EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Phoenix Suns face elite conference competition in Memphis Grizzlies

Dec 22, 2022, 5:38 PM | Updated: 8:06 pm
Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 27, 2021...
Ja Morant #12 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the NBA game at Footprint Center on December 27, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Grizzlies defeated the Suns 114-113. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — On ESPN’s NBA Today, Malika Andrews asked Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant which team he is studying the most in preparation for the postseason.

Morant answered with the Boston Celtics, and when Andrews followed up asking about the Western Conference, he followed up with, “Nah. I’m fine in the West.”

Is he right? Probably not! But it speaks to the identity the Grizzlies have taken on as the young guns who aren’t afraid of anyone and will let everyone know about it. The Phoenix Suns on Friday get their first look at the 2022-23 iteration of the Grizzlies, the team currently atop the West standings and tied with the Denver Nuggets.

Memphis transformed from lovable upstart to a contender last season, winning 56 games before bowing out in the second round to the eventual champion, the Golden State Warriors. It has been steady through 30 games this season, going 19-11 and avoiding a three-game losing streak to this point.

The big question for the Grizzlies is one that is familiar in Phoenix right now, and that is who will step up to help Second Team All-NBA guard Morant.

That question already has an answer but one the Suns might not get to see.

A dozen games in before injuring his toe, third-year guard Desmond Bane was averaging 24.7 points per game with shooting splits of 46.5/45.1/91.2. Bane has already established himself as one of the league’s best shooters but he is more than capable now of initiating offense in relief of Morant, something he proved already last year by posting over 18 points a night.

He looks like he could join Morant on an All-NBA team before it’s all said and done. This, of course, is nails on the chalkboard for some Suns fans who loved Bane in the pre-draft process ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft in which the Suns selected Jalen Smith 10th overall. It’s a tough one to swallow, especially given how Bane said he had a long talk with Suns general manager James Jones.

Alas, if if was a fifth and all that mumbo jumbo. Bane’s toe injury was diagnosed a 3-4 week timeline on Dec. 7 but he is questionable for Friday’s matchup. Seems like he should be good for Tuesday regardless.

Outside of Morant, Bane and First Team He’s Never Seen A Shot He Didn’t Like member Dillon Brooks, it’s a grab bag of semi-interesting inexperienced pieces on the perimeter. Whether it is Santi Aldama, John Konchar, Jake LaRavia, David Roddy or Ziaire Williams, that group steps up to the occasion consistently enough to aid them through injuries and remain a top team in the conference. They effectively didn’t replace Kyle Anderson or De’Anthony Melton with similar veterans, and it hasn’t really mattered yet.

Tyus Jones, who has led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio each of the last four seasons, keeps that ship steered in the right direction.

On the interior, the Grizzlies have arguably the best big rotation around with Steven Adams, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke. Any team would love to have a bruising stalwart like Adams or explosive presence like Clarke, and then there’s Jackson, who has taken a page from Bane and appears in the process of a leap.

Jackson’s games-played counter sitting at just 14 is the only reason why he’s not the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. The No. 3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft was someone out of Michigan State who looked like he had that in his future while his offense was a work in progress. But the draft and prospect evaluation can be weird sometimes, and Jackson is a prime example of that because what he showcased in his first couple years was a skill set more seasoned on offense, where he’s produced 15.8 points per game in his career.

Defensively, however, it’s all coming together. His 3.2 blocks a contest would be the NBA’s No. 1 mark if he qualified for the leaderboards.

He is evaporating shots around the rim as a help defender this year, an area where he’s not getting too overzealous so he avoids the foul troubles that have plagued him in the past.

This is essentially the future of the power forward position on defense. Have a guy mobile enough to manage OK in switches on ball-handlers, sure. More importantly, though, they possess the speed to be a constant rotating presence from the weak side. This is crucial because of how often 4s are utilized offensively as floor spacers in the corner, and how stretch 5s will drag traditional rim protectors like Adams to the perimeter.

Jackson also has the size to play some 5, where he presented problems to Nikola Jokic in Denver on Tuesday.

Phoenix is not a team that shoots around Jackson’s domain that often as it is. The Suns rank 29th this season in the percentage of its shot attempts at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. Teams with that type of protection are problematic matchups, as we’ve seen in the past.

To end with the continued parallels to the Suns, Memphis owns all of its first-round picks, plus an extra one from the Warriors in 2024 and two bonus second rounders. The Grizzlies, already the youngest team in the league last year, added four rookies to their roster via the draft.

It feels like we are just waiting for them or the New Orleans Pelicans to go with a big move in the next year to really take a firm grasp of the West. They both have the assets to do so, and either of them pulling the trigger would put even more pressure on the Suns to do their own version of that.

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