Grizzlies Have Survived Bumpy Start


Despite numerous injuries to players all throughout the Memphis Grizzlies’ rotation, the team has scrapped their way to a 4-6 start. This week, they went 2-2, picking up wins over the Nets and Cavaliers.

During this week’s games, some of the positive results of this season’s early hurdles started to take shape. The depleted roster has allowed the coaching staff (and fans) to see who can impact the team going forward. Some players might have established their spot in the rotation even after everyone returns, while others have seemingly lost theirs. New fan favorites have emerged as well, while other guys have fallen way out of favor:

Some of the developments we’ve seen were expected. Others, not so much. Before we get into my biggest surprises, let’s take a look at a few honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions

Brandon Clarke

In only 10 games, Brandon Clarke has managed to do a complete 360. Yes, you read that right – a 360. After missing the preseason, Clarke returned opening night and looked completely out of whack. He seemed flat and rusty. His new jump shot form had Twitter in flames. Some fans were ready to give up on him, even going as far as calling him broken.

Turns out, time is exactly what Clarke needed. Since the turn of the calendar year, he’s been back to his usual self. His activity levels have returned to normal, he’s moving more effectively, and he has stepped up for a team that desperately needed it. So far in the new year, he’s averaging 14.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. While his efficiency is low by his standards, it’s safe to say those percentages will tick back up as the season continues. The return to form bodes very well for the Clarke and the team going forward.

De’Anthony Melton

During the offseason, I wrote about Melton and said the most important area of improvement for him was point-guard play. So far, he has looked much more comfortable when serving as the lead ballhandler. It appears that Melton has finally earned Taylor Jenkins’ trust in the role. Melton has spent roughly half of his playing time at point guard, a significant jump from last year’s 20-percent mark. He’s spent a decent portion of that time without Tyus Jones or Kyle Anderson on the floor, which is a sign of improvement from last season, when he was borderline unplayable without a primary ballhandler on the floor.

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Inevitably, Melton’s time as a ballhandler will see a pretty drastic decrease when Ja returns from injury. That said, the early part of this season has allowed him to prove he can hold down the point-guard spot when needed. His development in that role elevates his value even further. Even with the bigger offensive role, his defense and energy have been excellent, which is a great sign for the Grizzlies.

Now, let’s get into my top three surprises so far.

3. Tillman’s Impact

Xavier Tillman has been as good as advertised. After missing the first five games with a knee injury, Tillman returned and immediately made his impact felt. His size and motor alleviate some pressure from the other bigs on the boards. His patience with the ball has allowed him to fit in perfectly with the bench unit, and his passing allows him to be a weapon all over the court. While his jumper hasn’t quite started falling at a high rate, he’s continued to take it when the defense gives it and looked confident doing so. He has been awesome in the pick-and-roll as well.

Defensively, he’s really stood out. Rookie bigs usually struggle out the gate, but Tillman hasn’t. He is currently one of two Grizzlies with a defensive rating below 100. The former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has looked very comfortable against some top-tier talent in his first five games. He has held his own against Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond and Jarrett Allen.

Tillman’s traditional numbers don’t pop out — six points, three boards, an assist and a half — but his advanced stats are incredible. The team’s net rating with him on the court is +11.2. It drops to -6.2 with him off. The team’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.2 when Tillman plays, which is second only to Ja Morant’s impact. Interestingly enough, he has the lowest pace on the team, but they shoot the best with him in the lineup.

2. Team Defense

Looking at the Grizzlies’ roster, injury report and schedule, the average fan might predict them to be a one- or two-win team at this point. I’m not sure if they’ve been a favorite to win any of their games without Ja in the lineup. Yet here they are, sitting at 4-6.

How have they done it? By playing the way Memphis teams always have – gritty. Memphis currently sits fifth in the league in defensive rating, per Basketball Reference. By hunkering down on that end, they have fueled their transition game. They’re currently seventh in the league in fastbreak points per game, according to The Grizzlies are also top five in points in the paint, second-chance points, and points off turnovers.

The entire team has bought into getting their hands dirty, and it’s working. This bodes well going forward. Having the young Grizzlies get reps in unusual circumstances now will help them be even more successful once Ja and Jaren return.

1. Bane’s Rebounding

Desmond Bane was hailed as a knock-down shooter coming out of TCU. While he has been that, he’s also brought more to the table than expected. His defense has been solid. His passing has been good. He’s displayed the ability to get to the rim and finish when needed.

Bane’s rebounding has stuck out beyond everything else, because I wasn’t expecting it at all. Bane has shown an excellent knack for getting involved on the boards, especially on offense. He crashes from the wing and corner with great timing and uses his athleticism to keep plays alive. This has led him to being fourth among rookie guards in rebounds per game. It’s a seemingly small contribution, but I have a great appreciation for the effort and hustle Bane has shown on the glass. It’s become one of my favorite things to watch for in each game.

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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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