Kyle Anderson – a key cog for the future Grizzlies?

The 2019-2020 Memphis Grizzlies will be bad at a lot of things — and that’s perfectly okay. Expectations are understandably low this season for such a young and inexperienced team, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth watching. Indeed, optimism abounds for both franchise and city, but there will be growing pains.

One such growing pain will be working through the apparent dearth of shooting. The best approximations of 3-and-D wings on the roster are Jae Crowder and Dillon Brooks, who have both been fairly average shooters, with Crowder only cracking 34% from three once and Brooks not getting past 38% in his 100 career games. There’s some hope for improvement here, but their track records aren’t too stellar.

Continuing down the roster, Jonas Valanciunas hasn’t shown a propensity to shoot from distance. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson, Jr. are still too young and relatively inexperienced to do real damage from deep this season, although I am optimistic at their chances in the future.  Brandon Clarke could similarly become a decent shooter, but it’s just a tad early for him to get to a high enough level of shooting competency that will force defenses to respect his shot. Bruno Caboclo has shown flashes, but he needs a bigger sample size before being declared a success. DeAnthony Melton is about as raw of an offensive player as there is in the league. Grayson Allen and Marko Guduric can theoretically shoot, but it’s doubtful they’ll be good enough on defense to pass muster. Josh Jackson might not even make it past training camp. Ditto for Ivan Rabb. Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee, well, they exist.

Enter Kyle Anderson. Surprise! He also can’t shoot. In fact, he’s pretty bad at it, going just 26.5% from three and 57.8% from the line this past season. However, to make up for this lack of shooting, Anderson’s talent in other areas is absolutely undeniable, and I am highly intrigued at how head coach Taylor Jenkins plans to both incorporate Kyle into lineups and develop him as an individual player.

No Shooting, No Problem (OK, Maybe a Small Problem)

The first thing to know about Anderson is that he is slow as all hell. Shocking, I know, but I truly think that “Slow-Mo” is one of the few players in the association that is almost known more by his nickname than his actual name. Despite his speed limitations, Kyle has found a way to weaponize his apparent slowness, and the resulting moves he can make are extremely effective against defenders who aren’t expecting them.

In this play against the Nets, the defenders beat Kyle to the spot with ease. The problem for them is that they beat Slow-Mo by too much, giving Kyle enough time to abruptly change his direction and slide by for the layup. Think of it as a baseball pitcher uncorking a change-up on an unsuspecting hitter, who inevitably will swing early and miss the ball completely. Kyle has all sorts of herky-jerky steps and little flips around the basket that he uses constantly, looking almost like a Pascal Siakam stuck in molasses (of course, Siakam is light-years ahead as a scorer, but you get the idea). Such off-kilter movements throw defenders off of their rhythm and give Kyle just enough daylight to squeeze a shot off around them. He shot about 68% from zero to three feet in 2018-19, according to Basketball Reference, and those looks should be easier to come by while playing alongside a gifted passer like Morant.

While Ja certainly will help Slow-Mo see better looks, Kyle is a fantastic passer in his own right.

These clips do a good job of showcasing the many different ways Kyle excels as a passer. The first clip simply shows his high-level court vision and general passing accuracy. The second is another example of how his slow pace can work to his advantage, as the defender jumps in the air far too early, leaving an opening for Slow-Mo to drop it off. The third clip shows how Kyle’s decisiveness on the catch can allow him to get by athletic freaks like Giannis Antetokounmpo, while the fourth gives a tantalizing glimpse of pick-and-roll plays with JJJ (more of that, please!). The final play is just a showcase of the “eyes in the back of the head” trait that all good passers have, as Kyle drops it behind the back to find the open man.

The one assist type that I could not find was one of Kyle operating as a roll man. He ranks in the 90th percentile in terms of points per possession as a roll man (for what it’s worth, he’s also in the 85th percentile for cuts). I would love to see Coach Jenkins use Kyle as a Draymond Green type, where he can catch the ball off of a short roll and carve up defenses with his sharp passing and quick decision making. For whatever lack of shooting a Morant/Anderson pick-and-roll would have, it would make up for it with sheer basketball intelligence, challenging defenders to make perfect rotations or else have their smallest mistakes exposed by a well-timed pass.

Slow-Mo has a ton of potential as an offensive initiator, and I hope that the coaching staff allows him to flex his playmaking muscle and serve as a viable offensive weapon for this year’s Grizzlies. He may fit better with the second unit in that role alongside Tyus Jones – just as well as between starters Ja, Jaren, and JV. In that starting lineup, I’m not sure if there are enough touches to go around for Anderson to really shine. Also, that lineup would have some pretty dreadful spacing (for the curious among you, there’s that little problem I mentioned in the header).

Kyle can still make things work with the starters thanks to his crafty off-ball cutting, but I would hope that the coaching staff gives him a much greater offensive responsibility this season, and the best way to do that is as a second-unit floor general alongside Tyus or Ja.

A Defensive Mastermind

Despite these offensive highlights, Anderson is more well-known for his defense, and deservedly so. In fact, I think I can sum up his defensive impact in the next sentence. Among players who played in at least as many games as Kyle, there are just four who averaged at least 1.3 steals and 0.9 blocks, as well as had a defensive rating of 107 or better: Steven Adams, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, and Kyle Anderson.

Yes, I am aware that those stats might sound a tad specific, but I think it shows that Kyle was one of the best in the league at taking the ball away (steals), contesting shots (blocks), and preventing points (defensive rating). As far as I can tell, those are three pretty important things a defense should be doing. Kyle also rates out excellently in some more advanced stats, placing 33rd in the league in defensive real plus-minus while also being no worse than the 93rd percentile in other metrics like defensive player impact plus-minus and defensive points over expectation, according to Bball Index. Here’s a link that explains some of that advanced stat word salad, once again courtesy of Bball Index; I know I sure need it to make some sense of what all those advanced calculations mean.  

So long story short, Anderson can play some defense, and to reward you for reading through all of those mindless stats, here’s a fun steal compilation:

That was way too much fun to put together, because let’s be honest, it never gets old to watch someone just get straight-up ripped. Slow-Mo’s not just doing this to a bunch of average joes either; even hall of fame ball handlers like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving can struggle to get past him.

But out of all of the clips I watched, my favorite has to be that strip on D’Angleo Russell. Kyle tracks that ball like Miyagi tracks flies, and before Russell can even put it on the deck he has it ripped.

The catalyst behind all of these steals is that Slow-Mo has incredibly quick hands that dart at the ball as soon as he sees his man getting loose with the dribble. Combine those hands with his gargantuan 7’3” wingspan, and you’ve got a recipe for picking a lot of people’s pockets.

Of course, quick hands and a long wingspan don’t matter too much if you lack the on-court savvy to use them. Kyle has that savvy in spades, as he frequently recognizes plays before they can fully develop:

Unlike the previous videos, I’d like to go into a little more detail discussing these plays and what I thought Slow-Mo might have been thinking on each of these possessions, as I think the stuff here is a little more nuanced.

The first clip just shows a textbook defensive rotation on the part of Anderson, aided by the equally smart play of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley (forever in our hearts). Once the man with the ball beats Garrett Temple off the dribble, it’s Gasol’s job to come over and cut off the drive, while Mike, as the lowest man on the weak side, drops into the paint to prevent the pass to the big man. That leaves Kyle essentially guarding two players: Mike’s man in the corner and his own on the wing. The correct play here is for Kyle to “split the difference” between the two, or drop down and settle in between them, so he has a chance to get to a pass to either player. He does this expertly, and he’s well-positioned to react to the pass and pick it off, converging with Mike to make the steal. It’s a simple, by the book type of play, but one that Anderson makes countless times.

The second clip shows how quickly Kyle can read what the offense is doing. Once Bam Adebayo gets the ball headed toward the basket, most players would come over to cut him off. However, Kyle notices that his big man is already in good position to stop the drive, and as soon as he sees Adebayo lift his head to pass to the corner, he flips his hips around at warp speed (seriously, I had to slow the video down to see just how quickly Anderson switched from helping to recovering in the corner). Aided by his momentum heading to the corner and his long reach, Kyle is able to pluck the pass out of the air before it gets to the corner. That’s some pretty fast-twitch processing, folks.

The final play shows the opportunistic aggressiveness Slow-Mo plays with. His man drops down to the dunker’s spot on the opposite block to set up a four-low isolation offense, but the spacing is poor, allowing two Grizzlies – Gasol and Temple – to cover three Rockets. Of course, Kyle notices this, and instead of following his man into the logjam, he springs an impromptu trap on James Harden, catching him completely off-guard and forcing a throw away. This is just an all-around heads-up play, and it’s sequences like this that can separate a decent defender from a great one. Kyle Anderson is a great one.

Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Anderson. His slowness can make him susceptible to the occasional blow-by, and his shot form, to put it mildly, needs some work:

Clearly that shot won’t win any three-point contests, but the hope is that the shoulder procedure that ended his season will help him. Apparently, his shooting shoulder had long caused him discomfort, so relieving some of that pressure may allow him to have a more natural and effective shot. I expect Anderson to tirelessly work on his shot once he’s fully healthy, and if he can be even an average shooter, that would be an absolute boon for the Grizzlies’ offense and spacing.

But even if Anderson is never a good shooter, he does so many things so well that he will be a valuable contributor to this team. He is a good playmaker and offensive initiator, a savvy cutter, and a premier defender in this league. Coach Jenkins has a ton of ways to deploy Kyle, from point-forward lineups where Slow-Mo is surrounded by shooting wings like Jae Crowder, Bruno Caboclo, and JJJ, to more defense-heavy squads with a five-man unit of Ja Morant, DeAnthony Melton, Anderson, Clarke, and JJJ. I’m especially excited about maybe seeing that second one; so much defensive potential to cover for Ja, and he and Kyle can serve up good offensive looks to the other three on the floor. As always, shooting would be a huge issue, but I want to see some fun lineup experimentation if the Grizzlies aren’t trying to win a bunch this year.

Yes, this year’s edition of the Memphis Grizzlies probably will be bad, especially at shooting. However, thanks in large part to players like Kyle Anderson, there is a palpable sense of excitement that permeates this team, and I for one cannot wait to watch them grow and, eventually, flourish.

— Ryan Bray

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