jackson is the type of prospect who could handle more diverse usage in his prime. As such, the Grizzlies would do well to explore Morant’s off-ball viability — a role he rarely played last season, though did more often as a freshman. Let Jackson control the offense periodically and force Morant into quick decision-making scenarios, running him off actions like pindowns, handoffs and flare screens, akin to Conley’s usage. Morant is nowhere near the off-ball player of Conley but quicker decision-making and understanding how to manipulate defenders via off-ball screens can be taught. It’d also allow for him to attack when the opposition isn’t completely set or prepared to stop the drive.

Due to erratic decision-making, a shaky pull-up jumper — poor core strength limits his ability to shoot off forward momentum — and questionable finishing skills (61 percent at the rim last season, per hoop-math), I’m not sold on Morant’s ceiling as a top-tier offensive engine. Laying the foundation for a contingency plan in which he learns to function without the ball in his hands would be forward-thinking. And if it paves the way for exploring the depths of Jackson’s on-ball capabilities, even better.

Defensively, Clarke and Jackson are exactly the type of bigs to play alongside Morant. He regularly struggled to stymie dribble penetration in college — the result of poor engagement and technique (too upright on ball) — and he’s just 6-foot-3, 180 pounds. He’ll add weight and applying better effort will help but no matter what, his ceiling is severely capped. The Clarke-Jackson front-court duo wields incredible awareness and timing as weakside rim protectors, well-versed in making the necessary rotations to clean up mistakes:

They’re also both capable of switching onto the perimeter. Given Morant’s tendency to die on screens, Clarke and Jackson’s ability to contain defenders before he recovers can help to offset some of the issues that presents. However, I’d be hesitant to embrace a switch-heavy scheme with Morant, as his on-ball assignments should be constrained to point guards and the occasional shooting guard. It’s an inherent issue with Morant, though, and one that existed before Clarke and Jackson joined forces. Unless he makes outlier strength gain developments, Memphis will always have to account for his poor point-of-attack defense. Either way, the Grizzlies now have two skilled, valuable bigs who can’t be exposed in space:

For all their potential, games filled with sizzling, dominant Morant-Clarke-Jackson lineups might have to wait. Jonas Valanciunas was quite productive in 19 games with the Grizzlies last season — 19.9 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks on 59.4 percent true shooting — and seems poised to re-sign. If that happens, Jackson will see most of his minutes at the 4, Clarke’s ideal position. Last season, Jackson-at-center quintets held a minus-9.8 net rating (per Cleaning the Glass), so his impact in that role is still a work in progress. Because he’s a bit weak for a 5 and has a high center of gravity, certain centers overpower him. Memphis probably views him as a center long-term and will continue to see what he brings at the 5 but right now, he and Clarke are maximized as 4-men.

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The Grizzlies will not be good next season. They’re short on top-flight talent. High-usage rookie point guards historically struggle. Morant, Clarke and Jackson aren’t going to approach their ceilings this early. Yet the last two drafts convey a message of cohesive roster building. Memphis landed a potentially generational big man last year and have since paired him with a young, talented lead guard. To cap it off, the team acquired an ancillary forward who fills the gaps in Jackson’s offensive game while further masking Morant’s defensive flaws. The three pieces fit incredibly well together and Morant’s development curve should be accelerated by the presence of Clarke and Jackson. Once a franchise lacking identity or youthful upside, the Grizzlies now have both. There are still many steps on the road back to playoff relevance but the initial path looks promising.

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