This year’s trade deadline marked the start of a change for the Memphis Grizzlies.
No, they didn’t trade both franchise cornerstones as anticipated. General manager Chris Wallace elected to move Marc Gasol and hang on to Mike Conley Jr. Other pieces like Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green were sent away.
Four new faces—Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Avery Bradley and C.J. Miles—joined Memphis as a result.
The re-shaped roster is now a healthy mixture of veterans who have been there and young guys that have potential to break out, but haven’t garnered enough valuable experience to this point of their respective careers.
A prime example of the latter is Ivan Rabb.
In his second season as a professional, California’s former Mr. Basketball is finally getting the chance to prove his worth with the Grizzlies.
“Ivan has been playing really well for us,” Memphis head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He’s been playing more minutes since the trade and he’s been productive. You look at his ability to rebound the ball, he’s got great touch around the rim, he’s working and continuing to improve his three-point shooting.
“[Friday night], he hit a big three from the top of the floor for us, which helps with spacing and opens up the floor for everybody else. Which is the new NBA as we know, so the opportunity is there for him and so far he’s been taking advantage of it.”
In the month of February, Rabb is putting up season-best averages of 9.9 points and 5.7 rebounds in 10 games. He’s started in eight of those contests consecutively, which is the longest stretch of his young career yet.
“I think a lot of this whole opportunity is because I’ve gotten a lot stronger and I’ve just put up a lot more shots, a lot more reps,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders ahead of a visit to Cleveland.
“My entire game’s been feeling pretty well. I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well on both ends, and I just want to continue to keep that going and keep building on it every game.”
Rabb displayed his skills late last year in April with the Grizzlies’ eye on the offseason, but this time around the expanded role looks like it’s going to stick. The organization is focusing on player development the rest of the way, so the 22-year-old is going to play a pivotal part in the rest of the season.
This will especially be the case with the recent news out of Memphis.
Promising rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. will be out for the foreseeable future as he battles a right quadriceps injury, meaning others will have to step up. Rabb knows the Grizzlies will miss his scoring and facilitating, in addition to his shot blocking and defensive prowess.
“No question. It’s just up to all of us to come together,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders of the significant setback. “We just have to try to come together and fill that void, and I feel like we have the guys to do it until he gets back.”
Bickerstaff understands making up for the loss won’t be easy, and it shouldn’t come in the form of an individual effort.
“It’s tough. Obviously, it’s a blow,” Bickerstaff said. “Jaren had been having a really, really good rookie season… We were beginning to feature him in more fourth quarters, so we’ll have to find somebody else who can fill that role.
“It’ll be multiple guys that have to do it. We won’t expect one guy to do what Jaren did. We’ll spread it out, but we believe that we’ve got guys in that locker room that can all contribute and that can help us down the stretch.”
Make no mistake about it, though—Rabb will be one of the important pieces to the puzzle without Jackson.
While he’s only playing about 12 minutes per game on the season as a whole, Rabb has upped that by 10 more this month.
Maybe that’s why he’s found such a rhythm in the key. In February, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound forward is averaging 6.8 points in the paint per game. That’s the area where he does his best work via the hook or a sort-of push shot floater.
In the non-restricted area of the paint, Rabb has converted 75 percent of his tries. That’s the second-best rate in the NBA this month with a minimum of 15 attempts. Among those averaging at least one point per game on post touches, he’s also runner-up for highest field goal percentage (62.5).
As of late, the Grizzlies have looked to get Rabb involved on the block. The goal seems to be either taking a face-up jumper or backing down whoever’s guarding him. He’s got a knack for navigating lanes to cut through and can also pass the ball quite well (13.2 assist percentage) as a part of an inside-outside game.
Bickerstaff and his assistants have even encouraged the sophomore big man to take threes in open-floor sets.
“They help me a lot,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I put in a lot of time with them after practice, before practice, watch a lot of film. They spend a lot of time with me. I think they’re real focused just like us and try to make sure that we all become great.
“Just keep getting more comfortable out there. I feel like every game I’m kinda like expanding more and more. Like, my game is changing. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do, too.”
Veterans can also be an extension of the coaching staff. Guys like Joakim Noah with over a decade of experience and even a newcomer like Valanciunas who’s seen a lot during his six years in the league—they make a meaningful impact on players who can use guidance.
“The best part about those guys is they’re not in it for themselves,” Bickerstaff said. They’re two very unselfish guys who genuinely care about the team and their teammates and everybody having success in developing, and the guys know that.”
“When they’re talking to them, they know where they’re coming from – that it’s for their best interest in wanting them to improve. The way that they talk to the guys and the way they put their arm around them when they need it, they have an understanding that it’s not about them. They’re there to help the Ivan’s, the Jaren’s, the younger guys who haven’t had as much experience as them.”
Rabb praised all of the vets he’s been with to this point in Memphis, noting that they’ve been huge for him.
“Just staying in my ear, giving me just encouragement, building confidence in me, telling me that they trust me to make the right plays and things like that,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “And that goes a long way. They see the time that I put in, as well as all the other young guys, and they believe in us.”
Listening to pieces of advice from coaches and teammates, Rabb has picked things up quicker with each night.
“There are certain things I don’t do anymore that I used to do,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “Like, small mistakes I used to make that now it’s just I know where I’m supposed to be. Just small stuff like that. It goes a long way. And things like that will keep me on the floor. The faster you learn ’em, the more you’ll play.”
When asked about applying those little things when he’s been out there, Rabb admitted it’s been more difficult than he originally thought.
“I think mostly it comes from just playing,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “There’s a lot of things you’ll see on the bench that you think you know what you’re supposed to do in that situation, but you don’t really know until you get thrown in the fire and you have to make heads up plays and things like that.”
Rabb’s dedication to honing his craft is what will solidify his place in the Grizzlies’ rotation. Those workloads are going to grow larger as we approach the final month-and-a-half of the 2018-19 campaign.
At this point, it’s all about being a student of the game and enjoying the ride, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s been a lot of fun out there just playing and learning through my mistakes,” Rabb told Basketball Insiders. “I want to continue to just get better every day. And you never know what’ll happen.”
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