Grizzlies

Grizzlies Not Using JJJ, Bane Correctly

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In an otherwise-abysmal 6-16 start to the season for the Memphis Grizzlies, Desmond Bane’s growth is a brilliant bright spot.

He appears to be a bonafide second scoring option. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s season has been a cruelly tantalizing roller-coaster, with incredible moments on the good and bad end of the spectrum.

But both players must be utilized differently for the Grizzlies to climb back into the play-in upon Ja Morant’s return. 

JJJ is an isolation monster

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the most efficient isolation player in the NBA (with at least two isolation possessions per game on a five-game sample). 

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Yet Jackson Jr. is just 30th in isolation attempts per game. Meanwhile, he has the 12th most possessions in the league as a pick-and-roll screener and sits near the bottom of the NBA in that category. Shockingly, he is far better as a pick-and-roll ball-handler than roll man, further highlighting his untapped creation potential. 

Memphis – the third-worst offense in the NBA – treats Jackson Jr.’s isolation game as the cherry on top when it needs to be part of the ice cream. For a team struggling to create offense in the half court, not consistently turning to such a productive – and simple – option is a glaring coaching error.

Taylor Jenkins acts as if Jackson Jr. is a Kristaps Porzingis-like shooter and screener, when he’s evolving into something closer to Joel Embiid – a big man off-the-dribble scorer.

The coaching staff is just catching on to Jackson Jr.’s dominance in the post, and it’s resulted in scoring volume on par with the best bigs in the league.

Jackson Jr.’s 41-point game against Dallas on Monday was a shining example of his offensive growth. He can be a go-to scorer at multiple levels. He was 6/10 from three, 9/19 inside the arc and 5/5 from the line. That it came in a losing effort is not a reflection on him – it’s a reflection on the small army of his teammates in street clothes every night.  

Bane is a three-level scorer

It’s certainly not a reflection on Desmond Bane, either. His 28-point performance vs. the Mavericks felt routine. The 30th pick in the 2020 draft has a case to be a top-30 player in the league. He’s 16th in scoring and eighth in threes per game. 

But the way he’s getting those buckets indicates he might be a different player than even his coaching staff appreciates. 

A pure three-point marksman during his first two years in the league on a combination of spot-ups and off-screen opportunities, Bane has evolved to be a multi-level offensive engine – scoring from deep, of course, but also on deadly mid-range pull-ups and rim attacks. 

As a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Bane is scoring at higher efficiency than Jayson Tatum and Kyrie Irving. In transition, he’s scoring at a better rate than LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the mid-range, he’s shooting a higher percentage than Devin Booker

Yet Bane gets just the 27th most pick-and-roll ball-handling opportunities per game. He averages less than three mid-range attempts per game – despite repeatedly torching Detroit from that distance in his 49-point explosion last week. 

Meanwhile, Bane runs off screens the 14th most in the NBA – and scores near the bottom of the league in those plays. He takes the second-most dribble handoffs in the league and is below league average in that category. 

Memphis often treats Bane like Klay Thompson when he’s closer to peak Bradley Beal – a three-level scorer comfortable creating off the dribble. 

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane both need the ball in their hands. The Grizzlies must use them like the versatile go-to scorers that they are, not specialists aligned with their early-career strengths. 

What happens when Ja comes back? 

When Ja Morant returns on Dec. 19 vs. the Pelicans, the assumption is Bane and Jackson Jr. will slide into their tried-and-true secondary status. Morant registered the most pick-and-roll ball-handling possessions per game in the league last season. He is necessarily a ball-dominant player and has been the center of the Grizzlies’ offensive universe since his arrival in 2019. 

But for the Grizzlies to reach their ceiling – which remains among the highest of any young core in the league – they need to leave room at the creation table for all three stars. 

Bane should still operate pick-and-roll possessions, allowing Morant to cut off-ball for lobs or attack a closeout against a scrambling defense. 

Jackson Jr. should still get a healthy diet of post-up and isolation chances. As his passing grows – he’s averaging a career high in assists this season – he can find Bane for spot-up threes. 

Morant should still be the head of the snake, but his chances should come within the flow of the offense. It should not be force-fed pick and roll over and over again when the Grizzlies employ two other All-Star-level creators. 

Even maximizing all three young stars might not be enough for this battered version of the Grizzlies to reach the playoffs. But if Memphis finds an offensive recipe it can replicate next season – when even average health should allow the Grizzlies to once again dominate defensively and on the boards – this depressing stretch will all have been worth it.

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