Grizzlies season preview: How strong is Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson duo?

With Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, both only recently 22 years old, the Memphis Grizzlies may have the best duo of young players in the NBA.

Memphis is building well around Morant, who is clearly one of the league’s top rising stars. They still have some weaknesses, like an ability for anyone else beyond Morant to crate their own offense off the bounce. But they have enough depth — and enough tenacity on defense — to at least put up a fight on both sides of the ball.

Below, check out our preview for the 2021-22 Grizzlies campaign.

Roster changes

Returning: Kyle Anderson, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson, Tyus Jones, John Konchar, Sean McDermott, De’Anthony Melton, Ja Morant, Killian Tillie and Xavier Tillman.

Additions: Steven Adams (New Orleans), Santiago Aldama (Loyola), Jarrett Culver (Minnesota), Kris Dunn (Boston), Sam Merrill (Milwaukee), Yves Pons (Tennessee), Romeo Weems (DePaul) and Ziaire Williams (Stanford)

Subtractions: Grayson Allen (Milwaukee), Gorgui Dieng (Atlanta), Tim Frazier, Jontay Porter, Jonas Valanciunas (New Orleans) and Justise Winslow (LA Clippers)

Strengths

Ja Morant, Memphis GrizzliesJa Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

* Good luck holding on to the ball against this group… No team finished with more steals per game than the Grizzlies did (9.1 spg) last year. Their defense forced a turnover on 15.2 percent of possessions when opponents played in transition offense, per Synergy, which was the most frequent in the league. De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson, Kyle Anderson, Tyus Jones, Xavier Tillman, Dillon Brooks and Steven Adams all had a steal percentage that ranked 70th percentile or better relative to their position this past season, via Cleaning the Glass.

* They will likely have their most potent offense ever… Good defense led to a strong offense for the Grizzlies. Memphis led the Western Conference in transition scoring (23.0 points per game) this past season, per Synergy. When including their games in the playoffs, according to Inpredictable, no team in the West needed less time than the Grizzlies did (11.3 seconds) to get their shot off. Ja Morant will have Memphis playing as one of the fastest teams in the league once again and it will assuredly lead to a potent offensive attack. Overall, no team in the West was able to get off more shot attempts per game than Memphis did (91.8) in 2020-21. This helped the Grizzlies score 112.0 points per 100 possessions this past season, per Basketball-Reference, which was actually their best mark since becoming a franchise in 1995. Don’t be surprised if they improve on that next year.

* Jackson could be primed for a massive leap forward… The league’s general managers were recently surveyed about a variety of topics, including predictions for the player most likely to have a breakout season in 2021-22. Memphis big Jaren Jackson Jr. received 17 percent of the possible votes, which was the highest mark of any player in the league. Jackson missed a significant amount of time last season due to a torn meniscus in his left knee but enters next season with a clean bill of health. That will help him get back on track as a floor-spacing, rim-protecting option in the frontcourt. He and Morant are one of the best young duos in the league and both played last year at just 21 years old.

* They have drafted guys who know their role… Memphis has a ton of guys on their roster who are able to contribute to a winning culture, which is a huge credit to their scouting department. So much of their talent has been grown from within the organization and the team is littered with players who embrace the team-first culture. It’s a “next-man-up” mentality across the board for the Grizzlies and that has helped guys like Clarke, Tillman and Desmond Bane enjoy success right away as pros.

Weaknesses

* They are not great at creating their own jumper… Memphis scored 11.6 points per game on jump shots off the dribble in a set offense, per Synergy, which was the lowest in the league. Meanwhile, according to Synergy, their 4.3 points per game in isolation was also the worst in the West. Damian Lillard, Julius Randle, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Doncic scored more points on isolation possession than Memphis’ entire roster managed in 2020-21. So, too, did James Harden in the 36 games he played for the Brooklyn Nets. According to PBPStats, the Grizzlies finished with the lowest overall frequency of unassisted shots from deep midrange in the NBA. There are the types of shots that win you games during clutch minutes in the playoffs.

They rely too much on floaters… As noted by SI.com’s Michael Pina, the Grizzlies are incredibly dependent on teardrops and runners. When including the playoffs, they took nearly 400 more of these attempts than any other team in the West, according to Synergy. When it comes to scoring on floaters, they are easily the most prolific on record in league history. Nathan Chester wrote a great explainer of why this type of offense is problematic. The more often the Grizzlies from short midrange, the more predictable their offense becomes. It also means they take fewer shot attempts both at the rim and beyond the arc. Those are two of the more efficient and valuable shooting zones in basketball and they will be necessary areas to score from if they are to become a serious threat.

* They may need to consolidate their talent… Much like the Atlanta Hawks in the East, the Grizzlies have a ton of players who deserve minutes. While that is great in case of injuries, like what Jackson suffered this past season, that means if the whole group is healthy there are simply going to be valuable players who are constantly squeezed out of the rotation. Even though head coach Taylor Jenkins would often play an 11-man group, that shrinks in the playoffs. They need to make sure to find enough minutes for role players like Melton while also developing younger players including rookie Ziaire Williams. It may make some sense to combine some of their assets in a trade for a bigger name.

Depth Chart

Possible moves

Kyle Anderson, Memphis GrizzliesKyle Anderson, Memphis Grizzlies

Kyle Anderson, Memphis Grizzlies

* After a breakout season led by Ja Morant, the Grizzlies didn’t get carried away by their success and remained on the path of patience in their rebuild. This Memphis front office will look to extend its perfect draft record by focusing on the development of its rookies Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama. Look for the Grizzlies to build off their play-in success from last year while also continuing to make deals that help increase their asset pool. They are $22.5 million below the luxury tax which will allow them to continue to comfortably facilitate more salary dumps for picks. They also still have a $4 million trade exception to help with that goal. Memphis’ roster is all but set but just needs to make a couple of decisions prior to the start of the season. They mainly need to get their roster down from 16 players to 15. It seems like a good bet that unless they trade someone, they’ll waive a player they received this offseason via salary dumps.

* Jaren Jackson Jr. is eligible to sign a rookie-scale extension up until October 18. After making a leap in his second season, particularly in the bubble, he struggled last year upon returning from his meniscus injury. His contract negotiations should be fascinating, especially considering that an annual salary starting at least in the $20 million range will likely cut their projected $40 million-plus cap space projection for 2022 roughly in half. Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones are also extension-eligible, but both players could be trade candidates since they’re on expiring contracts.

Salaries

Prediction

2nd in the Southwest Division, 9th in the Western Conference

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