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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Rookies Brooks, Rabb making most of development opportunities in painful times for Grizzlies

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Under ideal circumstances, things would be a lot different.

Dillon Brooks would be backing up Chandler Parsons, continuing the development process as a promising reserve on one of the NBA’s most productive bench units. And Ivan Rabb would be on the inactive list most nights, exclusively with the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle because of the power forward logjam anchored by entrenched starter JaMychal Green and breakout backup Jarell Martin.

But these are hardly ideal times for the Grizzlies.

Instead, the most impactful rotation of the season has featured demoralizing injuries, disappointing losses and debilitating illnesses.

Yet, the silver lining in it all has been the creation of development opportunities for the Grizzlies’ rookie second-round draft picks. Brooks and Rabb started together for the first time in their young NBA careers in Wednesday’s loss to San Antonio, and figure to work more in tandem at the two forward spots as the Grizzlies continue a four-game homestand with Friday’s visit from the Clippers.

“What it did was it opened the door for some of our younger guys to play,” Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the adversity that has fast-tracked the development of Brooks and Rabb, especially against a fundamentally sound team like the Spurs. “For our young guys, it’s a great opportunity to see what that feels like, to have to play against that. If you want to be part of a long-lasting success, you can emulate that style of play and understand the beauty of it, the sacrifices it takes.”

In some ways, this has become a sacrificial season for the Grizzlies (17-30), who have won five of their past eight games overall and five of the past six at home. But a steady dose of injuries and illnesses have prevented Memphis from closing much ground on one of the final playoff spots in the West.

On Wednesday, the Grizzlies had six players sidelined: Parsons (knee), Green (ankle), Martin (ankle/ankle), Mike Conley (heel), James Ennis (calf) and Tyreke Evans (illness). At least four of them – Conley, Parsons, Green and Ennis – are also out for Friday’s game amid extended absences. And with the Feb. 8 trade deadline looming, Memphis is reportedly among teams likely to be active, assuming the focus shifts to getting healthy, developing young prospects and acquiring more assets for next season.

From one vantage point, the future is the present for the Grizzlies’ 2017 draft class.

Brooks, the 45th pick in last June’s draft, has been a regular in the rotation and a steady starter the past three months. He primarily benefited initially from injuries that limited Parsons and Ben McLemore earlier in the season. But Brooks has since progressed to become the Grizzlies’ most consistent and reliable option at shooting guard or small forward as the lone team member to play in all 47 games.

I’m still trying to understand the game, because everyone is playing at a high level. I’ve got to understand the game and change my game during games – see what the defense is giving and then (adjust) and change it.
-- Dillon Brooks

“I feel like it’s going OK,” said Brooks, a Canadian who this week was selected to play for the World Team in next month’s Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. “I’m still trying to understand the game, because everyone is playing at a high level. I’ve got to understand the game and change my game during games – see what the defense is giving and then (adjust) and change it.”

Brooks’ three-point shooting has improved each month of the season, and he’s regrouped from the least productive month of the season in December to the most productive month he’s having in January. Through 10 games since the calendar flipped to 2018, Brooks is shooting 51.2 percent from the field overall and 47.2 percent on threes while averaging 11.1 points and 3.4 rebounds in 27 minutes.

“Earlier, he was coming off the bench … part of a unit that was one of the most productive bench units in the league,” Bickerstaff said of Brooks, who is on pace to break O.J. Mayo’s franchise rookie record for three-point shooting percentage. “Circumstances changed, his play improved and he moved into the starting lineup. For a guy who I think was slighted in the draft – to be the Pac-12 Player of the Year – (and) fall all the way to the second round, it shows his type of character that he didn’t let that affect him in a negative way. He does the things you want from a guy who wants to be part of a winning culture.”

Brooks and Rabb are now literally learning on the fly.

NBA games that still carry meaning have become their laboratory. There are plenty of lessons to learn tucked in what’s become far too many losses.

“That’s the game we have to play, and we have to instill that in our minds first,” Brooks said of trying to apply positive habits from winning teams. “Have that as a mentality, and then go out and execute it.”

There’s a bit of irony in the way the season has played out for the rookies. Rabb, a 6-10 power forward and 2015 McDonald’s All-American, was evaluated as the better draft prospect of the Pac-12 players. The Grizzlies traded into the second round to select Rabb with the No. 35 pick after his second season at the University of California. Brooks, a former University of Oregon star, was targeted 10 picks later.

Brooks had the quicker impact once they got to Memphis because of his shooting ability, physical strength on the perimeter and his competitive edge on defense. Brooks also played well in the Las Vegas Summer League while Rabb was sidelined with an ankle injury. Once NBA training camp opened, the rehab and recovery process that limited Parsons, McLemore and Wayne Selden left a void on the wing.

Meanwhile, Rabb stepped into a featured role almost immediately on assignment with the G League’s Hustle and averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds through his first four games with the team. The recent injuries to Green and Martin allowed Rabb to see action in four of the Grizzlies’ last five games. During his first career start in the loss to the Spurs on Wednesday, Rabb played a season-high 17 minutes, tied his career high with eight points and grabbed a career-high six rebounds.

That represents growth in the midst of a painful stretch.

I haven’t played too many games. I want to get better every day, especially defensively, because if you can (defend), you can pretty much stay on the floor.
-- Ivan Rabb

“I think it’s just a testament to my teammates believing in me, picking me up when I’m struggling, me just coming back at night (after practices) and getting in extra work, being focused and taking advantage of the opportunity when it comes,” Rabb said. “I haven’t played too many games. I want to get better every day, especially defensively, because if you can (defend), you can pretty much stay on the floor.”

Under ideal circumstances, those opportunities likely wouldn’t be here now.

But they are.

And, as with all of our guys, minutes are earned. Dillon is where he’s been because he’s been with us throughout the season. But Ivan is earning the respect of his teammates because of his effort, because of his ability and his skillset. He’s earning minutes and we’re pleased with his development.
-- Coach Bickerstaff

“There’s no doubt about it,” Bickerstaff said. “And, as with all of our guys, minutes are earned. Dillon is where he’s been because he’s been with us throughout the season. But Ivan is earning the respect of his teammates because of his effort, because of his ability and his skillset. He’s earning minutes and we’re pleased with his development.”

The Grizzlies’ rookies are in two different roles, asked to carry two different loads.

But they share at least one thing in common these days: Forward progress.

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