The San Antonio Spurs are fresh off an absolute thrashing of the Houston Rockets as they return to the welcoming walls of The AT&T Center to host the third-place Memphis Grizzlies for yet another challenging SEGABABA before the All-Star Break.
Ja Morant has blossomed into an MVP candidate in his third season, and a brand new era of Grit and Grind basketball is underway on Beale Street. To better understand how Memphis flipped their fortunes, I sat down with Grizzly Bear Blues associate editor Parker Fleming.
1. The Grizzlies have been trending upwards in the Western Conference standings, but they enter this matchup a bit shorthanded. What are the keys to them defeating a fully healthy Spurs team?
The key is to not take the Spurs lightly and don’t let them convert defense into offense. Though they lack star power and are 12th in the West, they still have a slew of good role players capable of stealing games. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Devin Vassell, and Jakob Poetl are all plus-defenders, and they also play a lot of minutes. For Memphis, it boils down to taking care of the ball with smart ball movement. If they play their standard of basketball, their chances to win are good each night, regardless of the opponent.
2. Several NBA analysts rolled their eyes when Memphis traded Jonas Valančiūnas for Steven Adams and a 2022 first-rounder this Summer. How has the bruising big man performed thus far?
Steven Adams certainly isn’t washed like everyone thought! He’s the league’s best offensive rebounder, and the coaching staff has really tapped into his playmaking chops. Seriously, the man is a wicked passer. His shot reluctance — or the amount of field goal attempts he requires to be effective — opens up more for Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Ja Morant. It’s also no big deal if the Grizzlies don’t close with him either, as units with Jackson and Brandon Clarke are sizzling. Both teams got what they wanted out of the deal, and it shows that there’s more nuance behind trades that extend beyond “player A for player B.” Also, how about that Laker pick? LOL!
3. Ja Morant has transformed into a fringe MVP candidate and put his name in the Most Improved Player of the Year conversation. Can you talk about how he has taken his game to the next level?
Many people will tell you that he shouldn’t be in the Most Improved Player Award because he was already an All-Star level player. Nonetheless, his scoring aggression is what has propelled this leap. He’s more comfortable shooting threes and mid-range jumpers. He can get by anyone and finish over anyone. He’s just developed into a premier scorer in the league, and we’re running out how words to describe his level of play.
4. Desmond Bane has taken a developmental leap from an impactful rookie on a play-in team into an elite sharpshooter for the third-place Grizzlies. How does the front office keep finding these guys?
The Grizzlies have a type, and they look for a specific kind of production. It sounds simple, but Memphis wants high-character guys that can pass, dribble, shoot efficiently, and defend. It’s worked with Bane, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman, John Konchar, and De’Anthony Melton. And they don’t care about age or wingspan. The Grizzlies have a formula that they’ve nailed pretty well, but the work ethic of these players can’t go unnoticed. Bane, in particular, needs to be in the Most Improved Player conversation. The amount of work he has put into becoming a more versatile scorer and playmaker while growing as a defender has launched him into the “franchise cornerstone” conversation.
5. Draft pundits were skeptical when Memphis traded up to snag Ziaire Williams with the tenth pick of the 2021 Draft, but he has carved out a role since the new year began. What are your thoughts on the rookie?
There are highs and lows, but overall I can’t help but think he’ll evolve into a bonafide top-7/8 rotation player on a playoff team by the end of his rookie deal (maybe by year 2, or likely year 3). While he needs to improve his strength as a defender and finisher, he’s shown promise as a defender and cutter. His jumper is pretty, but his shooting prowess ranges by the game. It’s going to be a process, but Ziaire Williams will be just fine in this system.