Memphis Grizzlies First Half Player Grades

The All-Star break has come and gone, so now it’s time to assess how things have gone for the Grizzlies and assign player grades for the first half of the wonky 2020-2021 season.

Ja Morant – B

Right out of the gate, we need to recognize that Ja Morant is already really, really good. The second is that we need to realize that he still has a long way to go in several key areas that could set the ceiling on his likely All-Star career.

When Morant has the ball in his hands, he’s a magician. He can take the ball to the rack and get past almost any defender. His ability to create shots for his teammates is uncanny. The entire Grizzlies offense revolves around Morant, and likely will long into the future. The Grizzlies are a an elite offensive team with Ja on the court. He makes them 8.6 points better per 100 possessions per cleaning the glass. Memphis’ shot quality increases drasticaly because all of the defensive eyes are on Ja when he is in the game. Without a shadow of a doubt, Morant makes the Grizzlies a better offensive team.

The crazy thing is, even though he leads the team in scoring, he is doing it in a super inefficient manner. This means that once Morant can find a way to hit more than 23% of his three pointers, Memphis could be scary good on offense.

Before we move to the defensive side of the ball, just know that things are about to get ugly. With Morant on the court, the Grizzlies allow 8.4 more points per 100 possessions. Those are basement dwelling numbers. Memphis has some truly impressive wing defenders that help make up for Morant’s shortcomings on that side of the ball and help them have the 8th best defense in the NBA.

I’m still out there hunting eBay on a daily basis looking for Morant rookie cards, so hopefully if you own one, you see these last few paragraphs and post one for the cheap. I wouldn’t call that a savvy business move, but I sure would appreciate it.

Dillon Brooks – B

Maybe I’m too much of a fan of Dillon’s gunslinging, irrational confidence that I can’t fairly grade him. I admit this. I’m blinded by the hope that he can develop into the consistent 3-and-D guy that we’ve seen spurts of over the course of his career – the second round success story that John Hollinger promotes whenever he gets a chance.

Dillon Brooks is second on the Grizzlies in points per game at 15.9 and leads the team in total minutes played through the All-Star break. He has shown spurts of being elite on the defensive side of the ball. Brooks ranks in the 89th percentile among wings in steal percentage. Per bball-index, Brooks provides strong defensive versatility to the Grizzlies and has excellent steal and deflection rates on the perimeter. He is a strong bodied guy who is starting to make a name for himself by earning the respect of All-Stars due to his accomplishments on that end of the floor

Scoring….more like shooting. As much as we want DB to be that knock down shooter from deep, he has yet to prove that he is capable of that. He’s average on corner threes and far beneath that on all other three point attempts. Brooks is scoring his 15 points on 15 shots per game and only has an eFG% of 45%. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, however, with the fact that he has been called upon to carry this team offensively on occasion due to the significant injury issues that the Grizzlies have dealt with this year.

Brooks as a primary scorer, not good for your team.

If he can be the third or fourth offensive option, then things start to look up more. The true “litness test” (get it?) will be how Dillon settles in once Jaren Jackson Jr. returns to the lineup.

Kyle Anderson – A

I don’t know how you feel, but for me, Kyle Anderson is my first half MVP for Memphis. This man is averaging less than five shots per game for his career, but this season is taking over ten attempts per contest. This includes quadrupling his average attempts from three. Oh, and he’s also hitting five percentage points better on those shots compared to his career average.

According to the bball-index openness rating, Kyle is in the 41st percentile among all players – meaning that he is taking and hitting contested perimeter shots.

This Kyle Anderson offensive resurgence has been as refreshing as it was unexpected. Did I mention that he is also creating opportunities for his teammates as well? This season, Kyle has played more of the 4, which has created a number of mismatches for him. These allow him to draw in more defenders and create additional scoring opportunities for his team.

The man they call Slo-Mo is one of the best playmakers in the league.

Go figure.

Jonas Valanciunas – B

My guy Jonas, who I wrote about earlier in the year, is currently a staple of the Grizzlies’ offense. On the defensive end, he doesn’t scare away too many guys from the rim, and he sure as hell can’t keep up with anyone on the perimeter. Jonas isn’t scoring the ball as efficiently as he normally does, but is still contributing over 15 points on nearly 12 shots per game.

The biggest impact that JV has had on the game this season is his screening for Ja. With Jonas’ massive body setting the ball screens, Morant has an unobstructed path to the rim, where he is shooting 8% better when playing with JV. Valanciunas is in the 93rd percentile in screen assists in the NBA. Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty deep dive and nerdy stat. However, it is one that’s relevant in the story of JV and it needed to be pointed out.

Valanciunas has continued to be an elite rebounder on this Grizzlies team and is one of the top board-getters among all bigs in the league on both sides of the ball.

It pains me that JV is so bad at rim protection. Bball-index has him in the 54th percentile among all players in Rim Deterrence – not ideal for your starting center, especially in a league where so many centers are rim runners and rim protectors.

Jonas is an old-school guy but he has performed up to my expectations for him so far this season.

Brandon Clarke – C

So far this season, BC has not made any leaps from his freshman season. He has honestly digressed a bit too. He’s playing four more minutes per game but has essentially the same counting stats as his rookie campaign, but on much worse shooting. Instead of the 61/35/75 split that he earned last year, he is currently sitting at 51/32/66. These are honestly not super terrible numbers, but clearly are a far cry from what everyone hoped for following such an optimistic rookie year.

He still is an exciting young (ish) player, but he hasn’t been a game-changing insert into the lineup for most games. Clarke even got the opportunity to start 16 games in the first half of the season, but on many occasions his shortcomings were highlighted instead of his abilities.

One positive note on Clarke is that he has been good on defense. He is versatile and much more mobile that Valanciunas, so this has allowed him to muck up things on the perimeter against opponents’ pick and rolls.

Grayson Allen – A

The third year guard out of Duke has really had a good season for the Grizzlies. He doesn’t require a lot of attention on the offensive end and has a pretty low usage rate. He has been a quiet sniper for Memphis this season and is taking the vast majority of his shots from beyond the arc. Eighty-two percentage of his three point attempts are of the catch-and-shoot variety and the majority of them are above the break.

Allen is a staple in the best lineup that Memphis has been able to put on the floor this season. The lineup of Morant/Brooks/Allen/Anderson/Valanciunas is +15 points per 100 possessions against opponents in 114 minutes played. Grayson has proved himself a valuable contributor on offense for the Grizzlies this season. In addition, he has also been a pesky defender on the wings who has forced a lot of turnovers.

I’m grading Allen as an A because I honestly didn’t know if he would ever become the knockdown shooter that Memphis sought when acquiring him, but he has become that and even a little bit more.

Desmond Bane – A

The darling of Draft Twitter has not disappointed. Memphis blog boys were calling for Bane to start even before he arrived in the Bluff City. Chill out you guys. It’ll all work out in time.

In addition to having a badass name and being built like a tank, Bane provides additional shooting options for Memphis on the wings. How many times over the past twenty years have you been able to say that about the Grizzlies? The more minutes that Bane gets, the better he will be. He’s shooting north of 44% from three and this helps the Grizzlies in many ways.

Bane has a low usage rate but is a highly efficient scorer. Every time that he touches the ball, I expect the shot to go in. It’s a far cry from the days when Marc Gasol was the best three point option for Memphis.

Though his ball-handling and lane penetration abilities are still being developed, Bane has shown glimpses of impressive passing that make you do a quick double-take. With the hustle he gives night in and night out, he is destined to be a solid defender based purely on his strength and desire.

Keep pressing on, young man.

Tyus Jones – B

With Ja Morant missing a significant portion of the first half of the season, the Grizzlies called on their backup point guard to go above and beyond. Some days, Tyus was able to answer the call, and conversely on other days he fell short. There was no chance that Tyus would consistently replace Ja’s scoring production – he is 11th on the Grizzlies in points per 36 minutes despite logging the 7th most minutes on the team – but he did his part in creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.

Per, Jones is elite in nearly every playmaking category.

He consistently controls the ball and doesn’t give the rock away to opponents, which helps provide additional offensive opportunities.

Though Jones still doled out more assists to Brandon Clarke than any other teammate in the first half of the season, we all missed the additional alley-oops that we would have seen had those two logged more minutes together.

Jones has continued to be a pesky defender on the perimeter and ranks in the upper echelon in steal percentage and deflections. Sometimes he is slow to recover and fails to contest perimeter shots, but that is something the Grizzlies as a whole have struggled with this season. Opponents shoot over 37% from beyond the arc against Memphis.

When I mentioned earlier that Jones has struggled to score, I specifically need to point out that he has been atrocious from three point land. He’s hitting less than 30% of his shots from deep. Last season, Jones converted on a shiny 37% of threes, so hopefully he can find his stroke in the second half of the season. Another ailment for him is that he’s not converting at the rack either, where he is in the 20th percentile for guards. 

With Tyus, you have a backup PG who is going to give you consistent minutes off the bench and also can handle himself cordially in spot starting assignments. He’s not going to break any records, but he is going to take care of the ball and efficiently facilitate the ball to his teammates – and this is exactly what he has done so far this season.

De’Anthony Melton – A

Mr. Do Something is now Mr. Can-Do-A-Lot-of-Everything. Melton has developed a sweet stroke from three. He used to be a sub-30 percent shooter from range but this season is over 42% on nearly four attempts per game. This is exciting stuff and a bonus addition to the already strong game of Melton.

This dude is a monster on the perimeter defender. He has elite numbers in steals and deflections and mucks up opponents’ actions constantly. With Morant out and the point-guard-by-committee scheme forced upon the Grizzlies, Melton has had to handle the ball a little more than he did last season for Memphis. This is not his strength, and Memphis struggled some in these situations, but they are still a net positive with Melton at point.

Most of the guys that I graded out as A’s are wing players who are fighting for playing time. It is both a blessing and a curse that Taylor Jenkins has so many resources at his disposal. With the wild schedule that Memphis will face on the back half, I would expect to see guys taking nights off. This will allow the full complement of talented wings to get substantial run. 

Xavier Tillman – B

Tillman does a great job at being Jaren Jackson Jr.’s best friend. JK, you guys. Tillman also looks like a fun, versatile big who stepped up during JV’s quarantine break and started seven games. The former Big Ten DPOY of the year showed that his skills on D will translate to the NBA. Despite being an undersized big man at 6’8”, Tillman has great instincts and uses them to contest shots at the rim. He also has proven that he has some chops on the perimeter on defense and overall I am really encouraged by his play on that side of the ball.

On offense, Tillman has had a hard time converting on bunnies and has not been able to score consistently at the rim. He has had a little better success in the mid-range, but anything beyond that was a no-go.

Gorgui Dieng – B

I think we all know that Gorgui is going to be moved before the trade deadline, but it was cool there for a minute when he led the league in 3P%. Adding him to the roster was a savvy move and hopefully he can be sent to a contender who needs the presence of a stretch big.

Justise Winslow – I

I won’t bestow a grade upon Winslow just because he hasn’t played much. However, after he dusted off the cobwebs a few games after his return, he showed just how nasty he can be. He went from shooting 3 of 14 in his first game to 8 of 12 a week later. Winslow is likely the most versatile lock down defender on this roster – and this roster includes guys like Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and De’Anthony Melton.

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