The Memphis Grizzlies finished last season with the second-best record in the NBA but ended up losing against the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs. Nevertheless, they got the league’s attention and are ready to take their game to the next level.
The Grizzlies are one of the youngest teams in the NBA right now but had a quiet off-season and did not try to acquire a veteran star player to pair with their sole All-Star, Ja Morant. Instead, they decided to return pretty their most important players from last season, believing that continuity, internal improvement, and better health will ready them for another extended playoff run. The group of rising young stars did not take their loss against the Warriors lightly and is not shy about making some noise, believing themselves to be on the same level as teams like the Suns and Warriors who have recently made it to the NBA Finals.
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s injury and possible setbacks
In the 2022-23 season, the Grizzlies probably will not replicate their phenomenal 56 wins of last season; however, despite some setbacks, they should still be good and rank among the top seeds in the Western Conference.
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s foot injury will have a huge impact on Memphis’s regular season and how many games they ultimately win. Last season, Jackson was one of the most important pieces in their playoff run, as he is one of the best defenders in the paint as well as being a capable scorer both inside and outside. Unfortunately, he will be out for several months, targeting a return in late December or early-to-mid January. This should make him available for the playoffs, and hopefully by that point at the same level he played at last season after recovering and getting in basketball shape while enduring minute restrictions.
Considering this, it will be important for the Grizzlies to have a solid back up for Jackson and someone who can take over his spot as the starting power forward. The most obvious choice to take on this role is Brandon Clarke. Clarke acted as Steven Adams’ back up at the center position last season. He closed most games and proved that he can be trusted as a core piece and can be the most capable player to replicate Jackson’s impact. In last season’s playoff series against Minnesota, Clarke was actually one of the Grizzlies’ most productive players.
There are still some problems that come up with moving Clarke to the starting line-up, though. The first one should be resolved rather easily. As Adams’ backup, Clarke never shared the court with him a lot. They should work out well enough together, but the connection might be a little bumpy at first. Secondly and more importantly, moving Clarke to the starting lineup would result in a huge loss of scoring coming off the bench, which was Clarke’s primary responsibility last season, not to mention the burst of energy that he provides with his nonstop motor. Nevertheless, Clarke is already working on his three-point shot this off-season, preparing for his possible new role.
In the draft, Memphis also got two rookies in Jake LaRavia and David Roddy who can play the power forward, but both are still unproven and inexperienced. It would be rather risky to put one of them in the starting lineup right away, especially when there are other returning players, besides Clarke, like Santi Aldama, Xavier Tillman, and Ziaire Williams who could fill in for Jackson.
Offensively, Williams would probably be the better option between the two because he is a good shooter. It is only his second season in the NBA, however, and even though he averaged around 20 minutes of playing time as a rookie, he is still rather inexperienced. Also, his slight frame may not withstand extended minutes at that position.
Tillman on the other hand would offer the necessary experience without taking Clarke’s scoring away from the bench. Clarke is the most reliable option between these players, though, and will most probably end up in the starting lineup. Tillman will then act as the backup center, and Williams and Tyus Jones will be expected to take over the scoring responsibilities Clarke provided off the bench. If that turns out to not be ideal, Tillman or Williams might slide into the starting lineup after all.
Either way, Williams will be seeing more playing time and should benefit from that as it will offer him the opportunity to grow and develop his game. He will be able to shoot at a higher volume than last season and improve his ball-handling and rebounding while offering the team versatile defense.
The Grizzlies’ most important player and leader of the young group is undeniably Ja Morant. Last season, he averaged 24.7 points, 6.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds, earning him his first All-Star appearance. He also took home the Most Improved Player award, even though many believed him to rather belong in the MVP conversation. At only 23, Morant is one of the top point guards in the league and a future Hall -of-Famer (barring injury). Memphis is a mesmerizing young team that will finally have several games on national TV next season, which means that Morant will have many eyes on him as his presence as a star continues to grow.
Morant suffered an injury in the playoff series against the Warriors last season, benching him for most of it. Nevertheless, the rest of the team held their own and stretched the series out to six games. They strongly feel like they could have won that series if Morant had not been injured. While we will never know if that is true, that series proved that the Grizzlies are still a solid team without their lone All-Star and have a bright future. The team also was surprisingly successful during a portion of the regular season where Morant was forced to sit out.
Morant might not be the only All-Star on the roster for much longer. In Morant’s absence, Desmond Bane stepped up and took over most of the team leading and scoring responsibilities. He proved that he is more than just a scorer and can also effectively run an offense. Bane quickly turned out to be a steal from the 2020 Draft, as he took a huge leap in his sophomore season and doubled his point average to around 19 points per game. He also shot 43 percent from three and is expected to take another leap this upcoming season as both a player and a leader for his team. Bane is only 24 years old but is one of the more experienced players on the roster and seems to be growing into his ‘veteran’ role. After the draft this year, he even invited the new rookies over to his house to answer questions and make them feel welcome.
The last of the four core pieces next to Morant, Jackson, and Bane is Dillon Brooks, who had a solid season and provided important scoring and defense. Just like his peers, Brooks seems ready to grow and improve even more. The development of those four young players will dictate the Grizzlies success in the coming years. They certainly have a bright future, but they could also be ready now.
Of course, Memphis will need more than just their core players to compete for a championship. They lost De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson in the off-season. Considering that Jackson is out, and the rookies will need some time to adjust to the league, their loss will hurt the team in the regular season but hopefully not so much once the postseason rolls around and everyone has become comfortable in their new roles.
Nevertheless, the Grizzlies still have a solid amount of supporting players next to the aforementioned group of Clarke, Williams and Tillman. One of those role players is starting center Steven Adams. Adams is one of the few veterans among the young core, but he fits in well with his teammates. Since he is a selfless player and a provider rather than a big scorer, he allows the younger players to grow and flourish around him. Adams provides solid defense, even though he struggled against Minnesota, and rebounding while leaving most of the scoring aspect to the rest of the group. He never takes away minutes or shots from the young guys, creating opportunities for them instead. Adams can, for example, set hard, solid screens and provide a way for Morant to get into the paint. His high basketball IQ and ability to act as a playmaker in the paint, make Adams crucial to the Grizzlies’ success.
Last season, he posted career highs in assists and rebounds, which makes him a vital piece of the starting lineup despite his lacking shooting ability. Just like his younger teammates, Adams seems ready to grow, though, and has been seen working on his shot this offseason. Having him as an additional shooting threat would make the entire team more even more dangerous because it would allow him to space the defense and make room for drives to the basket.
Just as important to the playoff run was backup point guard Tyus Jones, who is returning to the roster on a two-year $30 million deal. For most of the season, Jones solidly led the second unit, but also stepped-up during Morant’s injury and took over as the starting point guard. Jones averaged 12.7 points and 6.6 assists, while also putting up more than solid field goal and three-point percentages. He may not be as explosive as Morant, but he can take care of the ball and playmaking. Jones is a very calm and responsible point guard with an assist-to-turnover ratio of seven to one, which is the best in NBA history. Considering how ready he was to step in last season, it makes sense to expect Jones to get even better and take on some more scoring responsibilities.
The Grizzlies have an exciting, well-rounded young roster and are trying to develop it into a championship team rather than going out and acquiring big stars. It seems almost as if they are trying to follow the Golden State Warriors in their footsteps as a primarily home-grown dynasty.
The odds to win the upcoming championship are against Memphis. Championship teams usually feature more than one veteran star and an experienced, battle-tested supporting cast, but if anyone can change that narrative, it is the Grizzlies. They are surprisingly mature and selfless for their age, work well together, and are hungry for success. But sometimes young deep teams get inpatient. They will feel pressure to make a more immediate upgrade and escalate their timeline by packaging draft picks with some of what currently is a surplus of young prospects in exchange for that second All-Star. That’s why you’ll always hear the Grizzlies mentioned in trade rumors for players like Kevin Durant; they’ve done such an excellent job of both drafting and developing talent, even when it comes to players selected outside the lottery or even undrafted altogether, that they have enough assets to put together a legitimate offer for pretty much anyone that comes on the market. this type of move can often be a mistake, however. The depth would be somewhat diminished as will the ability to make additional moves in the future, so the fit has to be a good one and overall the team will have to maintain good health.
For now it seems the team will stand pat, develop other players in Jackson’s absence, integrate him when he returns, and see how far they get and obtain a better assessment of what they have in-house. With this core, the Grizzlies will be a playoff team and should be a title contender for years to come, but they also have the necessary ambition and talent to take over the league by storm right now. The West will be much tougher than last season with teams like the Clippers and the Nuggets getting key players back but overlooking the Grizzlies or writing off last season’s success would be a mistake. Memphis seems fearless and all set to overcome opponents despite the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr. for a big part of the season. If the rest of the team steps up, remains healthy, and plays their best basketball, the Grizzlies will be right on track to make their way through the Western Conference. They are even featured on the Christmas game schedule, which proves that they are one of the most interesting teams to watch, and the league recognizes them as one of the top teams.
The biggest challenge to overcome and the biggest threat to their success will probably be the reigning champions, but Memphis feels ready to take them on and maybe even get to the NBA Finals this time around. Even if the Grizzlies do not win it all, they will have to be taken seriously for years to come. Their best opportunity may actually be a couple years down the road after their young talent develops more and gets more experience in playoff situations, but this is a confident group of versatile talented young players who have bonded together to create a selfless and winning culture – it would be a mistake to underestimate them and how quickly they could ascend to the top.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Kenneth Lofton Jr.