The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the youngest teams in the NBA. But they’re also one of the most confident, mainly because of exceptional play from the starting backcourt of Ja Morant and Desmond Bane.
Though he missed 12 games with an ankle injury, Morant has made his case as the best point guard in the league this season. Bane, meanwhile, is one of the leading candidates for the Most Improved Player Award.
The two guards have helped the Grizzlies to a 25-14 mark and the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference. They are also infusing the rest of the roster with a certain sense of arrogance.
Ja Morant and Desmond Bane play like they have something to prove
Ja Morant wasn’t a highly-touted prospect coming out of high school. Even when he shined at Murray State, he didn’t truly build a national profile until the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Desmond Bane spent four years playing for mostly mediocre squads at TCU before falling to the Grizzlies with the final pick of the first round in 2020.
Memphis’ starting backcourt never lost that sense of playing with something to prove.
Morant expressed disappointment at receiving boos from the home crowd upon making his return from the ankle injury on Dec. 20. How did he respond? By dominating everyone and everything in sight.
The Grizzlies have won six in a row. Morant is averaging 30.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 6.2 assists in that span, shooting over 53% from the field and a whopping 60.9% from beyond the arc on 3.8 attempts per contest. He’s averaged close to +15 per contest in terms of plus-minus.
As for Bane, he’s intent on making teams regret passing on him in 2020. He said as much in a conversation with The Athletic.
“I will never let it go,” Bane said. “I feel like teams had their chance to get me and knew who I was. It wasn’t like I was one of those one-and-done guys. You had four years to do your research on me. All my background stuff checked out. That’s on them.”
Having earned the starting 2-guard spot during the preseason, the Bane has made a giant leap in his sophomore campaign. He is averaging 17.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, shooting 41.6% from 3-point range on 6.9 attempts per game.
The hungry attitude exhibited by the young stars seems to be rubbing off on their teammates.
The Grizzlies take it to their opponents
In October, Morant spoke about how the Grizzlies franchise has experienced rapid growth in the past couple of seasons and made statements to the rest of the NBA. After another strong start, Memphis is letting opponents hear all about it.
Sometimes, youth can bring with it a certain audacity. That appears to be the case with the Grizzlies, as one league executive told The Athletic that Memphis displays an unrivaled affinity for trash talking.
“[The Grizzlies] talk the most s**t in the league.”–NBA executive to The Athletic
That doesn’t mean the Grizzlies aren’t tough, though.
Memphis annihilated the Brooklyn Nets on the boards in a Jan. 3 win at the Barclays Center. The Grizzlies finished the game with 61 total rebounds, including 23 offensive boards.
While the backcourt powers Memphis’ success, the frontcourt is still defined by the grittiness that defined Grizzlies teams of old. Jaren Jackson Jr. is an elite shot-blocker and interior presence. Steven Adams is one of the strongest players in the NBA. Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman Sr. don’t get a ton of minutes, but they’re both incredibly tough to handle around the basket.
Morant brings the flash. Bane brings the fire. The rest of the Grizzlies bring everything else, drawing confidence from the attitudes of their guards.
How far can Morant and Co. go?
The advanced numbers suggest this Grizzlies team is for real.
Memphis ranks eighth in net rating and expected win-loss record. It is the best rebounding team in the NBA and turns opponents over with regularity. The improvements made by Ja Morant and Desmond Bane have helped spearhead a group that ranks eighth in offensive rating. Can the Grizzlies sustain their success?
There’s a lot of reason to believe Memphis can keep climbing. Jaren Jackson Jr. thrived with Morant out of the rotation, but he’s had a difficult time scoring the ball efficiently during the team’s current winning streak. If he becomes a steadier third option, the Grizzlies could really fly.
Moreover, Memphis should ultimately benefit from better health. Dillon Brooks is one of the team’s better perimeter defenders, but he’s played just 19 games.
Ultimately, however, Morant and Bane are responsible for this team’s capacity to challenge elite contenders such as the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Interestingly enough, the Grizzlies are 1-1 against both the Suns and Dubs, with a win in hand over the Utah Jazz.
Time will tell if Memphis can stay near the top of the West. But the Grizzlies will very likely keep talking the talk and playing like they have nothing to lose.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.