Showtime Grizzlies: How the most electrifying team in the NBA was born

Mindaugas Bertys
Daily Writer
2022-04-19 13:00
Credit: AFP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix | Basketnews illustration/M.Bertys
Credit AFP, USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix | Basketnews illustration/M.Bertys

Memphis Grizzlies tied the franchise win record with 56 wins this season. The last Grizzlies team to accomplish such a feat was the packed 2012-13 season group with prime Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Mike Conley, menacing Zach Randolph, Tayshaun Prince, and Tony Allen.

The 2012-13 team did it with defense, ranking 17th in offense but 2nd in defense. They were the 5th seed in the West and got to the Conference Finals. This year, the Grizzlies are a powerhouse that can defeat the opponents on both sides of the court.

The 2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies rank 5th in offense and 4th in defense in the entire league, but numbers are not what attract people to watch this team every single night.

Points this season

Points made: 115,8
Accuracy: 46,2%
Place in standings: 2
Record max: 152
Record min: 85
Best scorer: Ja Morant

Mindblowing dunks, tremendous defensive episodes, all-out energy each and every game, and the young leader who suddenly dominates the NBA - these are the reasons this year's Grizzlies are a team to watch.

They are a mix between the old-school Grizzlies we were all accustomed to and the new wave of basketball that has taken over the game. Let's take a look at what makes this team special, how it got here, and what comes next for this young squad.

Memphis Grizzlies
Memphis Grizzlies
Credit AFP - Scanpix

The Perplexing Offense

This season's Grizzlies are the second-youngest and third-least experienced team in the NBA, and the show they put on is mesmerizing. At first glance, the Grizzlies' offense is a bit chaotic but fun to watch.

They aren't very good in the categories you would normally associate with good offenses, but somehow they're good on offense. It seems as though it doesn't make sense, but let's take a deeper look.

Grizzlies are 22nd in effective field goal percentage (eFG%), they're 22nd in under the rim shot percentage, and 21st in midrange jumper percentage. They don't shoot a lot of threes (23rd in league with 32.7 attempts per game) and don't make many of them (17th with 35.3%).

Per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies rank 22nd in points per halfcourt play, but they're also 4th in points per possession. How so?

Two words. Offensive rebounding. The Grizzlies are first in the league in offensive rebounds (14.1) and offensive rebounding percentage (32.7%), and half-court offensive rebounding percentage (33%). They also have the least plays in the halfcourt, where the offense is most likely less efficient as the defenders are usually all set.

Although ranking only 14th in points per transition play, the Grizzlies are also 2nd in points per transition possession and 1st in transition frequency, meaning they run, and they run a lot.

The team also leads the league in steals per game (9.8) and blocks per game (6.5). If the Grizzlies are not successful in their first attempts, they try and try again. They take rebounds, they steal the ball, and they run to create as many chances as they can.

They're not efficient with them, but the sheer volume of chances offset the subpar efficiency.

Now, let's take a look at the key parts that allow this perplexing offense to thrive in the NBA in the year 2022.

The Ja-Dropping Leader

"Ja Morant is a must-see-TV and has taken over as the most exciting player in the league."

These are the words of the legendary Magic Johnson.

"Every single game, it's five or six plays where your mouth is literally dropped to the floor. If I had a chance to see one NBA game the whole year at courtside, I would go see Ja Morant play," says former NBA player and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams.

These are just a few of the compliments Ja Morant has received this season. A jaw-dropping athleticism paired with tremendous court awareness in a player that always seems happy to be on the basketball court.

And he is.

The Upbringings

When Ja was 10 years old, his father, Tee, built him a basketball court in the backyard so his son could practice. As a high school freshman, Ja only stood at 5 foot-7 (170 cm).

Ja wasn't dunking, he wasn't jumping over people. That's when his father got some old tractor tires. Ja would jump on them 25 times after every practice. He hasn't stopped jumping ever since.

Morant didn't have any college offers, though. He went to prove himself at a basketball camp where his future college, Murray State, assistant head coach noticed him only by accident when he was buying a pack of Doritos. He was stunned at what he saw with Morant in the limited minutes he had.

Ja then quickly joined Murray State and started showing the world what they were missing this whole time. When Morant played against Alabama his freshman year, the basketball world noticed.

He scored 38 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, dished out 5 assists, and probably performed the dunk of the NCAA season.

"I saw flashbacks of a lot of guys I played against," said NBA champion Avery Johnson who back then was the head coach of Alabama.

"Whether it’s the old Isaiah Thomas - the Detroit Pistons Isiah Thomas - that craftiness and cleverness. John Stockton's passing ability. Russell Westbrook's athletic ability. My God. When I saw him on film … to watch him play in person … it was better than on film," Avery Johnson said.

Ultimately, Ja Morant became the no. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, and the league has been on notice ever since.

Ja Morant getting drafted
Ja Morant getting drafted
Credit AP - Scanpix

The Athletic Sensation

Looking at Ja Morant now, his presence on the court cannot go unnoticed. This season, Morant was the first guard to lead the league in scoring in the paint since the stat was started recording in the 1996-1997 season.

He scored a whopping 16.6 points per game in the paint. This year, Ja was also second in fast-break points (4.4), only trailing LeBron James (4.8).

Morant already holds the franchise's highest single-game scorer in the playoffs title with 47 points during last year's playoffs against the Utah Jazz. He then became the fourth-youngest player to score 40+ points in a playoff game.

Ja is also the Grizzlies record-holder in points in a single match, with 52 scored this season against the San Antonio Spurs. The second-best result belongs to Ja Morant as well - 46 points against the Chicago Bulls two nights before.

And yeah, the dunk of the year happened in one of those two matches as well.

Morant is an athletic freak, but he's more than just a tremendous athlete. According to Cleaning the Glass, Ja has increased his effective field goal percentage significantly in the last year, going from 48.9% and 34th percentile to 53% and 78th percentile in the league.

Coming into the league as a pure athlete, Morant is now confidently shooting from outside. 34.3% shooting from the 3-point zone is not a spectacular statistic measurement, but compared to earlier seasons, Ja will no longer allow his defenders to slip under the screens. Especially in the corners where he's shooting the ball at 42% (70th percentile).

Morant also has an impressive 6'7'' (200 cm) wingspan that allows him to be a tremendous shot blocker for his size. Pairing his athletic ability with such a wingspan can provide some unforgettable defensive moments that inspire the team for minutes to come.

Morant's block against the Los Angeles Lakers this January might be one of the most impressive of all time.

The Underrated Talent

When you think about blocks, most of the time, people think about the dominant big men like Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela, defensive juggernauts like Robert Williams or Myles Turner, or all-around packages like Giannis Antetokounmpo.

However, the player with the most blocks in the 2021-22 NBA season (177) is Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr.

Grizzlies lead the league in steals per game (9.8) and blocks per game (6.5), both not possible without the contributions of Jackson. Per Cleaning the Glass, with Jackson on the court, the Grizzlies allow 4.8 fewer points per possession (85th percentile) while their opponents' eFG% worsens by 3% (91st percentile).

With Jackson on the court, Grizzlies opponents' field goal percentage under the rim drops by a whopping 7.6% (96th percentile). Marcus Smart became the NBA Defensive Player of the Year this season, but Grizzlies fans would certainly have their own arguments about Jackson being one of, if not the, best in the game.

The Difficult Road

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for Jackson Jr. He tore his meniscus during the 2019-2020 NBA season's bubble and missed almost the entire 2020-21 season.

"The hardest thing I ever did was sit out for that long," Jackson Jr. remembers. "I mean, it built me into who I am for sure, and I love that, it taught me a lot of things, things I cannot take for granted, but it was hard, it was tough, I hated seeing my teammates play without me, but I loved how they were playing, I loved their spirit, they held it down for me."

Jackson did not let his hands down, kept working, and kept following the rehabilitation process. The forward found ways to contribute to his team without physically being on the court.

"He did a good job at keeping his spirits high, he never let it get to him, at least not in front of us," his teammate Kyle Anderson recalls. "He'd be on the bench motivating guys, talking to them, talking to me."

"He's an ultimate team guy," the head coach of the team, Taylor Jenkins, added. "As much as he had probably tough challenges and a tough road during his rehab, he remained positive to his teammates to let them know 'I can still make an impact even though I'm not in uniform.'"

The Result

The experience of not getting to play for the team you love helped Jackson mature. He used to have issues controlling his body while in the air contesting shots. He used to be handsy under the rim, often picking up fouls with reaches or little pushes.

The 2022 Jaren Jackson Jr. is disciplined and patient in protecting the rim. Even in disadvantageous situations, Jackson is no longer limited in his athleticism, he controls it, and the numbers show it.

Jackson's block percentage has increased every year since he came into the league. The added muscle and experience helped push the percentage to astonishing heights (4.1%, 98th percentile).

If they already haven't, the NBA fans should note Jaren Jackson Jr's name. Seeing how he has developed, there's little doubt we're witnessing a defensive superstar in the making.

The Veteran Inside

When Steven Adams anchored the Thunder team, Russell Westbrook became an MVP. Later on, Chris Paul reignited his career in the team anchored by Adams. When Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came in, he blossomed into a young star. The story is no different with Ja Morant.

When the Grizzlies traded away their star center Jonas Valanciunas for Steven Adams, the trade was welcomed with mixed emotions.

Steven Adams is an old-school center. He doesn't shoot threes, he's not very fast or agile, so he isn't particularly useful in switch-all defense. He's the enforcer under the rim. However, Adams' game is more than that.

The New Zealand center leads the league in boxouts per game (3.8). Let's talk about the so-called "screen assists". The NBA explain them as screens that directly lead to a made field goal. Steven Adams leads the league in them (8.0 screen assists per game) as well.

Steven Adams
Steven Adams
Credit USA TODAY Sports - Scanpix

"Obviously, he's an elite screener," coach Jenkins said earlier this season. "It frees up ball-handlers, the rolling ability. But the passing ability, the dribble hand-off ability, he's just getting comfortable in our system."

With Adams on the court, the Grizzlies' points per possession metric increases by 6.4 (90th percentile), they shoot the ball more efficiently (+1.9% eFG%, 80th percentile), and they rebound the ball much better (+7.3% offensive rebound percentage, 96th percentile).

Ja Morant is also much better when he has Adams on the court. With the center playing together at the same time, the superstar guard overall shoots better (from 45.2% FG% to 51%) and shoots the threes better (37.9% compared to 26.8%). Ja's offensive rating also significantly increases with Adams on the floor (from 107.2 to 117.8).

With Adams' presence in the paint, Morant can do what he does best - drive inside and score. With the New Zealander on the court, Ja's points in the paint shoot up drastically from a measle 4.6 to a dominant 12.7.

Steven Adams is more than just an old-school center. His play is key to the Grizzlies' success on both sides of the court, including the regular season and the Playoffs.

What's Next?

Memphis Grizzlies meet the Minnesota Timberwolves in Round 1 of the NBA Playoffs. Having lost Game 1 at home, the Grizzlies will seek to come back strong Tuesday night. With the young core in place, we are guaranteed to see a show.

Grizzlies fans haven't seen a team win the Southwest division ever. It's the first year in the club's history when such a feat was achieved. The team won't stop at that, and the league better be prepared.


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