MikeCheck: On heels of successful summer, Grizzlies set to carry strong chemistry into camp
Scrambling to grasp the Grizzlies concepts after arriving in a trade from Milwaukee, Sam Merrill barely had a practice session with his new team before being tossed into action during a recent summer league game in Las Vegas.
Thankfully, one of Merrill’s new teammates helped pave the way.
“My first game was that Wednesday, and Ja came in and gave me a couple of tips during halftime,” Merrill reflected.
Franchise catalyst Ja Morant wasn’t on the Grizzlies summer league roster. For that matter, nor were Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke or any of the other higher-profile, more experienced veterans from Memphis’ main team.
But Morant’s interaction with Merrill was just one of many examples of the leadership, chemistry and camaraderie that defined the Grizzlies connection on and off the court this month.
In recent weeks, there have been two squads of Grizzlies on display – those young players developing in games through two summer league stints, and those veterans determined to support them from the sidelines every step of the way.
You can tell they care about everyone on the whole team, so the hospitality is there, man. They’re a fun, young group of guys and they’re always laughing. So we were just trying to translate that energy.
The Grizzlies wrapped up play in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League on Monday to finish 3-2 in Las Vegas after going 2-1 in the Salt Lake City Summer League. They finished this phase of development the same way the team started: with key veterans in attendance, eager to help their younger teammates transition to the league.
It isn’t uncommon to see a marquee player or two from each of the 30 NBA teams show up in Vegas to watch from the sidelines. However, few teams showed up night after night essentially en masse like the Grizzlies. With Morant most visible, a core of returning Memphis players were not only fixtures at summer league games, but also contributed to the development process.
“It’s big-time for sure, because they help me and the whole team,” Grizzlies rookie and No. 10 overall lottery pick Ziaire Williams said of having roster vets close by. “You can tell they care about everyone on the whole team, so the hospitality is there, man. They’re a fun, young group of guys and they’re always laughing. So we were just trying to translate that energy.”
The goal is to translate that energy to the next step in the process.
With NBA training camps for the 2021-22 season opening late next month, the Grizzlies are operating this summer like a team that wants to maintain chemistry and momentum. That focus keeps the team maneuvering on multiple fronts this offseason.
While much of their core featuring Morant, Jackson and Brooks remained intact, the Grizzlies made two significant trades that over the past month impacted their depth. Jonas Valanciunas, last season’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, was dealt to New Orleans for the lottery pick that allowed the Grizzlies to draft Williams. That deal also landed the Grizzlies center Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe.
Adams, a playoff-tested veteran during Oklahoma City’s perennial playoff runs with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, is expected to fill much of the interior rebounding and toughness role Valanciunas held. Bledsoe was subsequently dealt again this week to the Clippers in a move that brought guards Pat Beverley, Rajon Rondo and forward Daniel Oturu to Memphis.
He’s going to help our entire group. He’s going to be able to do so many things for us on the offensive end, with our pick-and-roll game, his finishing game. He’s got a great ability to elevate our defense, too. He’s going to add a lot to us, a toughness.
NBA rules allow teams to carry up to 20 contract players on a roster during the offseason. But that number must be trimmed to a maximum of 15, plus two “two-way” developmental players, for the regular season. The Grizzlies are in the process of finalizing another deal this week to send Beverely to Minnesota to acquire guard Jarrett Culver and Timberwolves big man Juancho Hernangomez. In essence, the Grizzlies appear to have additional roster moves to make, possibly heading into camp but certainly by the start of the regular season.
For now, there’s enthusiasm with the additions the front office has made through the draft and initial trades to solidify the foundation taking shape. With 22-year-old Morant leading the way, the Grizzlies became the youngest team in a decade to advance to the playoffs last season.
While watching the summer league Grizzlies compete in Las Vegas, coach Taylor Jenkins spoke on the value that a player with Adams’ success and experience can add to the mix in Memphis.
“He’s an ultimate competitor, a winner on a lot of different levels and sets a tone on and off the floor, because he’s such a great leader,” Jenkins said of Adams, who also spent time in Vegas with his new team recently. “He’s going to help our entire group. He’s going to be able to do so many things for us on the offensive end, with our pick-and-roll game, his finishing game. He’s got a great ability to elevate our defense, too. He’s going to add a lot to us, a toughness.”
While the Grizzlies front office worked to shore up the roster for the coming season, the coaching staff prioritized putting the team’s promising young players in position to improve.
Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman built on strong rookie campaigns last season by taking the next step to round out their respective games in both summer leagues. Both played two games apiece in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, with Bane shifting from his natural shooting guard spot to the point to improve his overall playmaking.
Last season’s leader among all NBA rookies in three-point shooting, Bane averaged 24 points on 69-percent shooting from three-point range in his final two games in Las Vegas. He also averaged four assists, with three turnovers as he sorted through growing pains at point guard.
But that’s basically what summer schooling is all about in the Grizzlies’ development program.
Tillman was arguably one of the most versatile and productive players in the Vegas league, averaging 14.5 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two steals and 1.5 blocks in two games. Both players were in Jenkins’ rotation last season, and should again provide productive depth.
“They’re playing with bigger roles and they’re trying to get the ball more in their hands to gain experience in those situations,” Grizzlies summer league coach Darko Rajakovic said of Bane and Tillman. “In summer league, you’re going to have good decisions and bad decisions, but this opportunity allows them to continue to grow. It means so much to those guys. They’re very vocal and they own it. This is the opportunity to make the next jump in their careers.”
The Grizzlies also got promising contributions from their incoming rookie class. Williams showed flashes of the athleticism, slashing and an ability to be disruptive defensively that led to Memphis moving up in the lottery to target the 6-foot-8 swingman who turns 20 next month.
In summer league, you’re going to have good decisions and bad decisions, but this opportunity allows them to continue to grow. It means so much to those guys. They’re very vocal and they own it. This is the opportunity to make the next jump in their careers.
The Grizzlies will be patient with progress, but Williams know what’s expected from Day One.
“Really just to play hard, be a threat offensively and defensively, and cause havoc,” said Williams, who scored double figures in three of his four Vegas games. “I know how coach Jenkins is really big on defense, and I know my defense is going to take me where I want to be as the games go on. I’ll get more confident, get more of a feel for it and get more on pace.”
After some initial stumbles, No. 30 overall pick Santi Aldama also found his summer stride.
Aldama struggled with his shot early in Vegas after traveling directly from his native Spain the previous week. But the 6-11 forward delivered his best game in his final outing on Sunday, when he finished with 13 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 26 minutes.
“It’s a learning experience just to play games here and get used to the NBA world,” Aldama said. “I have to take it step by step. The staff has been good with me, just helping me out. We have to have patience and get ready for what is coming.”
What’s coming is a brief respite before the complete roster gathers in Memphis in a few weeks to start workouts ahead of camp. Even as the roster transitions, there won’t be many strangers when it’s time to show up for work again.
That’s also what summer league support is all about in the Grizzlies’ development program.
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