There’s no doubt that Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies were ahead of their respective timelines last season.
The young guns made the 2021 NBA Playoffs as the eighth seed, and though they lost to the Utah Jazz in five games, the Grizzlies pulled out all the stops to ensure that it wasn’t a cakewalk for the top-seeded Jazz.
Advancing to the playoffs via the play-in round was a feat in itself considering how competitive it is in the Western Conference, but that’s why they can’t be complacent this coming campaign. The top teams in the west have reloaded, and it’s not going to be easy to make the playoffs.
The 2021-2022 NBA Season presents a fork in the road for Memphis. Building on their trip to the postseason last year is a must, but circumstances are different now, especially with what the rest of the NBA saw last season.
Finishing with a 38-34 regular-season record in 2020-2021, the Grizzlies survived two play-in games against the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors to advance to the first round. Their five-game series against Utah showcased Morant’s talent and the solid contributions of Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, and rookie Xavier Tillman. While he did return later in 2021, Jaren Jackson Jr. sat out most of last season as he recovered from surgery to repair a torn meniscus on his left knee.
This offseason has brought about some changes. Gone are the likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Grayson Allen, and Justise Winslow and in are Steven Adams, Kris Dunn, Jarrett Culver, and Sam Merrill. Rookies Ziaire Williams, Santi Aldama, Shaq Buchanan, and Yves Pons certainly add youth to the already youthful mix, as Memphis is one of a handful of rosters that can boast a young core. Aside from Morant, Jackson Jr., Brooks, Clarke, Tillman, and Desmond Bane, the oldest players on their roster are Adams and Kyle Anderson, both of whom turned 28 earlier this year. The Grizzlies are tied for the second youngest team in the league, along with the Minnesota Timberwolves, with an average play age of 23.9.
There won’t be any drastic changes as to how the Grizzlies will run their offense. It will clearly run through Morant, who averaged 19.1 points and 7.4 assists last season. He has shown an ability to take over games despite a lack of consistent shooting, thanks to his ability to score with fearless drives and nifty layups. At 22-years-old, the stage was never too big for the South Carolina native, who has made large strides in his career and brought his squad along the way with him.
A year of seasoning can do a lot and Memphis’ young holdovers certainly showed that during the 2021 NBA Summer League. Despite playing in only two games, Bane averaged 24.0 points on .484/.692/.750 shooting splits, showing an expanded offensive repertoire that bodes well for this season. Tillman and Killian Tillie also played in two games, with both players averaging 14.5 points in those contests. However, it is the non-scoring contributions of Tillman (6.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.5 blocks) that will make him one of the intriguing players to look out for next season. His ability to do a little bit of everything brings to mind fellow Michigan State Spartan Draymond Green, and if Tillman can fulfill that role this season even if in spurts, that could go a long way for the Grizzlies especially when they need to go small.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas to improve on. Memphis needs to continue to work on their shooting, which despite seeing some slight improvements from the past two seasons (.356 in 2020-2021 from .347 in 2019-2020) needs to be more consistent. Morant clearly draws a chunk of the defense, but his presumably open teammates must make sure to convert on the open chances he creates. Last season, they were also 27th in the league in opponent’s free throw percentage (.788) and since they were ninth in the league in fouls (18.7 per game), their opponents were able to capitalize on opportunities at the free throw line. It may not mean so much on a macro scale to some, but these things can spell the difference between winning and losing close games. In turn, those close games will determine their chances between making the playoffs or having an early offseason.
Injuries can also be a concern, especially considering that Jackson Jr. has never played more than 58 games in his career. Morant for his part has never played more than 67 games, with the 2019-2020 regular season cut short thus limiting him to that number. The 2019-2020 Rookie of the Year has so far avoided major injuries (apart from an ankle sprain that made him wear high-top Kobes for a time) but some quarters have pleaded with him to adjust his one-foot landing style, which forces all his weight on one leg – a dangerous proposition for an explosive player with a wiry frame.
“Grit & Grind” was what defined the Memphis Grizzlies for much of the 2010s and while Dillon Brooks is already the longest-tenured player on the squad, much of this roster still has that “Grit & Grind” spirit, but with a modern twist. Making the playoffs will take much more now than last season since the rest of the league has reloaded and taken notice of this young squad, but that’s not going to bother them.
They still need a bit of development, and the emergence of a true second star, before they can make the leap to a serious contender, but there’s no doubting this team has talent. They’ve had a taste of the playoffs, they’ll just need to show that it wasn’t a flash in the pan. If they continue on their upward path, the Grizzlies are going to become a fearsome opponent in the west for the foreseeable future, especially as the current crop of elite teams age while Morant and crew enter their primes in the coming years.