MikeCheck: Roster depth a welcomed dilemma for Grizzlies as Jenkins eyes restart rotation
MEMPHIS - A week inside the NBA bubble at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex has given the Grizzlies plenty of opportunities to explore options around the resort.
Veteran center Jonas Valanciunas spent some free time this week landing big catches on one of Disney’s fishing piers. Meanwhile, rookie point guard Ja Morant has been just fine in his room binging on classic TV shows and playing video games.
That range of options pales in comparison to what coach Taylor Jenkins is facing on the court as the Grizzlies enter the NBA’s restart healthier than they’ve been all season.
In other words, roster depth is creating quite a welcomed dilemma.
Memphis moves into its second week of preparations among 22 teams invited to Disney to compete for the league’s 16 playoff spots. In the process, the Grizzlies are sorting through their own numbers game with all 17 players on the roster battling for 10 or 11 spots in the rotation.
We’re going to have some really tough decisions to make, but that only means you have some great depth. We’re built on competing. We’re always prepared to have 17 guys ready to go at any given moment.
“Right now, we’re trying to give guys a lot of opportunities as much as we can,” Jenkins said as his team’s practice sessions intensify daily in Orlando. “With 17 guys, it’s really tough. It’s been day by day, just trying to mix up the groups here and there. But we can’t mix them up too much over and over again, because we have to establish chemistry. So it’s a fine line. A lot of work has been put in by our guys, and you can see it on the court every single day.”
The Grizzlies reached the middle of the week coming off three consecutive days of 5-on-5 work. Jenkins is building toward a critical team scrimmage set for Thursday’s practice to start locking in the restart rotation. The Grizzlies then play three exhibition games next week against the Sixers, Rockets and Heat in advance of the July 31 official restart opener against the Blazers.
Jenkins has hinted at leaning on the continuity that positioned Memphis (32-33) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West when the season was suspended in March by the Coronavirus pandemic. If that’s the case, expect Morant, Valanciunas, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks to remain as four of the five starters. That leaves the fifth starter – the wing slot alongside Morant and Brooks – essentially up for grabs, much as it’s been all season due to injury or attrition.
The Grizzlies acquired versatile swingman Justise Winslow at the February trade deadline from Miami to theoretically complete that opening core group. But Winslow has yet to play for Memphis and was limited to 11 games this season by a back injury from which he’s recovered.
Jenkins has also used Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton as fill-in starters for that fifth spot since the trade deadline. But even beyond that looming decision are more difficult ones to be made in solidifying the Grizzlies’ productive second unit.
But every day is getting slower, and for everybody it’s looking better and better. Still, that first day, we were making a lot of great plays, but it was (also) a lot of anxious excitement and trying to get back our rhythm. But every day is getting better, and we’re in a really good position right now.
Backup point guard Tyus Jones and reserve rookie forward Brandon Clarke have anchored one of the NBA’s top-five rated bench groups. And that unit now has more viable candidates than ever, with Josh Jackson, Gorgui Dieng, John Konchar, Grayson Allen and Anthony Tolliver all either healthy now or coming off solid stretches before the season was halted.
“We’re sorting through different combinations, but not trying to lose the lineups that were successful for us to this point,” Jenkins explained. “We’re going to have some really tough decisions to make, but that only means you have some great depth. We’re built on competing. We’re always prepared to have 17 guys ready to go at any given moment.”
And that’s made for some intense sessions among players who are simultaneously thrilled to regroup after four months apart, but also eager to battle it out daily for precious playing time.
“That first day, everybody was going 100 miles per hour, which was to be expected,” Jones said of the Grizzlies settling into preparations for the restart. “But every day is getting slower, and for everybody it’s looking better and better. Still, that first day, we were making a lot of great plays, but it was (also) a lot of anxious excitement and trying to get back our rhythm. But every day is getting better, and we’re in a really good position right now.”
As expected, there is no shortage of initial storylines in Orlando, where nearly a quarter of the field is comprised of arguably the NBA’s most dynamic division. The Grizzlies, Rockets, Pelicans, Spurs and Mavericks represent the league’s only division with full participation in the restart.
Our Southwest Division Roundtable continues as Insiders explore two more key topics we’re tracking as our teams press forward to the start of next week’s scrimmage games.
From having most to gain, which players on your team should be most eager to finish this season?
Ja Morant, easy. Not only does the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft want to become just the third rookie in league history to guide his team to the playoffs as its leader in scoring and assists, but Ja also wants to prove the Grizzlies deserve to be right where they are in the thick of a Western Conference playoff race. The past four months without basketball were like torture for Morant, the frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year. He’s added about 12 pounds of strength and muscle and is eager to be unleashed to finish what he started this season.
The obvious answers to me are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. They’re the cornerstones of the franchise's future and need to get their first taste of the NBA Playoffs even under these never-seen-before conditions.
Eric Gordon has battled injuries and inconsistent shooting all season. He admitted recently that it’s hard to play with explosion when your knees aren’t at 100 percent. He had a breakout 50-point game in a win in Salt Lake City earlier this season but there were a lot of nights when EG’s 3-point shot just wasn’t falling. He’s lost 12 pounds and knows the Rockets want to run even faster than they did before the pandemic. Getting consistent points from him every night, I believe, will make the Rockets one of the top scoring teams in Orlando.
Zion Williamson dazzled in his pro debut, but he was only able to appear in 19 regular season games before play was halted. Lonzo Ball was playing the best basketball of his three-year NBA career, showing dramatic in-season improvement from three-point range the final four March games. First-time All-Star Brandon Ingram will get a chance in critical games to demonstrate why he’s reached another level and is a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate. Then there’s 36-year-old guard JJ Redick, who’ll attempt to extend his perfect streak of reaching the NBA playoffs to 14 years. Redick, Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore are anomalies on a roster featuring a whopping 10 players who’ve never been to the postseason.
As of right now, DeMar DeRozan hasn’t informed the team whether he’ll decline his player option for 2020-21 and hit free agency (given the current climate of uncertainty, that would be pretty risky). But even with that situation, point guard Dejounte Murray would seem to be the player with the most to gain from the NBA’s re-start. Sure, the Spurs signed Murray to a four-year extension back in October, but we haven’t seen enough from him consistently to really justify San Antonio’s investment. That’s not to say Murray isn’t worth it. His $64 million contract could turn out to be a huge bargain given Murray’s immense potential.
With no fans at these games in Orlando, we might be able to pick up more on-court sound than usual. Who are the most talkative players on your team?
Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks don’t actually say a lot on the court, but they get their money’s worth when provoked. Who could forget Morant knocking down a game-sealing triple over James Harden and yelling “someone better tell that (expletive) about me!” And don’t expect Brooks to back down from anyone. These two are full of swagger and far from fake tough guys. They’ll stand up for themselves and teammates at every turn. So if any chirping is to be heard from the Grizzlies, don’t be surprised if Morant and Brooks are in the middle of all the banter.
Probably Luka Doncic. He speaks three languages between English, Spanish and Slovenian, so who knows what he’ll be saying. I noted before we had Maxi Kleber mic’d up during a game this year and it was great to hear how well he communicates defensively during the game and he’s a very supportive teammate.
I think Russ is a fun listen. My guess is a broadcast delay might be needed on occasion. But the number one thing that will be interesting no matter the game you watch is how much player/referee and coach/referee conversation will be heard. There is spirited back and forth and often times it gets intense. Will the officials allow less criticism because we’ll likely hear more of it than we would during a normal game broadcast?
Josh Hart seems to enjoy talking to teammates, his own coaches, opponents, ushers, popcorn vendors, opposing fans at road games – you name it. Unfortunately for Hart, he won’t have the opportunity to jaw with front-row spectators in Orlando and deliver trash talk after sinking a corner three-pointer – a common practice for the Villanova product and NCAA champion. But it won’t be surprising to still hear his voice during games. Meanwhile, he’s quiet off the court, but on defense, 10-year veteran Favors is the backline presence teammates rely on to call out instructions and encourage vital communication at that end of the floor.
You should know that Pop doesn’t play that talking stuff with his team. So don’t expect to hear much from the players. DeRozan is about the most vocal Spur on the court. But he doesn’t trash talk other players. You usually hear him jawing with referees about missed calls. The best sound the court mics will pick up in Orlando will definitely come from coach Pop, whether it’s him arguing with officials, screaming at his own players, or just joking with opposing coaches and players. There was a pretty funny moment from Pop that sticks out from back in 2015, when he commented on the new blonde hairdo from former Spur George Hill. And you know Pop’s on-court interviews are pretty legendary.
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