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Who Will Be the Knicks Next Point Guard?

The Knicks are in search of their point guard of the future. Tommy Beer breaks down the candidates.

Tommy Beer

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The Knicks find themselves in a familiar position this offseason. Coming off another losing season, New York will, once again, spend the summer desperately searching for a point guard.

There has been plenty of unpredictability and chaos surrounding this franchise for the better part of two decades. However, scarcity of quality point guards and an abundance of defeats have been two fairly constant themes since the turn of the century. Dating back to the start of the 2001-2002 season, the Knick are 240 games below .500 (528-768). The Minnesota Timberwolves are the only team in the NBA with a worse record over that stretch. One common denominator on most of these awful Knick teams has been the lack of a steady, solid point guard.

Just how putrid and inconsistent has the Knicks point guard play been over the last decade? Well, (via Basketball Reference) here are the franchise leaders in total assists among guards since 2006-07:
1. Raymond Felton (1,225 assists)
2. Chris Duhon (944)
3. Nate Robinson (715)
4. Jamal Crawford (705)
5. J.R. Smith (602)
6. Pablo Prigioni (568)

Over those ten years, the only New York point guard to post a PER above 17 over the course of a full season was Nate Robinson in 2008-09.

A quick look around today’s NBA serves as a reminder that quality point guard play has become virtually imperative for teams that hope to compete at the highest level. Of the eight teams that have won a playoff series in 2017, seven of them have point guards that have made an All-Star team. (George Hill of Utah is the only non-All-Star on the list.)

The last Knicks point guard to be named to an All-Star was Mark Jackson back in 1988-89.

Coming off three straight losing seasons, the Knicks roster has plenty of holes that need to be plugged. Still, no need is more pressing than finding a point guard for the present, and the future. All too frequently, the Knicks have had neither. Thus, the consistent losing. This summer, either via the draft, free agency, or even possibly a trade, New York will hopefully (finally) find a solution. Below we take a look at each possible approach:

*****

Free Agency
There will be a number of top-tier point guards on the market this summer. Unfortunately, it’s extremely unlikely that any of them would consider signing with the Knicks. Not only will the Knicks likely have less than $20 million to lavish on free agents in July, but New York is also no longer the ideal destination for players it once was.

* Stephen Curry:
LOL.

* Chris Paul:
At this time last year, it didn’t seem like an impossible proposition. The thinking was that the Knicks were going to have plenty of cap space in 2017 and, assuming they posted an impressive record during the 2016-17 season and made a bit of noise in the playoffs, Carmelo Anthony could conceivably convince his buddy CP3 to join Melo and Kristaps Porzingis in New York. Instead, the Knicks are a nightmare, Phil Jackson has alienated Carmelo Anthony in every way imaginable, and the chances of Chris Paul leaving L.A. for NYC have dropped from slim to none.

* Kyle Lowry:
Earlier this month, when asked about his free agent priorities, Lowry focused on only one thing.

“A ring, Lowry said. “Nothing else. I just want a ring.”

Yea, so, we’ll move on…

* George Hill:
Hill is a talented, underrated point guard and would be an undeniable upgrade for the Knicks, but the fit isn’t quite right. For starters, Hill is 31. How many more high-level seasons does he have left in the tank? The Knicks are nowhere near a competitive team right now, and likely won’t be for a while. Signing Hill would be a “win now” move for a team that should be thinking long term. In addition, Hill’s injury history is a concern. He’s missed a total of 80 games over the last three seasons.

* Jrue Holiday:
Holiday turns 27 next month, and his best basketball is ahead of him. While not a superstar, he’s above average on both ends of the floor. Holiday a reliable shooter and crafty scorer, who makes smart decisions in pick-and-roll action. Defensively, his quickness and length allow him to keep opposing point guards out of the paint. Durability issues have been a problem in the past, but Holiday only missed three games due to injury last season. The downside is that he will be expensive (well north of $20 million annually) and, as a result, likely out of Knicks price range. Nonetheless, if the Knicks don’t draft a point guard with their lottery pick, Holiday will be a target, especially if the Knicks choose to re-sign Justin Holiday and Jrue considers giving New York a bit of a discount to play alongside his brother.

* Jeff Teague:
Teague is in his prime at age 29. He’s been durable and solid, if unspectacular, since becoming a full-time starting point guard. He would make sense as an intriguing option, but Teague’s hometown team, the Pacers, will be motivated to keep him in Indianapolis to show Paul George they’re serious about remaining competitive.

* Derrick Rose:
The experiment simply didn’t work. Rose’s 2016-17 stats (18.0 ppg, 4.4 apg and 3.8 rpg) look good on paper, but he was often a net negative, due primarily to his lethargic, subpar defense. He ranked near the very bottom of the league in Real Plus/Minus. While his skill set would fit with some teams, his ball-dominant style doesn’t mesh with Kristaps Porzingis, who should be the focus of the franchise going forward. Bringing back Rose, who tore his meniscus in April, would make very little sense.

* Milos Teodosic:
The Knicks have had plenty of success unearthing gems via international scouting, but the 30-year old Teodosic is not a player that has flown under the radar. Last summer, in a poll of NBA general managers, Teodosic was voted the best player not currently playing in the league. He’ll have plenty of interested suitors come July, with the Nets, Kings and Nuggets at the top of the list. Although he’s one of the best passers in the world, he’s a sieve on the defensive end. Teodosic would bring plenty of excitement and flair to MSG, and it’d be fun to watch him work with Porzingis, but considering his age and defensive issues, he’s not an ideal fit in New York.

* Patty Mills:
Mills has come off the bench his entire career and may be looking to land a starting gig this summer. If the Knicks strike out on their primary targets, Mills, age 28, might make sense as a placeholder for a few years.

Some other free agents that will be up for consideration: Tyreke Evans, Shaun Livingston, Darren Collison, Deron Williams, Sergio Rodriguez, Langston Galloway (player option), Brian Roberts, Shelvin Mack, Trey Burke (restricted), Ramon Sessions (team option), Michael Carter-Williams, (restricted), Raymond Felton, Tyler Ennis, Ty Lawson.

*****

The Draft
With the Knicks failing to jump up into the top-three via the lottery drawing, we can effectively take Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball off the board, as they are expected to be the first two players selected.

* De’Aaron Fox:
Unfortunately for the Knicks, it is extremely unlikely that Fox falls out of the top-five, let alone slides all the way down to No. 8. It’s unfortunate for New York because Fox has the type of superstar upside that could potentially turn around a franchise. He is lighting quick with remarkable athleticism and length for the position. Fox is hands-down the best defender among all point guards in the draft. And while concerns about his shooting ability are legitimate, it should be pointed that out that over his final ten games at the University of Kentucky (including the SEC and NCAA tournaments), Fox averaged 19.6 points while shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and 47.4 percent from 3-point territory. Pairing him with KP would put the franchise on a path towards success, but the Knicks will likely have to trade up in the draft in order to have a shot at selecting him.

* Dennis Smith Jr.:
It most other years, Smith would be arguably the best available point guard prospect in the draft. However, because the Class of 2017 features so many supremely talented playmakers, it’s quite possible Smith is still on the board when the Knicks are on the clock. Smith’s remarkable explosiveness allows him to blow past helpless defenders. He averaged 18.1 ppg as a freshman at N.C. State, due in part to his ability to get to the basket at will. He is strong enough to either finish at the rim or draw contact and get to the charity stripe. Smith posted a free throw rate (the number of free throws per 100 field goal attempts) of 48.6 percent last season. That’s tops among all guards in this draft. He’s also terrific in transition (averaging 1.18 points per possession). He isn’t a world-class passer, but he is certainly unselfish and willing to find open teammates. Smith led the ACC in total assists (197), assists per game (6.2), and assist percentage (34.2) in 2016-17. The main knocks on Smith were his lack of defensive intensity (he took plays off from time to time) and his below-average wingspan. He also tore his ACL back in 2015, so an injury concern exists. Still, considering the massive upside this kid brings to the table (as evidenced by his dominant performance at Duke), it would be difficult for the Knicks to pass on him if he’s available.

* Frank Ntilikina:
Two years ago, Phil Jackson made the most important and single-best decision of his Knicks tenure by drafting Kristaps Porzingis with the fourth pick in the 2015 draft. Might Phil decide to spend this year’s lottery pick on another international man of mystery? Just 18 years old, Frank Ntilikina (pronounced nee-lee-KEE-na) is a highly enticing prospect. He’s 6-foot-5 with a mammoth wingspan (nearly seven feet). Due to his combination of length and athleticism, Ntilikina projects as one of the most versatile and capable perimeter defenders in the draft. Playing sparingly off the bench in France, it’s difficult to make determinations based on Ntilikina’s stats and game tape from last season. However, he was phenomenal at the FIBA U18 European Championships last December, averaging 22.7 points and 6.7 assists, while shooting 58.6 percent from three-point range, over the final three games of the tournament. He shot 42 percent on 1.6 threes per game this year. If the Knicks are drafting solely on who fits best in the “The Triangle” (which is something they should not do), then Ntilikina may very well be the pick. He is taller, and a superior defender, and is a better long-range shooter than Smith at this point in their respective developments. On the other hand, Smith is more suited to excel playing the type of pick-and-roll game featured by the vast majority of successful teams in today’s NBA. Non-triangle-centric teams may ultimately prefer Ntilikina to Smith as well; it’s just that Ntilikina happens to check most of the boxes in regards to Triangle requirements. Ideally, the Knicks will make a decision based on which player they feel fits best alongside Porzingis.

*****

Via Trade
If the Knicks don’t land their point guard of the future on draft day and then strike out in free agency as well, they may choose to explore some trade possibilities to address the point guard position. Keep in mind, these aren’t ideal solutions, as there is a reason each player may be on the block. Here are a handful of potential trade targets that may pique the Knicks interest.

* Emmanuel Mudiay:
Mudiay has not lived up to the hype since being selected with the seventh overall pick (three spots behind Porzingis) in the 2015 draft. After an understandably rocky rookie season adjusting to the NBA, Mudiay surprisingly saw his playing time and production decrease in his sophomore season. He lost his starting spot and was banished from the rotation in January. Mudiay saw only spot minutes for the remainder of the season until injuries allowed him to get back in the lineup in April. Meanwhile, Jamal Murray, the Nuggets first-round pick in the 2016 draft, stepped in and stepped up. Murray exceeded expectations and appears to be a franchise cornerstone in Denver, which mean Mudiay would likely be available for the right price.

* Reggie Jackson:
As I discussed earlier this month, the Pistons may be motivated to make a major move this summer after a terribly disappointing 2016-17 campaign. Jackson is coming off an injury-plagued season and is set to earn $51 million over the next three years. Meanwhile, Detroit often played better with backup point guard Ish Smith running the show, and Smith is owed just $12 million through 2019.

* Ricky Rubio:
The Knicks and Wolves were purportedly close to swapping Derrick Rose for Rubio at the trade deadline back in February, before that deal dissolved. Despite, Rubio’s relative struggles at the time, it would have been a phenomenal acquisition for the Knicks. First and foremost, Rubio is locked into a very affordable contract. He is set to make $14.3 million next season and $14.9 million in 2018-19. Considering the current market for point guards, that’s a terrific value. Unfortunately for New York, they weren’t able to pull the trigger. Over the second half of last season, Rubio played some of the best basketball of his career. In 24 games after the All-Star break, Rubio averaged 16.0 points, 10.5 assists and 4.6 rebounds. (Only two other players, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, averaged at least 15 points, 10 dimes and four boards per game over the season’s second half.) There was a report this week from ESPN’s Ian Begley that the Knicks are still interested in trading for Rubio, but with New York no longer able to include Rose in the deal, it doesn’t appear the Knicks would have the requisite pieces to pry Rubio from Minnesota. That ship has sailed.

* One of the many point guards on the Phoenix Suns roster:
The Suns currently have Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Tyler Ulis under contract. They also have a player option on Leandro Barbosa. In addition, Phoenix has the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft. Some have speculated that despite their depth at the position, the Suns may be tempted to nab another a point guard if they feel De’Aaron Fox or Dennis Smith is undoubtedly the best player available when they are on the clock. Even if they draft a wing as expected, Phoenix may still be willing to deal. Regardless of what happens next month, they would love to dump Knight’s contract (he’s owed a total $34 million over the next three seasons), but will find it extremely difficult to find any team willing to take on that deal. Knight is coming off the worst season of his career, as he averaged 11 points per game (on 39 percent shooting) and 2.2 assists. The coaching staff benched him after the All-Star break and he didn’t play another minute the rest of the year. Eric Bledsoe is one of the most athletically gifted guards in the NBA and averaged a career-high 21.1 points and 6.3 assists per game last season. The issue with Bledsoe is that he has had trouble staying healthy. In addition, the Suns would likely want more than the Knicks have to offer. Phoenix snagged Ulis in the second round last summer and he was buried on the bench for most of the year until injuries allowed him to crack the rotation. Once he got a chance to play, he proved he belonged. Over Phoenix’s final 15 games, Ulis averaged 16.1 points, 8.5 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals.

* Tim Frazier:
If the Pelicans ink Jrue Holiday to a max contract, might they consider trading Frazier? Unlikely, as Frazier is set to make only $2 million next season and was near the top of the league in assist-to-turnover ratio.

* Matthew Dellavedova:
It is probably safe to assume the Bucks would be happy to move Dellavedova. Milwaukee signed him to a four-year, $38 million contract last summer; however, Malcolm Brogdon surprisingly wrestled the starting job away from Delly in late December and never looked back. Brogdon, who is a candidate to win the Rookie of the Year award, is clearly the Bucks’ point guard of the future.

Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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NBA Daily: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

An inside look-in at the early frontrunners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Dylan Thayer

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In this fresh edition for Basketball Insiders, there are a few players that should be finalists for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Of course, this prestigious award is given to the contributor who makes the biggest impact on the floor for their team on the defensive side of the ball. In two out of the last three seasons, the award has gone to Rudy Gobert, the rim-protecting center for the Utah Jazz. This past season, Giannis Antetokounmpo won both the DPotY award, as well as Most Valuable Player for a second straight year. Over the past few years, the trending group of finalists for the award has been consistent no matter what the order ends up being. 

Can anyone new break in this year?

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis will always be in the conversation for this award as he has shown throughout his career that he is one of the league’s most ferocious game-changers. Despite never winning the award before, he has made four NBA All-Defensive teams as well as being the NBA’s leader in blocks on three occasions. Davis’s block numbers are a little lower than they usually are at 1.9 blocks per game this season – compared to 2.4 for his career, per Basketball-Reference. This could be due to the addition of Marc Gasol to the Lakers’ frontcourt, a move that has boosted the team’s rim protection. If Davis can raise his numbers again, he should be in consideration for the award purely based on his defensive presence on the court – but he should still finish among the top five in voting.

Myles Turner

The center for the Indiana Pacers – the former potential centerpiece of a Gordon Hayward trade with the Boston Celtics – has continued to show why the team would not package another one of its top players with him. Turner is the current league leader in blocks with 4.2 blocks per game, elevating his game beyond any doubt in 2020-21. He is one of the more underrated rim protectors in basketball, as he has only one top-five finish in the DPotY voting in his career. Turner has also improved his steals metrics this season by averaging 1.5 per game, thus providing a strong defensive presence alongside All-Star frontcourt mate, Domantas Sabonis. Turner should be the frontrunner for the award as things stand right now, but that could change as the season progresses, especially as his injury impacts proceedings.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The reigning two-time MVP should always be in the conversation for the DPotY award as he revolutionizes the defensive side of the floor at an elite level. Currently, Antetokunmpo is averaging 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game to go along with a 106.5 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. It goes without saying, but Antetokounmpo is a chase-down block artist, always there to contest shots around the rim with his long frame. The 6-foot-11 power forward is one of the league’s top five players due to his exceptional play on both sides of the ball and will always be considered for the DPotY award as long as he in the NBA.  

Kawhi Leonard

The Los Angeles Clippers’ superstar has been arguably the best defensive small forward in the game over the past few years. He first gained major recognition for his defense during the 2014 NBA Finals against the LeBron James-led Miami HEAT. Since then, Leonard has racked up six All-Defensive team nominations to go along with two Defensive Player of the Year awards. This season, Leonard remains an elite defender for the championship-hopeful Clippers with 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game – but his defensive rating is the highest of his ten-year career at 107.8. 

Andre Drummond

The current league leader in rebounds for the Cleveland Cavaliers is having a monster season thus far. In a contract year, Andre Drummond is currently putting up 19.3 points per game, 15.8 rebounds per game, 1.7 steals per game and 1.6 blocks per game. He also has a very stellar defensive rating of 105.0, a culmination of points allowed per 100 possessions. Drummond is not on a very good team, but that should not take away from the impact he makes when he is on the floor. As a pure rim protector and rebounding machine, he should finish higher up in the voting results than usual, even if his season doesn’t end with Cleveland. 

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris

The Philadelphia 76ers have started the season on a very high note at 9-5, all despite loads of COVID health and safety protocols preventing their full team from taking the floor. Tobias Harris has played a major part in their early-season success leading the NBA in defensive win shares among starters who have played at least 10 games with 0.184, per NBA Advanced Stats. Along with that, Harris is also second in defensive rating among qualified starters at 99.6. The veteran forward has averaged 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. So if the 76ers want to remain at the top of the Eastern Conference, Harris’ overall play will be a huge reason for that success.

 As the old saying goes, defense wins championships – and these players are the type of players that can change the result of a game every night. Keep an eye on these players as the season moves along as they should garner consideration for both All-Defensive team nominations and the DPotY award.

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NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – Jan. 21

Basketball Insiders’ Tristan Tucker provides an update on some of the rookies around the league and which are truly in contention for the Rookie of the Year award.

Tristan Tucker

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Through the NBA’s first month, the rookie class has continued to show what they can do on the court. While some have faltered or succumbed to injuries as the games have piled up, others have shone bright and even cracked their team’s starting lineups as the race toward the Rookie of the Year award heats up.

With that in mind, let’s take a third look at Basketball Insiders’ Rookie of the Year ladder stands and see where they stand.

1. LaMelo Ball (Previous: 2)

Through the first month of play, Ball has been, undisputedly, the Rookie of the Year. With numbers that could rival some NBA veterans — 11.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game — Ball has found a way to impact winning for the Charlotte Hornets without starting a game thus far.

While much of the hoopla around Ball has come from his offensive, he’s been pretty solid on the defensive end as well; his 1.5 steals per game are good for 13th in the NBA, while his 21 total steals tie him for 10th.

On Jan. 9, Ball also made history as the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double. An eventual move to the starting lineup should only further promote his game.

He could stand to improve his efficiency, as Ball has shot just 40.3% from the field, 33.3% from three and 67.9% from the free throw line. That said, the sky’s the limit for the young rookie. With Ball at the helm, Charlotte and their fans should feel pretty confident about their group going forward.

2. Tyrese Haliburton (Previous: 1)

Haliburton’s late-lottery selection was a surprise, as the point guard that reportedly shot up draft boards late in the process had always played with a hardworking and winning mentality at Iowa State. Still, he hasn’t missed a beat with the Sacramento Kings and paced the Rookie of the Year race from the start.

His 11.1 points, 5.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game, along with his 51.6% mark from the field and 51% clip from three (on over four attempts a contest) are mightily impressive. Meanwhile, lineups that have featured Haliburton with the Kings’ usual starters have fared exceptionally well; when he’s replaced Marvin Bagley, the Kings are a plus-10.6 and play at a torrid pace.

Haliburton and Ball have comparable stats, with Ball being a better rebounder and Haliburton being a better shooter. But Sacramento’s 5-10 record has kept him out of the top spot for now, as leading his team to a positive record — and a potential playoff spot — will almost certainly work in Ball’s favor when voting commences at the end of the season.

3. James Wiseman (Previous: 3)

After taking a year away from competitive basketball, the fact that Wiseman has been able to contribute at such a high-level right away has come as a pleasant surprise for the Golden State Warriors. Wiseman’s 10.7 points per game place him fifth among rookies, while his 6 rebounds per game place him second.

Fresh off a career-high 20 points against the San Antonio Spurs, Wiseman has continued to learn more each day. Draymond Green’s role in Wiseman’s development could also pay some extreme dividends for the Warriors, as the young center might prove unstoppable were he to incorporate Green’s court vision and handle into his own game.

With numbers comparable to Kevin Garnett’s and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s age-19 seasons, Wiseman has helped put the Warriors in prime position to push for a playoff spot despite the loss of Klay Thompson prior to the season.

4. Tyrese Maxey (Previous: Not Ranked)

With a move into the starting lineup, Maxey has rapidly climbed the board as he’s earned more and more praise. He was always going to be an impressive piece for the Philadelphia 76ers — in fact, Maxey was seen as so crucial to Philadelphia’s future success that he was held out of any potential James Harden trade package — but his 39-point outburst against the Denver Nuggets has seemingly sparked more trust from the team in Maxey early on.

For the season, Maxey has averaged an impressive 11.4 points on 47.7% shooting from the field. But his numbers have spiked since he moved into the starting-five: in six starts, Maxey has averaged 16.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and assists and has shot 46.7% from the field.

If he can sustain that kind of productivity as the 76ers’ health improves, Maxey might be a lock for the All-Rookie First Team. Likewise, expect him to hold down a spot on this list for the foreseeable future.

5. Patrick Williams (Previous: 5)

Despite his late rise, many saw Patrick Williams’ selection by the Chicago Bulls as a reach. But, so far, Williams has proven the doubters completely wrong, as he’s started every game in which he’s made an appearance for the 6-8 Bulls.

That isn’t to say Williams hasn’t been perfect, as many of Chicago’s groups that feature the young forward are net negatives by a good margin. But, so far, Williams has already brought the confidence and energy that you want to see out a top pick. He hasn’t shied away from tough matchups, either, as Williams took to the task of guarding both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard in the Bulls’ recent games against the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, valuable experience that should only further improve his game.

His 10.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 48.5% field goal and 87% free throw percentages are nothing to slouch at, either. So, while it may be a while before he reaches the height of some of his classmates, Williams has look of a special NBA talent.

6. Anthony Edwards (Previous: 4)

Edwards has put up some incredible scoring numbers off the bench for the Minnesota Timberwolves, as he’s averaged a rookie-leading 12.2 points in 25 minutes per game.

However, Edwards’ shooting splits have disappointed, while he hasn’t been able to do much to turn around the Minnesota Timberwolves 3-10 season in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

Edwards’ placement on this ladder is contingent on how the Timberwolves both fare in Towns’ continued absence and how different they look upon his return; they showed plenty of promise when he was on the court and Edwards’s standing could improve drastically if the team can turn it around and win some games.

Each year, it would seem as if that the next group of young talent is more exciting than the last. And, with so many talented rookies in the fray, almost any of them could crash the Rookie of the Year party. Make sure to check back on our next update to see who might do just that.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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