#IMHO: A look at the Grizzlies’ guards

Grind City Media’s Lang Whitaker and Michael Wallace have been covering the NBA since shorts were short and socks were long, but their opinions about the League don’t always mesh. #IMHO is their weekly chance to weigh in on the most pertinent news from around the NBA. What’s lit? What’s lame? Find out each week right here.

 

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 at 11:40 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: IMHO

Mike,

Each week I sit down to send you an email, checking in on what’s happening here and there around the NBA.

But this week, nothing is happening, not only in the NBA, but in the entire wide world of sports. As we all come together and stay apart and try to ride out this horrific COVID-19 virus, this seems like a good chance to take a few weeks and look back at the first two-thirds of the Grizzlies season, and the way the Grizzlies roster has shaped up.

Let’s start in the backcourt, and any Grizzlies conversation that begins in the backcourt must begin with Ja Morant, who has been a sparkplug for the Grizzlies all season long. I’m not sure what the league-wide expectations were for Ja this season, but he’s been remarkable, scoring and passing and turning in exciting plays game after game after game.

Ja’s been incredible, and for a team to trade away a franchise point guard and hand the reins to a rookie, it’s been a remarkable transition. The Grizzlies are clearly set at the starting point guard spot for the foreseeable future, right?

 


From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Tuesday, March 17, 2020 at 2:43 PM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

Simply put, Lang: Ja has been a tremendous joy this season. Almost singlehandedly, he’s fast-tracked the development and expectations of this team, franchise and fanbase in ways few could have ever imagined. He’s done it with his superstar talent, his infectious personality, his swagger and confidence, his love and loyalty for those who have followed his journey from the start. And it’s all played out right in front of us this season.

Ja will never admit it in public, but he desperately wants this Rookie of the Year honor he was certainly on track to get before the NBA’s season was suspended. More than anything, it’s a legacy award for him – perhaps something his young sister and infant daughter can cherish for the rest of their lives. Ja will be the first to tell you that this is all bigger than Ja. It’s a family affair, which is another reason why the electrifying point guard has settled in so smoothly at this level. He’s got his closest family members right alongside him for this NBA ride in Memphis.

All that said, the Grizzlies got lucky in the lottery to land Ja, but the front-office was prudent and strategic in its decision to prioritize Tyus Jones as the backup at point guard. Between Ja and Tyus, it’s hard to find a better and more efficient 1-2 punch at PG in the NBA. The Grizzlies invested both their lottery pick and basically their entire mid-level exception on the point guard position, and it is proving to be money well spent – both for now and into the future.

Lang, what have you seen from Tyus’ approach recently that’s allowed him to shake out of the early-season slump he endured?

 

Ja Morant Rookie of the Month

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Thursday, March 19, 2020 at 12:39 PM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

One last thing about Ja that I think is important to underscore: Ja has made basketball fun again. These days there are so many stats and analytics and the game has become almost scientific, which means the Fun Police are often out and about, ready to bring their fancy numbers down on anyone who doesn’t play the game “the right way.” But Ja not only plays a fundamentally sound style of play, he makes basketball fun to watch. And I don’t think that’s something you can teach.

As for Tyus, I never really paid him much attention when he was in Minnesota, because he doesn’t really play a style of basketball that demands attention—he’s steady, he’s efficient, he makes the right passes, he takes open shots, he takes care of the ball. Which makes him perfectly suited to be a backup point guard in the NBA. He doesn’t mess up, not often, which is really all you can ask of your point guard.

You mentioned that early season slump from Tyus, and to me where he’s really found his stride the last few weeks has been with being aggressive on offense. He’s knocking down his open threes, which is making defenders close out on him, which is giving him open lanes to the basket to hit floaters, which have also started dropping. He’s a nice guy to be around in the locker room, and he seems to have finally solidified that back-up point guard position that has dogged the Grizzlies for what seems like ages.

Of course, the other point guard on the roster is De’Anthony Melton, who has actually been starting at shooting guard of late. That demonstrates his versatility and ability to contribute in a variety of ways—there’s a reason he’s earned the nickname “Mr. Do-Something.” But with that versatility some questions remain, at least to me. Mike, where do you see Melton fitting long-term within Taylor Jenkins’ system?

 

Tyus Jones dribbling

From: Michael Wallace

Sent: Friday, March 20, 2020 at 9:06 PM

To: Lang Whitaker

Subject: Re: IMHO

I believe Melton has played his way into becoming a keeper, if he’s willing to take a team-friendly deal. That likely means a portion of the Grizzlies midlevel exception on what would likely be a two, or three-year deal. Melton is an ideal momentum changer on that second unit.

Ultimately, he’s your third-string point guard or shooting guard, with his versatility only adding to his value. At some point, this might have to be an either-or scenario with Melton and Grayson Allen, who was unfortunately lost for the season to a hip injury. But if Grayson is healthy for next season and Melton is re-signed, the Grizzlies would have some very encouraging depth at the combo guard spots. That might also turn out to be a luxury the Grizzlies must decide if they’re willing to afford.

Lang, we’ll get out of here on this: Give me your quintessential Ja Morant moment from the season. You only get one. I know it’s tough, because he’s been a highlight gift that keeps on giving. Mine would be the game-winning, driving layup to beat the Hornets in Charlotte early in the season. Just to see an entire section of Morant relatives and friends go absolutely wild – and to see Ja’s dad, Tee Morant, run up and down the sidelines on the floor in celebration – is a scene I’ll never forget from his rookie season.

 

Grayson Allen and De'Anthony Melton

From: Lang Whitaker

Date: Monday, March 23, 2020 at 10:11 AM

To: Michael Wallace

Subject: Re: IMHO

That was definitely a memorable evening — I was watching from home and jumped off the couch when Ja got the bucket to win it.

For me, two moments come to mind. One was when Ja flushed on Aron Baynes in Phoenix. That was the night the cable went out in Memphis, so I was trying to watch the game on my phone using cell service. Unfortunately, everyone else in Memphis had the same idea, and there wasn’t enough data to go around. I was able to get Twitter to refresh every ten minutes or so, so I was mostly keeping up with the game through my timeline.

And then my timeline went crazy when Ja dunked on Baynes, but I couldn’t get the video to load to actually see the dunk for about fifteen minutes, which was the most disappointing fifteen minutes of my life.

The other night I’ll never forget was back in November, on the night Mike Conley made his first return to Memphis. ESPN came to town, and while everyone was thrilled to see Conley back and to remember all the good times, Ja Morant absolutely stole the show. Ja put up a series of moves, including going behind the back on a break, then finishing by taking over in the fourth to get the Grizzlies the win.

That night, to me, was the first time Ja really put everything together, and it showed us a glimpse of what was to come. I’m just glad we’re going to get to see it up close night after night.

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