MikeCheck: Sparked by prolific December growth spurt, Grizzlies emerging from early season growing pains

Yep, Solomon Hill dared to go there.

Having won four of their past six games in the midst of their best stretch of play this season, the Grizzlies veteran forward and resident philosopher hypothetically mentioned the ‘P’ word.

It wasn’t progress, although the Grizzlies have shown plenty in recent weeks as their young roster, first-year coaching staff and revamped basketball operations leadership have jelled.

And it wasn’t patience, although plenty is still required of a franchise in transition that is taking a methodical and deliberate approach to building and sustaining long-term success.

We believe the West is potentially wide open as far as anything under the sixth playoff seed. We’ve all got comparable-type records. Of course, we were a little behind as a new team trying to figure it out. But we’re also right there.

Solomon Hill

Hill’s ‘P’ word was far more audacious and optimistic: Playoffs.

His focus was on how the Grizzlies can continue taking meaningful, developmental steps along the path that ultimately leads there. Those steps remain vital even as the Grizzlies enter the weekend in recovery after blowing a 24-point lead in Wednesday’s road loss to Oklahoma City.

Team huddle vs Thunder
DECEMBER 18: The Memphis Grizzlies huddle up during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunderon December 18, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images.

“We spoke about everybody staying together, because it can lead us in so many good directions,” Hill said of the Grizzlies’ recent growth. “We believe the West is potentially wide open as far as anything under the sixth playoff seed. We’ve all got comparable-type records. Of course, we were a little behind as a new team trying to figure it out. But we’re also right there.”

Might Hill be a bit overly optimistic in light of his team’s 5-5 record in December? Certainly.

But is he factually off base? Hardly. The West is a bit wacky these days.

Even after the setback in Oklahoma City, the Grizzlies (10-18) will enter the weekend mathematically sitting just 2 ½ games out of the eighth spot in the West. The Thunder (13-14) and Sacramento Kings (12-15) have sub-.500 records in the seventh and eighth positions. The Thunder, Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs and the Grizzlies were all separated by only 3 ½ games in the loss column.

The Grizzlies end their two-game road trip Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers (7-21) before returning home to face the eighth-place Kings on Saturday and Spurs on Monday. Memphis then makes a return trip to OKC to play the Thunder again the day after Christmas.

Each of those teams bunched from sixth to 13th in the West is sorting through unique roster challenges. The Thunder and Blazers are adjusting in the aftermath of major offseason trades. The Kings and Suns are coping with different playing styles installed by new coaches. And the Timberwolves and Spurs have endured turbulent starts as they attempt to mesh new productive fits around veteran anchors.

Brandon Clarke dribbling
DECEMBER 18: Brandon Clarke #15 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 18, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Grizzlies, however, are essentially an outlier among that group of tightly bunched teams. They are basically dealing with all of the above – a new coaching staff and revamped front office resetting a foundation while implementing an up-tempo offense. Memphis is also one of the NBA’s youngest teams as it builds around second-year power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and rookie first-round picks Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke.

It’s a team set its immediate priorities on making incremental progress over the course of the season. Coach Taylor Jenkins and the front office frequently measure improvement less on results and more on retention and resilience shown by the Grizzlies over stretches of games. Consecutive wins recently over the Wizards and Heat were confidence-boosting steps forward. The letdown in OKC was a humbling reminder of the ebb and flow a fledgling squad endures.

Yet, the Grizzlies look up three weeks into December and find themselves 5-5 in the most productive month of their young season. Still, there’s plenty of work ahead as Memphis emerges from the league’s fourth-toughest schedule – its opponents entering the week had posted a collective .521 winning percentage – a third of the way through the NBA season.

The Grizzlies appear to be turning a corner at an opportune time, with both the roster gradually returning to full health and the schedule starting to level out. Overall, 17 of the next 22 games are against teams with below-.500 records, including each of the next four opponents.

But the Grizzlies are careful not to get too far ahead of themselves, even as Jenkins has seen “monumental growth” since his team opened the season having lost 13 of its first 18 games.

Whether it was defensive struggles, or obviously offensive struggles, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense and a lot of pressure on yourself.

Taylor Jenkins

Aside from a relapse Wednesday night, the most visible strides have come in the way Memphis has recently finished contests, particularly by mitigating droughts in the third quarter that routinely cost them games earlier this season.

Case in point: Memphis ranked last among the NBA’s 30 teams in third quarter point differential at minus-6.3 entering December. But through their first nine games of this month, the Grizzlies have flipped the script and were 10th in the league, having outscored opponents by 2.2 points in that formerly problematic period.

That turnaround has allowed the Grizzlies to remain connected down the stretch.

“There were times in that first month of the season where we would get punched in the mouth – we had a lead or it was a close game and the other team just kind of went off,” Jenkins said of the biggest area of growth he’s seen. “Whether it was defensive struggles, or obviously offensive struggles, it puts a lot of pressure on your defense and a lot of pressure on yourself.”

Ja Morant dribbling
DECEMBER 18: Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies handles the ball during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on December 18, 2019 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Photo by Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images.

Corrective measures started with constructive communication in the midst of adversity. Continuity has also helped, with the Grizzlies having won four of the past five games in which Morant and Clarke were available to play since returning from nagging injuries.

“You wouldn’t believe the kind of communication that the guys have had; it’s constant, positive, ‘You be here and I’m going to find you,’ and ‘Keep getting stops,’” Jenkins continued. “No one was overthinking it and putting their heads down, which were some of the (issues) earlier this season. But that’s all because our positive spirit just stayed true, and that’s a credit to this team. It’s what it’s been like for a solid month now. That’s what we’re building here.”

Along the way, the Grizzlies are building onto some of the facets of their game that have already been producing at high rates in the league. Memphis continues to play at the league’s fifth-fastest pace and leads the league in points in the paint at an average of 53.9 per game after scoring a season-high 74 down low at OKC.

No one was overthinking it and putting their heads down, which were some of the (issues) earlier this season. But that’s all because our positive spirit just stayed true, and that’s a credit to this team. It’s what it’s been like for a solid month now. That’s what we’re building here.

Taylor Jenkins

Another encouraging breakthrough has been the consistent balance the Grizzlies have shown on offense, with December on course to become the highest-scoring month in franchise history. Memphis is averaging 113.7 points through 10 games, which ranks eighth in the NBA for the month.

The Grizzlies are delivering in plenty of other ways in December. They rank eighth in field goal percentage (.466) and sixth in assists (26.3). On the other side of the ball, Memphis is positioned near the middle of the NBA in both defensive rating and net rating while ranked fifth in steals (9.2) and second in points off turnovers (21.1) this month.

Coming in young, we had to just learn some things, find out where everybody likes to be on the floor, where they like to score, who plays well with who. And now, we’re just one team, same goal: Go out there and compete, play together and everything will fall into place.

Ja Morant

Morant ranks fifth in the league in fourth quarter points, has posted four points-assists double-double and is averaging 18.6 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 45.7 percent from the field, including 41 percent on threes, this season.

Clarke ranks fourth in the league in effective field goal percentage among qualified players and is coming off his season and career-best effort with 27 points and seven rebounds at OKC. And Jackson, a first-team All NBA rookie pick last season, is having his most prolific offensive month ever, averaging 22 points, 3.3 made threes and 1.4 blocks in his first nine December games.

With veterans Jonas Valanciunas posting a team-high 14 double-doubles, Kyle Anderson and Jae Crowder returning from recent injuries or illnesses and Hill providing steady effort and leadership around the young core, it was only a matter of time before things started clicking.

The next step is to keep the stride going, while also learning quickly from setbacks.

Coincidentally, the Grizzlies already have victories this season over four of the seven teams directly ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.

“We’ve changed big-time,” Morant said of the growing Grizzlies. “Coming in young, we had to just learn some things, find out where everybody likes to be on the floor, where they like to score, who plays well with who. And now, we’re just one team, same goal: Go out there and compete, play together and everything will fall into place.”

The franchise’s stated goal and direction from the outset wasn’t set on making a playoff push this season. It’s simply to make encouraging progress in this intriguing development process.

And that hasn’t changed.

No matter where they end up in the West, these Next Gen Grizz have hit a December growth spurt as they balance some early growing pains.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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