Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies’ young core is ready to compete now

The Memphis Grizzlies have a very young core, but that group is already thriving together and has put the team in playoff position sooner than expected.

More than halfway through the season, the Memphis Grizzlies are the proud owners of a playoff spot. The Grizz went to the postseason nearly annually throughout the last decade, so it doesn’t seem that surprising until you consider that exactly none of the Grit-N-Grind core is still in Memphis.

Last season’s Grizz finished just 33-49, and they traded Marc Gasol to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors midway through the season. Prior to the draft, they officially ended the Grit-N-Grind era for good by shipping Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz. The Grizzlies were going young, and they were going to build out a future contender around 2018 No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and the guy in line to replace Conley: 2019 No. 2 selection Ja Morant.

Jackson and especially Morant have been as advertised this season.

Jackson remains a strong defender, particularly in space, and he has begun over the past several weeks to become more aggressive offensively. He’s jacked up his usage rate into the mid-20s, and he is now both taking nearly half of his shots from beyond the 3-point line and making those triples at a better than 40 percent clip.

In the team’s past 25 games, Jackson is averaging 19 points in just 29 minutes and making 43 percent of 7.3 deep attempts a night. His rebounding numbers don’t seem up to snuff for a guy his size, but then you look at how much better the team’s rebound rate is when he’s on the floor than off and you see he’s doing just fine. Jackson’s versatility and ability to handle himself against guards and wings makes him particularly valuable on the less glamorous side of the floor as well.

Morant, meanwhile, is practically an offensive savant. He gets absolutely wherever he wants on the floor, and he sees passing angles before they exist. He manipulates defenders with the savvy of a longtime veteran, displaying incredible timing and spatial awareness at nearly all times. He is a jaw-droppingly explosive athlete, and he uses his speed and burst to blow post defenders who are practically begging him to pull up instead, so desperate are they to prevent him from getting in the lane. More often than not, it doesn’t work. At the moment, he is on track to become just the second player — and only rookie — in NBA history to average at least 17 points and seven assists while playing less than 30 minutes per game.

As good as that duo has been, though, the Grizzlies would not be this far ahead of schedule were it not for the contributions of three other young players, one from each of the past three drafts: Dillon Brooks (2017), De’Anthony Melton (2018) and Brandon Clarke (2019).

Brooks, who played only 18 games last season due to various injuries, is making the Grizzlies look pretty damn smart for blowing up last season’s potential Trevor Ariza/Kelly Oubre Jr. trade due to a misunderstanding regarding whether or not he (as opposed to MarShon Brooks) would be going to Phoenix in the deal. He’s third on the team in both minutes and points per game, and like Jackson, he’s connecting from deep at a better 40 percent rate. He’s been a dynamite shooter from the mid-range this season as well; and he has leveraged his shot-making abilities into becoming a better ball-mover, which helps keep the Memphis offense humming after Morant or Tyus Jones finds him in the flow of the play.

Brooks has great size at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, and the Grizzlies deploy him to guard all types of opponents on the perimeter. That combination, plus high-level athleticism (he ranked in the 83rd percentile among NBA wings in bSPARQ) makes him especially useful as a piece for lineup construction, as he can play alongside any of the Grizzlies’ other wings and fit in just fine.

Melton is a legitimately terrifying defender. The Memphis defense has been eight points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor than off it, and it’s not hard to see why. He has a pterodactyl-like wingspan that is 6.5 inches longer than his height. He is almost absurdly quick, able to shark in and out of passing lanes with relative ease. His 5.0 deflections per 36 minutes rank second among the 292 players who have played at least 500 minutes this season, per; his 3.3 percent steal rate is second-best in the league; and his 18.0 percent defensive rebound rate is the best ever for a player 6-foot-2 or shorter, and by a not-insignificant margin.

He’s not shooting particularly well from beyond the arc, but Melton’s strength allows him to be an excellent finisher inside despite his relative lack of size. His usage rate and true shooting have taken significant jumps this season, and those numbers have been even better during the recent run where Memphis vaulted itself into a playoff spot.

Clarke was one of the most productive players in college basketball last season and were it not for Zion Williamson, people might have noticed how insane his numbers were. As a senior transfer at Gonzaga, he won the West Coast Conference Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards and was named to the All-Conference team. He averaged 16.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 3.2 blocks in only 28.1 minutes per game. He had a 37.2 Player Efficiency Rating and a 69.9 true shooting percentage.

He was a tiny bit on the short side to be considered a true big man, though, and he was turning 23 years old right at the beginning of his rookie season. So despite his elite production and elite athleticism and elite fit in the modern NBA due to his combination of versatility and agility, Clarke dropped to the Grizzlies at No. 21 overall. He’s basically been the NBA’s second-best rookie this season, behind only Morant. Seriously. He’s basically been the same guy in the pros as he was in college, averaging 12.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks in only 21.7 minutes per game, with a 21.9 PER and 67.9 true shooting percentage. That’s elite production across the board, while also playing high-level defense in the frontcourt — particularly in open space.

As the Grizzlies move through the back half of the season and try to make the playoffs in the first year of the Morant-Jackson era, they will obviously need their stars to continue producing like stars. They’ll need Jonas Valanciunas to continue providing a steady dose of scoring and rebounding. But they’ll also need this trio of young contributors to maintain their current level of play. Given the way they’re being put in position to succeed, you can bet they won’t let up.

Next: Every NBA team’s greatest draft pick of all time

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