Phoenix Suns face elite conference competition in Memphis Grizzlies
PHOENIX — On ESPN’s NBA Today, Malika Andrews asked Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies which team is studying the most in preparation for the postseason.
Morant responded with the Boston Celtics, and when Andrews kept asking about the Western Conference, he replied, “No. I’m fine in the West.”
Is right? Probably not! But it speaks to the identity the Grizzlies have assumed as the young guns who fear no one and everyone will know it. On Friday, the Phoenix Suns got their first look at the 2022-23 iteration of the Grizzlies, the team that currently sits atop the West standings and tied with the Denver Nuggets.
Memphis transformed from lovable upstart to contender last season, winning 56 games before falling in the second round to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. He has been steady through 30 games this season, going 19-11 and avoiding a three-game losing streak to this point.
The big question for the Grizzlies is one that is familiar in Phoenix right now, and that is who will step up to help the All-NBA second team protect Morant.
That question already has an answer, but the Suns may not get to see it.
A dozen games before injuring his toe, third-year guard Desmond Bane was averaging 24.7 points per game on 46.5/45.1/91.2 shooting splits. Bane has already established himself as one of the best shooters in the league, but now he’s more than capable of starting the offense in relief of Morant, something he already demonstrated last year by recording 18-plus points a night.
It looks like he could join Morant on an All-NBA team before it’s all said and done. This, of course, is a nail in the slate for some Bane-loving Suns fans in the pre-draft process leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft in which the Suns selected Jalen Smith 10th overall. It’s hard to swallow, especially considering how Bane said he had a long talk. with Suns general manager James Jones.
Poor me, if it were a fifth and all that gibberish. Bane’s toe injury was diagnosed on a 3-4 week timeline on December 7, but is questionable for Friday’s matchup. Seems like it should be good for Tuesday regardless.
Aside from Morant, Bane, and first-team member He’s Never Seen A Shot I Didn’t Like Dillon Brooks, it’s a grab bag of semi-interesting inexperienced pieces on the perimeter. Whether it’s Santi Aldama, John Konchar, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy or Ziaire Williams, that group rises to the occasion with enough consistency to help them overcome injuries and remain a leading team in the conference. Sure enough, they didn’t replace Kyle Anderson or De’Anthony Melton with similar veterans, and it hasn’t really mattered yet.
Tyus Jones, who has led the NBA in assists-to-turnover ratio in each of the past four seasons, is keeping that course in the right direction.
Inside, the Grizzlies arguably have the best big rotation with Steven Adams, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. Any team would love to have a stalwart like Adams or an explosive presence like Clarke, and then there’s Jackson, who has followed Bane’s lead and appears in the process of making a leap.
Jackson’s games played count of just 14 is the only reason he isn’t the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. The No. 3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft was someone from Michigan State who seemed to have that in their future while his offense was in progress. But drafting and prospect evaluation can be weird sometimes, and Jackson is a prime example of that because what he displayed in his first two years was a more seasoned skill set on offense, where he produced 15.8 points per game in his first two years. career.
Defensively, though, it’s all coming together. His 3.2 blocks per game would be the No. 1 mark in the NBA if he were to qualify for the leaderboards.
He’s evaporating shots around the rim as a backup defender this year, an area he’s not getting too keen on to avoid the foul problems that have plagued him in the past.
The weak side of Jars Jackson Jr. pic.twitter.com/TrY8kOVqO4
— Esfandiar Baraheni (@JustEsBaraheni) December 16, 2022
This is essentially the future of the defensive power forward position. Have a guy mobile enough to manage OK on changes in ball handlers, sure. More importantly though, they have the speed to be a constant rotational presence from the weak side. This is crucial because of how often the 4 is used offensively as floor spacers in the corner, and how the stretched 5 will drag traditional rim protectors like Adams to the perimeter.
Jackson also has the size to play a 5, where he troubled Nikola Jokic in Denver on Tuesday.
Despite the loss and limited minutes (foul issues), Jaren Jackson Jr. put in another special defensive performance last night.
His knowledge, ground cover, and hoop protection are ridiculously good. pic.twitter.com/BkhseDB0d8
—Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 21, 2022
Phoenix isn’t a team that shoots around Jackson’s dominance all that often. The Suns rank 29th this season in shooting percentage, by glass cleaning. Teams with that kind of protection are troublesome matchups, as we’ve seen in the past.
Ending the ongoing parallels with the Suns, Memphis owns all of its first-round picks, plus an extra from the Warriors in 2024 and two additional second-round picks. The Grizzlies, already the youngest team in the league last year, added four rookies to their roster through the draft.
It feels like we’re just waiting for them or the New Orleans Pelicans to make a big move next year to really take firm control of the West. Both have the resources to do it, and either would put even more pressure on the Suns to do their own version of that.