Grizzlies

Does Memphis Have a Better Core Than Phoenix?

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*All stats as of January 15th, 2020

Recently, well-respected Miami Heat writer Nekias Duncan created a poll on Twitter asking if the Memphis Grizzlies or Phoenix Suns have a better young core. The survey finished with just under 2,500 votes, and the Grizzlies came out ahead with 57% of the votes. The results sparked discussions throughout NBA Twitter. Fans from various fanbases chimed in, debating throughout the replies.

 

Note that during the beginning of this poll, the Lakers were blowing out the Suns. The next day, as the survey came to an end, the Grizzlies lost a winnable game to the Kings. Those factors may have skewed those votes at those times. However, there is no way to know precisely how much effect those games had.

The results of this poll prove that the Grizzlies have more national appeal than ever, though. The arrival of Ja Morant, along with the team’s shift into rebuild mode, has garnered interest from fans across the nation. The debate between these two teams is an interesting one, considering the similarities between them. While the poll came out somewhat one-sided, the squads appear pretty evenly built. Here’s how they match up this season.

Roster Construction

When comparing the two teams’ rosters, the first note is that they are two of the youngest teams in the league. Both sides have an average age of 24. The oldest active player on either group is Aron Baynes at 33, who played a significant role for the Suns during Deandre Ayton‘s suspension. The youngest players are Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr, both 20-year-old Grizzlies. Fans see both as the franchise’s cornerstone pieces for the future. Both teams have nine rotation players below age 25, the typical age limit for being considered “young.” Age-wise, the rosters present as even.

Both teams are under new leadership this season. The Suns were able to sign Monty Williams this offseason. Administrators considered Williams the best coach available, and he has shown why early this season. He brought stability to the position and is a significant reason for Phoenix’s turnaround. Williams has been an assistant coach since 2005 and was an assistant to Nate McMillan in Portland from 2005-2010. In 2010, Williams became the head coach of the New Orleans Hornets and was the youngest head coach in the league at the time. Williams held the position for five seasons, making the playoffs twice. His record as a head coach currently sits at 186-242.

The Grizzlies hired coach Taylor Jenkins this offseason. He is the youngest head coach in the league, and this is his first season in that position. Jenkins has experienced success in the NBA and G-League, mostly as an assistant. He began his coaching career under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, where he served as a coach for the Spurs’ G-League affiliate. From there, Jenkins followed Mike Budenholzer to Atlanta and then Milwaukee, serving as an assistant from 2013-2019. Jenkins’ most notable accomplishment during this time was developing four Hawks players into All-Stars in 2015.

Front Office Reputation

Grizzlies’ Outlook

Both teams made multiple changes to their front offices this offseason. Grizzlies owner Robert Pera decided the youth movement should extend into the staff. Pera demoted former GM Chris Wallace, then fired coach JB Bickerstaff and VP of Basketball Operations John Hollinger. Assistant GM Zach Kleiman, 30, was promoted to the organization’s executive vice president position. From there, Kleiman and Pera grabbed Jenkins to fill the head coaching vacancy, forming the youngest owner/executive/head coach trio in the league. Initial reactions to this youth movement were mixed, with some teams feeling the organization didn’t know what it was doing.

While the youth experiment is still new, it seems the Grizzlies’ executives have quickly gained respect around the league after a very successful offseason. The team was able to make several moves, managing to solidify the current roster and prepare for the future simultaneously. Trades with OKC and Phoenix netted Brandon Clarke, Josh Jackson, and De’Anthony Melton. An intelligent trade with Atlanta got Chandler Parsons‘ contract off the books and brought in Solomon Hill. They also signed Tyus Jones and Jonas Valanciunas in free agency. Considering Memphis’s rebuilding status, its executive unit should be around for a while.

Suns’ Outlook

The Suns made many similar changes. Their first move was promoting James Jones to GM. Jones had spent the last two seasons as the Suns’ vice president of basketball operations. The team also added Jeff Bower as senior vice president of basketball operations and retained Trevor Bukstein as assistant general manager, establishing the power structure in Phoenix. During Jones’ first two seasons, he had split the GM duties with Bukstein. Jones became popular with owners for his efforts in establishing better connections between the front office, players, and team personnel. Bukstein has been in Phoenix since 2010, serving as assistant GM since 2013. Bower has the most impressive resume of the three, boasting 30 years of NBA experience.

Phoenix made some significant moves in the offseason. They managed to secure Ricky Rubio, Kelly Oubre, and Frank Kaminsky via free agency. They also added Aron Baynes, Cameron Johnson, and Dario Saric via trades. The ownership has a history of changing staff quickly, but that trend may be changing based on this offseason.

Defining “Young Core”

After seeing the discussions around his poll, Duncan followed up with this question:

The topic “young cores” is a pretty common point of conversation in today’s NBA. Everyone seems to have their definition. The most common definition of a young core player is a player that is 1) under the age of 25 and 2) has less than five years of NBA experience. For this analysis, players will also need to average at least 12 minutes per game to earn consideration. Two-way players not included.

About Those Young Cores: Who’s Included?

Suns’ Young Core

Guards

Players included: Ty Jerome, Mikal Bridges, Devin Booker, Jevon Carter

Devin Booker headlines Phoenix’s young guards. Booker is the longest-tenured member of the young core. He is a budding All-Star and a proven elite scorer. Booker was an early pick in Phoenix’s rebuild, and the team is aiming to build around him. He has risen to the challenge, averaging 25 points per game for the past two seasons. Booker is one of six players in NBA history to score 60+ points in a game.

Mikal Bridges projects as a versatile 3-and-D wing and is capable of spotting up off Booker. Bridges is still developing but appears to fit that role pretty well so far. Bridges is averaging fewer minutes this season but is continuing to find ways to impact the game. He averages 1.4 steals over 20 minutes per game. Despite a down year so far this season, Bridges has shown a decent shooting stroke, hitting 36% from three in his rookie year.

The Suns acquired Jevon Carter in an offseason trade with the Grizzlies. At 24 years old, he is the most aged guard on this list. Carter is a gritty defender. His offensive game is a work in progress but appears to be improving. His shooting percentages are slightly up across the board. He’s averaging 13 minutes per game. His overall fit in Phoenix’s future may be questionable, but his defense alone should keep him in consideration for minutes this season.

Ty Jerome is the lone rookie in the guard core. Jerome has seen action at both the G-League and NBA levels this season. Jerome projects as a versatile guard, capable of playing at either guard spot. In college, he was a key player on Virginia’s national championship team. He displayed the ability to score, pass, and defend at a high level. While he hasn’t had many opportunities to show it, Jerome could play a more significant role for the Suns down the line.

Wings

Players included: Cameron Johnson, Kelly Oubre Jr.

Kelly Oubre Jr was acquired via trade last season, then re-signed as a free agent. Teams widely coveted him for his athleticism and energy. Oubre can play multiple positions and has provided Phoenix with a secondary perimeter option beside Booker. His defensive versatility has been tremendous for Phoenix, allowing them to switch on defense seamlessly. Oubre provides a vertical threat that complements Booker’s scoring prowess well. He is the team’s second-leading scorer.

Cameron Johnson is a rookie combo forward. He was most known for his shooting stroke in college, and that has translated well to the pros. Johnson is shooting 40% from three on just under five attempts per game. He’s yet to make a start but has played in every game so far, averaging 20 minutes. Johnson will need to bulk up a bit to hang with other NBA forwards, but he has the potential to become a prototypical wing.

Bigs

Players included: Deandre Ayton

Phoenix took Deandre Ayton with the number one overall pick in the 2018 Draft. The Suns believe he’s their big of the future. Ayton had a successful rookie campaign, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds. He is a more traditional big and has proven to be elite as a post scorer. Ayton looks the part of a potential franchise player and has benefited from the Suns’ revamped perimeter rotation. However, his fit in the new system and roster are limited due to suspension and injury this season.

Grizzlies’ Young Core

Who’s Included?

Guards

Players included: Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton, Grayson Allen

The #2 overall pick in this year’s draft, Ja Morant, is an explosive athlete with elite playmaking abilities. The Grizzlies have handed him the keys to the offense, and it’s already paying dividends. Morant has revitalized the fans and put the Grizzlies on the national radar. He brings a swagger to the court that has been a perfect fit in Memphis. Morant is the Rookie of the Year favorite and leads rookies in scoring and assists.

Memphis acquired De’Anthony Melton from the Suns in an off-season trade. Melton is an elite defender with a blossoming offensive game and is a high-energy, high-IQ player. Happily, he’s quickly become a fan favorite in Memphis as playing alongside the Grizzlies’ point guards has helped his offensive game flourish. This arrangement is allowing Melton to see increased minutes as the season has progressed. He leads the team in net rating and projects as a vital piece of the young core going forward.

The Grizzlies acquired Grayson Allen from the Utah Jazz as a part of the Mike Conley trade. Allen has served as a spark plug for the Grizzlies this year. His combination of shooting and athleticism allows him to serve as a primary scoring option with bench units. Allen has the talent to help the Grizzlies contend in the future, as long as he keeps his emotions under control.

Wings

Players included: Marko Guduric, Dillon Brooks

Marko Guduric is a rookie who played professionally overseas before coming to the NBA. Fans know him for his shooting prowess abroad, but he has struggled in the NBA. However, Guduric has displayed a crafty offensive game that allows him to still be useful. His shooting will be necessary for the Grizzlies as they move forward, and he has the potential to develop into a facilitator with the second unit.

Dillon Brooks is a third-year wing who has emerged as the Grizzlies’ third option. After injuries derailed his second season, Brooks re-established himself as a legitimate league scorer. Brooks is a competent isolation scorer, something every team needs. He’s arguably the team’s best shot creator. Brooks’ aggression on offense is something the team welcomes, as they are 12-0 this season when he scores 20+ points.

Bigs

Players included: Jaren Jackson Jr, Brandon Clarke

Jaren Jackson Jr is Memphis’ resident “unicorn.” Jackson is an excellent example of the modern-day NBA big, capable of doing damage inside and out. He has turned into one of the deadliest shooting bigs in the league in his sophomore season. Jackson can also put the ball on the floor when he needs to. He’s shown tremendous improvement defensively and looks every part of the next dominant big man in Memphis.

Brandon Clarke is a rookie who many consider the steal of the draft. The Grizzlies traded into the draft to take him, and it’s easy to see why. Clarke is an incredible athlete and defender, with an offensive game that is better than anticipated. He has been very efficient and is currently sixth in the league in field goal percentage. Clarke has emerged as another critical part of the Grizzlies’ core.

Core Comparison

Average Player

When comparing these two cores, I looked at individual statistics of each player and how much the core contributes to the team. I also determined what the “average” player in each young core would average by simply averaging the stats of each player. These two “players” are nearly identical. The Suns player is a slightly better rebounder, while the Grizzlies player is slightly more efficient. It is worth noting that the Grizzlies have one more player in their core than the Suns do. This is what the “average” young player for each team looks like:

  • Suns: age 23, 6’6″, 11.8 pts, 4.5 reb, 2.2 ast, 1 stl, 0.5 blk, 44/29/80 shooting splits
  • Grizzlies: age 22, 6’5″, 11.2 pts, 3.4 reb, 2.8 ast, 0.7 stl, 0.5 blk, 46/37/82 shooting splits

Offensive Comparison

Winner: Grizzlies

The Suns have Devin Booker, one of the best scorers in the league. Booker averages 26 points per game, 8 higher than the second-highest scorer in either core (Kelly Oubre). However, the Grizzlies’ core accounts for more points per game, scoring 90 to the Suns’ 82. The Grizzlies have four double-digit scorers, and the Suns have three. Surprisingly, the Grizzlies’ core is also ahead of the Suns’ in three-point shooting, accounting for 77% of the team’s made threes. The Suns’ core is responsible for 61%. The Grizzlies also shoot a higher percentage from three. The Grizzlies also hold a significant advantage in assists, averaging 22 per game, six more than the Suns.

While the Suns have the top two leading scorers of these cores, the Grizzlies have six out of the top ten. The age difference between the teams’ top scorers is substantial The Grizzlies top two scorers, Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr, are both only 20 years old, while Booker and Oubre are 23 and 24, respectively. While the Suns are more established, the Grizzlies look like a future offensive juggernaut.

Quantity over Quality

https://twitter.com/GrizzliesOnFSSE/status/1214001544376602624?s=20

Morant and Jackson have shown flashes of limitless potential in their short time together. Jackson has developed into a legitimate three-point sniper. He currently boasts a top-5 effective field goal percentage among players with 200+ jump shot attempts. He has already nearly doubled his total three-point attempts from last season and has increased his rate by an incredible five points. Jackson has also shown increased confidence in handling the ball and utilizing his quickness against slower bigs. He is on pace to become one of three players in NBA history to post a season with 200 3PAs, .400 3P%, and 4% BLK%.

Morant is an electrifying rookie guard who plays like a veteran. He is an elite athlete and playmaker. His quickness allows him to get to the rim with ease. Morant is fearless when attacking, and has already faced off against some of the league’s best rim protectors. Morant is also an excellent playmaker. He’s good at drawing the defense then finding the open man. He averages 6.9 assists per game. Despite fans not considering him a shooter, Morant has shown an excellent shooting stroke when teams pack the paint. He only attempts 2.3 threes per game but is shooting 41%. Morant leads all rookies in points and assists per game.

Behind Morant and Jackson, the Grizzlies have a solid offensive group. Dillon Brooks is an excellent scorer who can consistently fill the third option role. Brooks, like Morant, is extremely confident and can break down defenders well. He can score off the dribble and off the catch. Brandon Clarke has emerged as another young offensive option the Grizzlies can utilize. He was seen as a defensive-minded vertical threat when drafted but has shown a dynamic offensive game. He has displayed a solid shooting stroke. Clarke is exceptionally efficient and is slashing 63/40/80.

Even the lower scorers for the Grizzlies have shown impressive potential as secondary options. Tyus Jones has facilitated the second unit well, while De’Anthony Melton has shown significant offensive improvements in his second season. Grayson Allen has shown poise to go along with his talent.  Marko Guduric has displayed a crafty game to go along with his shooting ability.

Defensive Comparison

Winner: Grizzlies

Historically, followers acknowledge the Suns are for their offense and the Grizzlies for their defense. This season, while neither is prolific defensively, the Suns’ core players have been better. They provide more, statistically, to the team’s overall defense. They rebound better than the Grizzlies, averaging 31 rebounds per game, while the Grizzlies only average 27. Those 33 rebounds account for 72 percent of the Suns’ total. The Suns also win the steal and block categories. The young players account for 83 percent of the Suns’ steals, coming up with 6.5 per game. Their 3.6 blocks per account for 95 percent of the team totals. The Grizzlies’ core matches the 3.8 block total, but it only accounts for 73% of the team’s total.

The Grizzlies have more defensive potential, though. The team is getting better defensively each month, and its defensive rating in December was two points lower than it was in November. The Suns’ rating has increased by 13 since October. The Suns also don’t have any players that look like potentially elite defenders, while the Grizzlies have three.

A Three-Headed Monster

Jaren Jackson Jr has made strides on defense and looks like Memphis’ next defensive anchor. At 6’11” with 7’4″ wingspan, Jackson interferes with shots all over the court. He has 30 games with at least one block this season. Jackson’s foul trouble limited him early this season, but he has lowered his fouls, and his defensive impact has skyrocketed. As his IQ increases, he could emerge as one of the top defensive bigs in the league. Jackson’s rebounding numbers are still lower than they need to be, but the ability is there. He and Brandon Clarke have already displayed the potential to become an elite defensive frontcourt once both develop a bit more physically.

Clarke’s defense has translated well to the pro level. He’s springy and smart. Clarke is quick enough to switch onto guards and athletic enough to stick with forwards on the perimeter. His smaller stature causes him to struggle a bit with bigger players in the post, but he makes up for it with his leaping ability. Clarke is also a smart rebounder. He uses his athleticism to get rebounds, even with more sizable players nearby. Clarke’s defensive IQ is elite for a rookie. He is continually helping and shifting seamlessly within the defense. He may be the next First Team All-Defense team member in Memphis.

De’Anthony Melton has emerged as the next elite perimeter defender in Memphis. He’s already received praise from Tony Allen, which is the best co-sign a young guard can get in Memphis. The Grizzlies feel Melton’s impact every time he checks in. He’s frequently making plays on defense. He keeps his head on a swivel, coming up with a lot of steals and deflections. As a rookie last year, Melton became one of just eight players in the past ten seasons to play 900+ minutes while maintaining a steal percentage above 3 percent and a block percentage above 1.5 percent. He’s on pace to do it again this season. Melton looks like the motor at the center of the next dominant defense.

Clarke, Melton, and Jackson look like the next three-headed defensive monster in Memphis. While those three have the potential to be elite defenders, the other young players look like they could be talented defenders, as well. Ja Morant has the athleticism needed to defend guards; he just needs to bulk up some. Dillon Brooks is a decent defender and has shown the ability to stick with other wings. Grayson Allen is aggressive on defense and has produced some highlight reel blocks in the past. Marko Guduric is a bit slow for an NBA wing but has the potential to become an average defender.

Declaring The Winner

The comparison between these two young teams is a positive one. Even though the final poll numbers weren’t close, I think the two groups are more alike than many realize. They currently have nearly the same record but have gotten there in opposite ways. The Suns started hot, then fell off pretty hard. The Grizzlies started rough, and have figured it out as the season has gone on. I could realistically see both teams being Western Conference contenders in several seasons. As constructed right now, the Grizzlies have a higher ceiling. They already have a foundation in place to be elite on both sides of the ball, and they will be a Finals contender over the next decade. The Suns could emerge as a fun rival, similar to the Clippers or Spurs of the past. Either way, the future is bright for both teams.

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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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