MikeCheck: Morant anointed Grizzlies starting point guard as Jenkins ponders option of pairing rookie No. 2 pick alongside Jones
MEMPHIS – Considering the Grizzlies used the No. 2 pick in June’s draft on Ja Morant and two weeks later spent their entire midlevel exception in free agency on Tyus Jones, it’s safe to say Memphis invested more at point guard than any other position entering this season.
Don’t expect Morant and Jones to be an either-or proposition for first-year coach Taylor Jenkins as he explores his various lineup options in the coming weeks.
Although Jenkins confirmed Morant would emerge from this week’s training camp as the clear-cut starter, he also anticipates rotation combinations when both playmakers are on the court together triggering the Grizzlies’ attack.
“There are definitely going to be times – I don’t know how many exactly that will be – but to be able to put two unselfish playmakers in Ja and Tyus on the floor together, it’s something we’re going to utilize,” Jenkins said. “We want to use them to their strengths, which is going to make everybody on the roster even better. It’s certainly something we’ve talked about.”
It’s not just wishful thinking amid the optimistic opening days of training camp. That dual point guard philosophy was among the many selling points that convinced Jones to commit to the three-year, $28 million contract he signed in July as a restricted free agent.
The process of fitting the pieces together intensifies this week as Jenkins implements a system predicated on up-tempo, early transition offense, “five-out” spacing and aggressive balance.
In Morant, the Grizzlies have arguably the most explosive and athletic player in the draft class, a prospect equally capable of scoring in bunches and dishing double-figure assists. And in Jones, Memphis added a steady, young and sure-handed facilitator ranked among the NBA’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. As both players continue to make strides with their three-point shooting, there’s upside to playing them in tandem at opportune times.
We want to use them to their strengths, which is going to make everybody on the roster even better. It’s certainly something we’ve talked about.Taylor Jenkins
And it definitely wouldn’t be a foreign concept in a league that evolves on pace-and-space, position-less basketball. To a higher-profile degree, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni has already scripted moments in games when he plans to use ball-dominant playmakers Russell Westbrook and James Harden together, and other times when he staggers their minutes on the court.
Golden State is undergoing a similar process with franchise icon Steph Curry and D’Angelo Russell, who has primarily played point guard during his NBA career before joining the Warriors. Even the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors experimented with lineups that had both starting point guard Kyle Lowry and backup Fred VanVleet on the floor for spurts.
For the Grizzlies, playing Morant and Jones together could be a stabilizing force for the dynamic rookie getting adjusted to the NBA. The last two high-profile point guards to enter the league both had flashes of brilliance and bouts of inconsistency as rookies.
Two years ago, Kings guard De’Aaron Fox averaged 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.4 turnovers while shooting 41.2 percent from the field and 30.7 on threes in 73 games as a rookie. Last season, he made strides in all of those areas as he adjusted to the NBA game and averaged 17.3 points and 7.3 assists while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 37.1 on threes.
Everybody knows how solid he is, and I’m looking forward to playing with him, too. It just makes our jobs easier when putting both of us on the court. We both are able to make plays for not only us, but for the rest of the team, and we can just push the ball.Ja Morant
Last season, Hawks catalyst Trae Young struggled through the initial months of his rookie season but performed at an elite level down the stretch to average 24.7 points and 9.2 assists with a positive overall plus-minus ratio after the All-Star break.
Morant knows the expectations are high, but he appreciates having reinforcement at point guard to help him navigate his first journey through the league at the most demanding position.
“He’s been in the league and is like a vet to me now, like a big brother,” Morant said of Jones, who spent his first four NBA seasons with the Timberwolves. “Everybody knows how solid he is, and I’m looking forward to playing with him, too. It just makes our jobs easier when putting both of us on the court. We both are able to make plays for not only us, but for the rest of the team, and we can just push the ball.”
Any potential Morant-Jones pairing would be more of a changeup and far less of a steady diet. The possibility is intriguing for a number of reasons, including the fact that Memphis is unsettled at shooting guard. In addition to listing Morant as a starter, Jenkins also indicated this week that Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas were locks, presumably at power forward and center. That leaves shooting guard and small forward open for competition.
On the other hand, Jenkins prefers to not list players at traditional positions. And that creates the flexibility to explore with unconventional lineups. Which goes back to the possibility of seeing Morant and Jones together at times as the Grizzlies capitalize on their point guard investment. There are apparent size limitations, with neither player taller than 6-3 and both potentially facing difficult challenges defensively against bigger perimeter wing players. But on the other end, the Grizzlies could force matchup problems of their own for opponents.
Player: Ja Morant
Year: Rookie, No. 2 pick
Measurables: 6-3, 175
2018-19 Stats: 24.5ppg, 5.7rpg, 10apg (Murray State)
Camp Question: There’s no questioning the talent and upside, but how quickly can Morant adjust to the NBA game at the toughest position on the court?
Player: Tyus Jones
Year: 5th NBA Season
Measurables: 6-2, 196
2018-19 Stats: 6.9ppg, 2.0rpg, 4.8apg (Timberwolves)
Camp Question: Can Jones boost his career 33.3 percent shooting on threes enough to keep defenders honest and keep him on the floor with Morant?
Player: De'Anthony Melton
Year: 2nd NBA Season
Measurables: 6-4, 200
2018-19 Stats: 5.0ppg, 2.0rpg, 4.8apg (Suns)
Camp Question: A least a month away from basketball activities as he recovers from a back injury, how much will Melton absorb from the mental aspects of camp?
But a strong case can also be made that Jones’ most important role is strictly as a backup right now, with the Grizzlies lacking an experienced third point guard on the roster. Second-year guard De’Anthony Melton is undergoing treatment for at least another month to resolve a lingering back injury that has limited him in training camp.
In either case, it’s the type of assignment that Jones grew accustomed to in doses in Minnesota while splitting or sharing shifts with Ricky Rubio, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose. Jones also adds some valuable insight from being drafted into the NBA at age 19 and finding his way.
Whether it involves opening games behind Morant or eventually finding playing time alongside Morant, Jones embraces the opportunity to groom and grow with Morant.
“It’s definitely something we’ve talked about and I’m excited for – and I think Ja says the same thing,” Jones said. “One, not all of the pressures or responsibilities are all on one guy. Now there’s another guy out there to have those same responsibilities. And two, you’ve got another guy who thinks like you, who can get the outlet pass and push the ball, and now you can be off the ball. You can be in more of an attack mindset. It’s something me and Ja can both take advantage of when it happens. It’s not necessarily about who’s the point. It’s that you have playmakers out there. And that’s what much of the league has been going to.”
The Grizzlies have the option to go there, too.
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.