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NBA Daily: Fixing The Memphis Grizzlies

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Memphis Grizzlies.

Matt John

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For the past two weeks, Basketball Insiders has taken a look at the teams who have been eliminated from playoff contention and what they should do in order to get themselves back into the playoffs. Next up in the series is the team with the stickiest situation of all the eliminated teams – the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies’ intentions were to be as good as they could possibly be so they could complete two tasks.

1. Milk Grit-and-Grind to the very last drop.
2. Give the Boston Celtics the pick that they traded to them four years ago in order to acquire Jeff Green.

By no means has this season been a disaster for the Grizzlies – the same could not be said for some of their previous turnouts in recent years – but things didn’t go exactly the way they wanted to.

The team is going to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season, and they haven’t really had anything close to playoff success since 2015. Still, there’s plenty of positives both for this season and going forward.

What Is Working

One name, three initials: JJJ. From the ashes of the Grit-and-Grind era comes a new generational talent for the Grizzlies to start over with. The man’s name being Jaren Jackson Jr.

Grind City struck gold when they took Jackson fourth overall in the draft. The Michigan State alum has all the making of the prototypical big in the modern NBA. Though his rookie season was tragically cut short because of a quad injury, Jackson’s three-point shooting and rim protecting abilities have got to make Memphis feel good about its future.

Jackson finished with an average of 1.41 blocks a game, which was good for 16th overall in the NBA, fourth among power forwards and second among rookies behind only Mitchell Robinson. His blocks per fouls average of 0.37 is actually not too good, but with more experience, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem as his career progresses.

Even though his shooting form looks a bit funky, Jackson proved himself to be a respected floor spacer, shooting almost 36 percent from three, a figure that puts him 14th overall among power forwards and seventh among rookies who have played at least 50 games.

With the rebuilding phase on the horizon, it’s only going to get tougher for JJJ from here on out. Thankfully, bringing him in as the Grizzlies are only just beginning their rebuild means their future is in good hands.

It’s also not like Jackson is the only sole young talent on the team. Dillon “Not MarShon” Brooks had an injury-plagued second year following a promising rookie season. Delon Wright has not been very efficient, but is putting up career-high numbers. Bruno Caboclo has shown some signs of being a possible diamond in the rough, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

The youth movement is in full swing just yet, but when Memphis turns to them entirely, at least they already have a foundation. It’s just too bad they couldn’t get their hands on Kelly Oubre.

What Needs To Change

It’s clear as day what changes need to be made in Memphis, but again, it all really depends on whether or not Memphis is able to give its pick away to Boston. If Memphis keeps its draft pick, then next year’s plans get a little foggy. If the pick conveys to Boston, then they need to blow it up. That all starts with Mike Conley Jr.

Though Memphis has tried its best to keep itself relevant during Mike’s prime, the cruel reality of the Grit-and-Grind being yesterday’s news has hit them hard. Had it not been for the disastrous Jeff Green trade, Chris Wallace and co. probably would have traded Conley a while ago.

The team pretty much already gave up on both the season and its most prosperous era when they traded Marc Gasol. The reason why they opted to trade Gasol and not Conley was because of the very real risk of losing Gasol – who had a player option – in the offseason for nothing. Having the pick land ninth or higher would be perfect because:

a. It would go to the Celtics, flashing the green light for Memphis’ complete rebuild
b. They’d lose the pick during a draft that isn’t considered very deep

Conley should have plenty of suitors with the reputation that he has. He’s had a long-lasting rep for being the best player that’s never been to the all-star game – He’s really just a victim of circumstance in that regard – and has a lot of playoff experience on his resume.

Sure, he’s overpaid at $32 million and will be 32 before the next season starts, but getting an All-Star caliber point guard with plenty of good basketball left in him. What’s left to be determined is whether Memphis wants to get the largest quantity of young value back or get money off the books.

The Grizzlies still have Chandler Parsons’ albatross dragging down their salary cap. Using Conley to get off his deal would open up so much cap flexibility yet at the same time not fetch back nearly as much young assets if they traded Conley alone.

It’s very likely that the teams who were in the running for Conley at the trade deadline – Utah, Indiana, and Detroit – i.e. playoff teams looking to improve their standing – will probably be calling again. Those teams don’t exactly boast the most exciting young talent that would realistically be traded in a deal for Conley – not unless Indiana is willing to part with Domantas Sabonis – but nonetheless, Memphis has the perfect opportunity to start a good bidding war.

Memphis also has some decisions to make with Jonas Valanciunas – who is averaging a near 20/10 line since his arrival – should he opt to stay with the team this offseason and Kyle Anderson, who signed a long-term deal hoping to be part of a playoff team, but is instead on a team one step away from a do-over.

There is no strategy that can save the Grizzlies the way they are. Their best option is to blow it up.

Focus Area: Draft

Much has already been made about what Memphis should do if they wind up giving their pick to the Celtics. That’s what they would prefer, but if that doesn’t work out for them, it’s not like a top-eight pick in the draft ever hurt anyone.

The Grizzlies currently have the seventh-worst record in the league. Where the team stands now, the Grizzlies would have a 7.5 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft while also having a 32 percent chance of getting in the top-four if the season ended today.

Even if they achieve their goal of falling out of the top eight, that’s no guarantee that they won’t receive a top-four pick. If that winds up being the case, Memphis should be thankful because as they rebuild, they’ll need the best young talent no matter where they land. It’s true that besides Jaren Jackson Jr., they have a decent crop of young talent, but they most definitely need more at just about every position.

Dillon Brooks, Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo are all decent talent but none scream future All-Star. If they manage to keep their pick, Memphis should just take the best player available. No matter who they get, that should help the roster long-term.

If they are able to get Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, that would make the future so bright that perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much to them in regards to giving Boston a better pick as Brooklyn did.

There is a lot riding on where Memphis ends up in the draft, but it’s not the end of the world for them if they wind up keeping their pick.

Focus Area: Free Agency

It’s hard to see Memphis being players in free agency in the state that they are in. They’re most likely not going to be in a position to win anytime soon regardless of what happens in the draft. Even worse, looking at their history, they may be wise to save the cap room that they will be building up over the next year or so.

The last free agent that they invested tons of money into was Chandler Parsons. Even though Parsons’ play has picked up lately, Memphis has paid him $20+ million per over the last three years for him to sit out with his knee injuries. It goes without saying that he was not a smart investment.

The last free agent addition that panned out well – and it panned out better than anyone could have imagined – was Tony Allen, but that was almost a decade ago.

This offseason, it’s more likely than not that Avery Bradley – who’s had himself a mini-rebirth in Memphis – will probably be waived seeing that he has a non-guaranteed contract. It’s been brought up that Jonas Valanciunas has a player option that he’s probably going to pick up. The same goes for CJ Miles, who hasn’t had the best year overall.

If the Grizzlies are going to sign anyone, it’s more than likely going to be a young player looking to rehabilitate his image. Guys like Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor might consider going to the Grizzlies in the hopes of establishing themselves in the league.

Overall, it’s not a pretty sight in Memphis, but it’s not entirely hopeless. A lot of what happens this summer depends on where their pick lands. All they can do now is just play the waiting game.

Please stay tuned for future installments of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line

Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.

And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.

Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.

“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”

So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.

Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.

As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.

Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.

“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”

Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.

A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.

“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”

One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.

The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.

On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.

Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.

According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.

“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”

Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.

But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.

In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.

With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.

“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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