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Desmond Bane's leap gives Ja Morant, Grizzlies co-star they need

Ja Morant's superstar status is unquestioned, but Desmond Bane's play has changed the ceiling for the Grizzlies.

Desmond Bane has risen alongside superstar Ja Morant to give Memphis a lethal 1-2 backcourt punch.

Desmond Bane laughed and rocked back his chair onto two legs to answer one question with another.

Two days prior, superstar point guard Ja Morant called Memphis’ backcourt “top two, [and] not [number] two,” when asked where the Grizzlies’ guard duo ranked among the rest of the NBA. So, naturally, Bane fielded an inquiry regarding the accuracy of Morant’s statement.

“What you think?” he asked. “We ain’t gonna say it if we don’t believe it.”

Unfortunately, prospects seem slim for Memphis to back up the braggadocio Tuesday, when it faces the New Orleans Pelicans on the road (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT). The Grizzlies released an injury report Tuesday listing Bane out two-to-three weeks due to toe soreness on his right foot. The host Pelicans, meanwhile, could be without star forward Zion Williamson, who is designated as questionable with a sprained “right ankle/foot.”

My man [Bane] is an All-Star this year, too. So, make sure we put all that in there. I know what me and 22 can do on that floor. … I definitely feel like we’re the top duo in this league.”

— Ja Morant, on backcourt teammate Desmond Bane

The top two picks of the 2019 NBA Draft, Williamson, and Morant — natives of South Carolina and former AAU teammates — were expected to wear mics for the matchup.

But in the days leading up to this clash, Morant’s voice didn’t need amplification … his play had done all the talking. Emerging from the shower of a dim, cramped visitor’s locker room on Nov. 9, Morant dressed quickly after Memphis’ 124-122 overtime victory against the San Antonio Spurs. Morant and Bane had just dropped 32 points apiece in handing the home team its fifth straight loss.

Desmond Bane and Ja Morant delivered in a win vs. the Spurs on Nov. 9.

So, after cracking up the few remaining in the locker room with jokes about him wearing fake Gucci t-shirts in college at Murray State that actually read “Gildan” on the inside tag, Morant turned serious when discussing the possibilities for a Memphis backcourt that has made tremendous leaps in each of the last three seasons.

“Top two, not two,” he said. “Say it again. Night in and night out, man. My man [Bane] is an All-Star this year, too. So, make sure we put all that in there. I know what me and 22 can do on that floor. I have the utmost confidence in him, and I feel like everybody knows I’ve got confidence in myself. So, I definitely feel like we’re the top duo in this league. And I said what I said: “top two, not two.”

In their third season together, both players, individually, continue to make significant strides and additions to their respective games. Bane entered the league in 2020 as the 30th pick, projected as a 3-and-D NBA wing. Bane embraced that role as a rookie, averaging 9.2 points per game while knocking down 43.2% from deep.

But heading into his sophomore campaign of 2021-22, the former TCU standout and the Grizzlies wanted more. So, the shooting guard served as Memphis’ primary ball handler running the point during the 2021 NBA Summer League in an effort to ratchet up creativity as a scorer and a playmaker. Bane averaged 3.0 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers as a rookie, and he’s increased that to 3.8 per game in each of the last two seasons. The pull-up 3-pointers, meanwhile, rose from 0.8 per game as a rookie to 3.0 and 4.6, respectively, these last two seasons, while his assists per game (1.7 apg as a rookie) have continued to climb (2.7 apg in 2021-22; 4.8 apg this season).

Desmond Bane showcased his skills in an Oct. 24 win against the Nets.

“It’s what I do,” Bane said of his continued improvement. “Come summertime, I’m a laid-back, chill guy. But one thing about me: I’m gonna be in that gym. I love the process of improving and getting better.”

Connecting on 45.1% from deep in 2022-23, Bane currently ranks fifth in the NBA in made 3-pointers (46). Perhaps more valuable than that is the fact the 24-year-old has learned to create his own shot while facilitating for others. During Bane’s rookie season, most of his attempts (42.7%) were of the catch-and-shoot variety, compared to just 23% through the first 12 games of 2022-23.

Ja Morant is setting the culture for Memphis as it looks to rise the West ranks.

“It’s just taken Des’ game to a whole other level. He put in a lot of work this offseason, playing off the bounce, get[ting] downhill, [his] finishing game, playmaking, kicking out to shooters,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said.

“It’s not just spot-up game anymore. It’s coming off of handoffs, off-ball screens. He’s a great example of a guy that just constantly moves without the ball. So, he’s gonna get open shots or he’s gonna create shots for his teammates with the gravitational pull that he has. It’s all a product of his work, just adding more to his package.”

Morant took notice immediately, delivering a parcel as acknowledgement after capturing the 2021-22 Kia NBA Most Improved Player Award, feeling Bane was more deserving of the honor.

“It’s a credit to him, man,” Morant said. “He’s been locked in, studying film, putting in the work. I feel like the front office did a great job with throwing him in to that Summer League where he was basically a point guard for us during that time and allowing him to be more hands-on and controlling the game with the ball in his hands.

“From then on, he took an extreme leap from what most guys [do]. He went from [a] catch-and-shoot [player] to doing it all on the floor, a three-level scorer. I really say four because he can shoot from the parking lot. Now, you see he’s pretty much averaging around five assists a game. So, it’s also making plays for others.”

Morant continues to make strides, too.

Check out Desmond Bane mic'd up vs. the Golden State Warriors!

The league leader last season in paint scoring, the Grizzlies point guard quickly developed a reputation around the NBA as a devastating finisher at the rim willing to dunk on any big standing in his way. But over time, he’s improved an already deadly floater, in addition to adding a more accurate mid-range pull-up jumper.

Perhaps most significant is the 23-year-old’s development as a 3-point shooter. Fearing Morant’s ability to speed past off the dribble, opponents seem to back off and let him take that shot freely. Bad strategy, considering the fourth-year vet is hitting 41% on 3-pointers this season after shooting no better than 34.4% on 3-pointers in his first three seasons.

Come summertime, I’m a laid-back, chill guy. But one thing about me: I’m gonna be in that gym. I love the process of improving and getting better.”

— Desmond Bane

Morant is also firing up 3s at a slightly higher volume (5.1 per game) than he did in the past.

“Now, guys have to account for me shooting the trey-ball and the mid-range pull-up,” Morant said. “It just opened up more levels of my game. Definitely, I feel like I took a leap. Even though I took this leap and feel like I’m a better player now, I’ve got a lot more room for improvement.”

Bane views his ascension similarly, while understanding fully that Memphis’ backcourt duo can’t truly make a lasting mark until the spring and summer months, when the competition heats up with the weather.

That takes us back to the question of whether the Grizz backcourt is truly “top two, not two.”

“It’s still early in the season,” a more measured Bane said. “We still ain’t did nothing yet. Our goal is to make some noise come May and June. So, I’m sure once May and June come around and y’all ask us the same question, we’re not even going to have to answer. Everybody’s gonna know.”

What’s remains uncertain, though, is whether the world gets to see this dynamic guard duo face off Tuesday against Williamson and the 7-6 Pelicans. If Bane and Williamson are ruled out for this matchup, the next time the teams battle is Nov. 25 at FedExForum for another nationally-televised clash, this time on NBA TV.

The Grizz are 0-4 in the previous four contests between Morant and Williamson, and they haven’t met head-to-head since February of 2021.

“It’s big time. Me being able to go against him pretty much any time I can is a joy for me,” Morant told of the potential matchup against Williamson. “I’m just excited to see him back healthy and back out there playing again. The game missed him. I know his team missed him, and the league missed him. It’s definitely one of the games I look forward to always with both of us being able to represent South Carolina.”

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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