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How the Grizzlies are playing their best ball without Ja Morant

The Grizzlies are grinding more than ever without Ja Morant.

Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies would never acknowledge it publicly, but there had to be a moment of panic their season was about to slip away when Ja Morant fell to the floor holding his leg on Nov. 26 against the Atlanta Hawks. Morant had suffered the sort of non-contact injury that far too often ends seasons and alters the trajectory of a career in the blink of an eye. As their star point guard was carried to the locker room, everything else that had been ailing the Grizzlies to that point reared its head.

Jaren Jackson Jr. battled foul trouble. Dillion Brooks was taking a lot of shots and not making many of them. Memphis’ defense — which was far and away the worst in the NBA at that moment — surrendered 132 points to Atlanta. The Grizzlies fell to 9-10 with the loss, and it seemed like it could get so much worse from there as they hung on Morant’s status.

Fast forward nine games later, and Memphis is the hottest team in the NBA. Morant is still out, but he avoided a serious injury and should be back before long. In his absence, Memphis has won eight of its last nine games, something no other team in the NBA can say right now. Memphis has out-scored their opponents by 176 points over that stretch.

The Grizzlies were never supposed to be this good even if they were fully healthy. When Memphis traded Jonas Valančiūnas for a bundle of less team-friendly contracts and the opportunity to move up seven spots in the 2021 draft order, the Griz were seemingly ready to take a step back in the present so they could take a bigger step forward in the future. It made sense: Morant had just turned 22 years old, Jackson Jr. didn’t look ready for primetime yet, and the path to a deep playoff run in the West appeared as treacherous as ever.

Maybe the basketball-obsessed public always underestimated the Grizzlies’ collection of talent this season. Maybe it took Morant’s injury for everyone to find a new level of confidence and production. Either way, the Grizzlies’ inspired winning streak without Morant is the most captivating story in the league right now this side of the unstoppable Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is how Memphis has done it.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is finally delivering on his star potential

Don’t let the word finally do too much lifting in that subhead. Jackson is still very young — only 22 years old in his fourth season. He has been a good NBA player to this point, but Memphis gave him a $105 million extension to be something more. It’s all starting to happen.

It was easy to see Jackson’s star potential back in the 2018 NBA Draft. He was a big man with a 7’4 wingspan, impressive shot blocking instincts, rare three-point shooting ability, and flashes of alluring ball handling ability. While Jackson had all the makings of a super enticing futuristic big man, it was the classic responsibilities of a front court player that were harder to grasp. For his first two seasons in the league, Jackson fouled too much, didn’t rebound enough, and often needed a more traditional center next to him to hold down the paint. Then he missed almost all of his third season with a torn meniscus.

Now looking healthy in Year 4, Jackson is beginning to put all of his special talents together. In eight games without Morant (he was out for one) during the streak, JJJ is taking 6.5 threes per game and knocking them out at a 38.5 percent clip. The Griz will run him off screens like a wing, and he’s shown an impressive ability to shoot off movement.

Jackson’s outside shooting ability is the first on his offensive scouting report. Opposing defenses close out on him harder than other bigs, which opens up his ability to attack off the dribble.

Those ball handling flashes we saw in college are continuing to evolve. Run too hard at JJJ and he’s liable to put it on the deck and blow by you for a big play.

Jackson’s ability to attack off the dribble is the type of special skill that makes you think he still might hit superstar status one day. He’s also showing a little more willingness to initiate and play through contact in the paint.

This was a grown man’s move on Anthony Davis.

All the while, Jackson has been really good defensively. Memphis’ defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass, and he’s blocking more shots than ever before. JJJ ranks top-five in the league in block rate at 6.5 percent. He’s playing more five when it matters, but his skill set is still diverse enough at both ends to let him play next to another big, too.

Watch him navigate the screen in the pick-and-roll here and still come away with the block.

The secret to his success? He’s a ‘huge water guy.’

Be like Jaren Jackson Jr. Drink more water.

Desmond Bane is becoming so much more than a shooter

Bane was widely identified as a potential sleeper coming into the 2020 NBA Draft, but the league still slept on him after a four-year career at TCU. When he was still on the board at No. 30, the Grizzlies swung a deal to land him with the last pick in the first round. Now midway through his second year, Bane is legitimately looking like one of the best players in his class.

Bane was appealing as a prospect for his projection as an off-ball 3-and-D guard. He was pretty good in that role right away as a rookie for the Griz, hitting 43 percent of his triples and showing quality point-of-attack skills defensively. In his second season, Bane is expanding his game even more and should garner serious consideration for Most Improved Player.

Bane’s usage has gone up from 16.1 percent to 22.3 percent this year. Memphis is letting him attack off the dribble more often, and it’s paying off. Watch him dust LeBron here.

This type of halfcourt shot creation is a continuation of the development Bane showed at his final year at TCU. He’s still fleshing out his pull-up game and is starting to score from all three levels.

How many No. 30 overall picks can get to their spots in the midrange and drain a shot? It’s a tougher skill than you think.

Bane can of course still shoot the three ball, too. He’s hitting 40 percent on 6.5 attempts per game from deep. There’s even been some encouraging passing flashes, particularly with making the skip pass to the corner.

The Grizzlies are committed to building their roster through the draft, and Bane looks like a home run right now.

Dillon Brooks has given the Grizzlies the fire they need

It’s hard to write about Dillon Brooks without falling into cliches. There’s plenty of tangible skills Brooks brings to the table as a 6’7 wing who defends, shoots with volume from three, and can get a bucket in a pinch late in the shot clock. More than anything, Brooks is the Grizzlies’ emotional leader and a fiery on-court presence who brings back some of the best qualities of the franchise’s Grit-n-Grind era from the recent past.

Brooks’ best skill might be his elite confidence in himself. This man has never met a problem he didn’t think he could solve.

Brooks has been a huge factor in improving the defense too since he made his season debut and return from injury on Nov. 10. He may not be the most efficient scorer in the league or a player with a trendy skill set, but Brooks’ intensity and complete package of size and skill has been a much needed shot in the arm for Memphis after a lifeless start.

When his threes are falling, the Griz look awesome.

This is also the part of the article where we credit Taylor Jenkins for quietly becoming one of the best young coaches in the league. That screen-the-screener pick-and-pop is so beautiful to watch in real time, isn’t it?

Memphis’ depth is stepping up

One of the first thing that jumps out watching the Grizzlies on this stretch is just how many competent players they have. Everyone in Memphis’ rotation can make positive contributions, and that rotation is as deep as any team in the league.

Former Gonzaga standout Killian Tillie is finally healthy and showing his diverse skill set. Tillie can hit threes, attack some closeouts as a passer or scorer, and has active hands defensively. He’s still on a two-way deal with Memphis but the 6’9 French forward is looking like a keeper during this stretch.

John Konchar, the pride of West Chicago, is growing into an ace role player, as well. Konchar has always packed box scores dating back to his college days at Fort Wayne, and he’s been putting his well-rounded skill set on display during this stretch.

Konchar just always seems to be making winning plays. He’s a menace defensively who can kickstart a transition opportunity with a rebound or steal. He’s been draining his spot-up threes. And he’s also a smart cutter who seems to see every crease in an opposing defense.

Xavier Tillman Sr. was another draft sleeper darling who the Grizzlies traded up for in the second round. Tillman became a per-minute monster at Michigan State by doing all of the little things that help a team win, and he’s bringing the same energy and hustle to Memphis.

Tillman is stretching the floor, making at least one or two crisp passes per game, and also providing stout defense in the paint. Oh yeah, he did this too.

Tyus Jones has also been at point guard filling in for Morant. Jones had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league each of the last three years, and he’s doing it again with 119 assists to 21 turnovers so far this season. The big improvement in his game this season has been his three-point shooting, hitting 40 percent of his first 65 attempts this season.

Ever since his star turn at Duke in the Final Four, Jones has always seemed destined to be an elite backup point guard. Now it’s happening.

Throw in De’Anthony Melton (who deserves more than a quick mention, but this article is long enough as it is), Jarrett Culver, and Santi Aldama in there, too. The Griz have a lot of guys who can play. That’s a hell of a way to make up for losing a star.

Memphis’ defense went from worst to first

The day after Morant went down, the Grizzlies were No. 30 in the league in defensive rating. Not only were they dead last, they were dead last by a mile.

The biggest issue with Memphis’ defense was that opponents were draining threes against them. Though the game when Morant was injured, teams hit 40.8 percent of their threes against the Griz, the highest clip in the league. Since Morant went down, teams are shooting 29.8 percent from three, which is the lowest clip in the league.

You’ll never believe it, but Memphis’ defense has improved as their opponents have finally started missing. What was the worst defense in the league pre-Morant injury is now the best defense in the league post-Morant injury.

Morant is probably still a negative defensively at this point, but this defensive improvement is more about averages regressing to the mean than a sure sign of his activity level. That said, the depth pieces on the Grizzlies have done a great job closing out on shooters and making crispier rotations without their star guard.

The Grizzlies won’t go quietly in the West

A year ago, the Grizzlies qualified for the playoffs by upsetting the Golden State Warriors in the inaugural play-in tournament. Most expected Memphis to be a play-in team again this year with little chance of upside beyond that. It looks like everyone was wrong.

Morant will be back and was playing at an All-NBA level. Jackson has leveled up into a legitimate co-star, and the uniqueness of his skill set makes him an extremely tough cover in a series. Bane has evolved as an offensive player, and looks like a stellar secondary creator at this point. You can count on Brooks to be at the center of everything. The Grizzlies also have a great coach in Jenkins and tons of depth.

This stretch without Morant has been incredible — headlined by a 73-point win over the Thunder and stretch where the team didn’t trail for a second in five straight games.

This franchise has always been at its most comfortable when it’s grinding out wins. With their cornerstone sidelined, Memphis is falling back on doing the little things to win. It’s having a huge impact.