When reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant suffered a left ankle sprain in late December, the Memphis Grizzlies were in a perilous position. Morant’s injury came (very) early in the season, leaving the team with time to recover. However, many saw the Grizzlies as merely a fringe playoff contender and, with a potential three-to-five week absence for the team’s best player in conjunction with ongoing injuries for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow, the margin for error was slim for Taylor Jenkins’ team.
Almost on cue, the Grizzlies lost four of the next five games, falling to 2-6, and skepticism reigned on a national scale. Even in a season that is producing highly volatile results for myriad reasons, Memphis faced a substantial uphill battle, particularly with Morant not yet back on the court. Then, the pieces started falling into place for the Grizzlies, beginning with an unexpected home win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, Jan. 8. That victory did come over a short-handed version of the Nets, led by Caris LeVert, but Memphis did what they needed to do in order to emerge victorious and, almost two weeks later, the Grizzlies haven’t lost since.
Memphis picked up their fifth consecutive win on MLK Day, outlasting the Phoenix Suns in a nationally televised contest. That performance was indicative the Grizzlies’ recent success, with seven players scoring in double figures and an eighth player (Gorgui Dieng) adding an efficient eight points in just 15 minutes. Granted, the return of Morant, who has played the last two games, was enormous for Memphis, but the Grizzlies played without arguably their second-best player in Jonas Valanciunas on Monday, and they were able to win anyway.
Of course, Morant is still a significant catalyst for the Grizzlies, and much of this early-season period was simply about weathering the storm until he returned. Memphis managed to post a 4-4 record in his absence, which was huge even in a small sample, and Morant is averaging 22.6 points and seven assists per game, all while shooting 53 percent from the floor at the lead guard position. It is undeniable the way Morant sets the tone for this Memphis team, something on display to close out Monday’s win over Phoenix over a rather sensational three play stretch.
Elsewhere, the theme has been quality depth, with 12 players already taking the floor for at least 100 minutes this season. The team’s second-leading scorer, Dillon Brooks, has actually struggled to the tune of 37 percent shooting in 2020-21 and, as noted previously, Valanciunas missed Monday’s game and he is in the NBA’s health and safety protocol for an unspecified time period.
From there, however, Memphis is coaxing high-level play from its supporting cast. Brandon Clarke is averaging 13.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, finding his efficiency offensively during the team’s five-game winning streak. Kyle Anderson served as the team’s de facto backup point guard in Morant’s absence and, using his length and overall acumen, Anderson’s defensive impact has been substantial for the Grizzlies. Grayson Allen brings badly needed floor spacing, both in shooting 36 percent from three-point range and simply having to be guarded by the opposition. It was also beneficial for the team to have a steady hand in Tyus Jones at the point guard spot, with the veteran bringing stability even as he battles with shooting efficiency issues in the early going.
Perhaps the biggest infusion for the Grizzlies arrives from the team’s rookie class. It has long been a running joke that Memphis operates with “Draft Twitter” in mind, targeting several darlings of the analytical and scouting communities in recent years. That was certainly the case in 2020 with the selections of Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman and, right on time, both are contributing at a lofty level in their first professional seasons.
Bane, an older college wing from TCU, came out of the gate as a solid defender, and he is connecting on a robust 48.9 percent of his three-point attempts. While that figure is unsustainable for almost anyone, Bane was billed as a potential high-level shooter, and the Grizzlies are in dire need of additional floor spacing to give Morant, Valanciunas and company more room to operate.
Bane’s fellow rookie, former Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman, stepped in for Valanciunas as the starting center on Monday and didn’t miss a beat. Tillman is well-known for his defensive acumen and physicality, both of which are translating immediately, and he is shooting 56 percent from the floor while bringing an additional threat as a short-roll passing fulcrum.
When all is said and done, the Grizzlies will need a great deal from Morant in order to reach their goals, and it could be said that they were fortunate to avoid disaster during his multi-week absence. Still, he is now back with no signs of slowing down and, eventually, Memphis should benefit from the return of Jackson Jr. and Winslow. With the injection of talent and NBA readiness from players like Bane and Tillman, Memphis might be more dangerous than previous thought and, in a season that some speculated could tumble into darkness when Morant went down, the Grizzlies suddenly appear to be in solid position as the calendar shifts to late January.