By: Jalon Dixon, Columnist
In what was supposed to be the start of a franchise rebuild for the Memphis Grizzlies, rookie phenom guard Ja Morant and their young core have already begun to outperform expectations in their pursuit of becoming a playoff team in the tough Western Conference.
Despite sitting in the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings with a record of 20 – 23, the Grizzlies were never expected to be in this position as a potential playoff team. With the recent trading of fan favorites guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol, Memphis general manager Zachary Kleiman essentially ended the “Grit and Grind” era and led most to believe that their playoff hopes were also coming to an end at least temporarily.
But, with the outstanding play of their rookie tandem in Morant and forward Brandon Clarke, second year big man in Jaren Jackson Jr. and a veteran presence in center Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies are looking like one of the most surprising teams in the league so far this season.
Of course, when most think of Memphis now, they think of Morant and deservedly so. Playing as a true point guard looking to not only score, but also facilitate and get his teammates involved, Morant is the engine that makes this team go. Averaging 17.5 points and 7.1 assists while shooting 49.1% from the field and 38.9% from three, the favorite for Rookie of the Year leads the team in assists, and trails forward Jaren Jackson by 0.2 points for the team lead. Although he is great as an individual player, I think that Morant’s talent actually is more so reflected through the success of his teammates.
Not including Morant, the Grizzlies have five players averaging double figures and five with at least 30 games played shooting 45% or better from the floor. The distribution of scoring and the efficiency shooting wise across the team shows Morant’s ability to facilitate by making sure that everyone gets good looks at the bucket with a real chance to put up points. It also helps that to go along with his ability to spread the ball around, Morant is also an athletic highflyer that always finds a way to get at least one highlight play a game making him a real threat as an overall point guard.
Then there are the big men in Jackson Jr., Clarke and Valanciunas who have played a major role in the team’s success both offensively and defensively. Each of the three have unique skill sets that make them different from one another and makes them interchangeable threats that can always put pressure on the opposing team’s big men.
Jackson Jr. is the stretch four and the shooter of the group that likes to do his work from behind the arc. Jackson Jr. is shooting 40.5% from three on a team-high 6.5 attempts per game while averaging 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks a game. As a volume shooter and an instinctual defender, Jackson Jr. is probably the most aggressive player of the three in terms of his level of activity on both sides of the ball.
Clarke is an athletic tweener that can play power forward or be a small ball center depending on the situation. As an athletic freak coming out of Gonzaga, Memphis has allowed Clarke to play to his strengths as an aggressive driver who has the athleticism and build to rise above defenders. Averaging 12.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, Clarke is the above the rim player that gets a majority of his points off of put back dunks and easy lobs from Morant.
Finally there is Valanciunas who is more of the traditional big man of the group. Valanciunas is the “dirty work” center that gives you points in the paint and rebounds. Averaging a double-double with 15 points and 10.1 rebounds on 58.8% shooting from the field, Valanciunas is the team’s inside presence on both ends of the floor. He may not be as skilled a shooter as Jackson Jr. or as flashy as Clarke, but he gets the Grizzlies much needed boards and buckets, something that every team needs.
As a young team with a lot of potential, Memphis definitely started off the new era of Grizzlies basketball with a bang. Entering the All-Star break they probably will still remain under the radar as a potential playoff threat, but as the season goes on Morant and Memphis has the potential to put together a stretch that puts the whole league on notice.