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Grizzlies Draft Watch: Four Weeks Out

Since I’ll be stuck between stations through this year’s NBA draft and free agency, I’m going to weigh in here on occasion.

With a month to go before the draft and only one real Grizzlies draft workout in the books, let’s focus today on the team’s pick at number four, and start by setting some apparent parameters.

Current Operating Assumptions

We’re in the middle of what one NBA professional I talked to this week dubbed “smokescreen season,” so consider all of this somewhat subject to change. But for now these are our operating assumptions, presented in descending order of solidity:

1. Deandre Ayton is off the board: I listened to a podcast from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo on the plane home to Memphis late this week and he told a story about a recent discussion he’d had with an NBA front office executive he considers to be among the brightest. Russillo asked the front office guy about all the concerns about Ayton’s fit in the modern NBA game, about whether he’d even be on the floor at the end of close games. And Russillo said the exec looked at him like he was crazy and said, essentially, “Have you seen this guy? He’s awesome. He’s the pick. Don’t overthink it.” I am that front office executive. For Grizzlies purposes, though, it doesn’t matter. Ayton’s the one player who has no chance of being there at #4.

2. Trading up is out: There was a discussion on 92.9, home of my radio side hustle, recently about the prospect of trading up. Would you trade the #4, #32, and Dillon Brooks to get to #2? Two hosts said they would not. This was presumably based on the defensible belief that the talent gap in the 2-4 range in this draft is relatively flat. But it’s a moot point: Even if that’s true, Brooks and #32 is still not enough added value to move up two or three spots within the Top 5 of a draft. Given the first-round pick they still owe to Boston, the Grizzlies don’t really have the assets to move up to #1 or # 2. Maybe to #3 if Atlanta senses who the Grizzlies want, it’s not who they want, and they squeeze a little something out of their leverage.

3. Memphis is the wrong place at the wrong time for Mo Bamba: Set aside the unfair Hasheem Thabeet comp. Bamba is a more fluid athlete and higher-upside prospect. He’s on the short list of players who could end up being the best player in this draft, which has to make him a candidate at #4. But, wisely or not, the Grizzlies want immediate help from this pick. Because of his project status and because he probably can’t play with Marc Gasol, that’s not Bamba. More importantly, the Grizzlies need a cornerstone for the future. That certainly could be Bamba, but the Grizzlies are right to worry about risk. Bamba presents too much of it given the other options.

4. Trading out is unlikely: As much as the Grizzlies want to be back in the playoff mix next season, it’s hard to see the #4 pick fetching an established all-star-level player in his youngish prime, especially given the added and likely unwanted salary that would probably have to be attached to the pick. Anything less than that in return isn’t worth forgoing the long-term potential/rookie-salary-scale value of picking at #4.  

5. The fourth pick is ultimately too high for Wendell Carter Jr. or Trae Young or Mikal Bridges: I like all of these players, but they seem like trade-down options (more on that next), not picks at #4. Bridges is a decent bet to be a long-term NBA starter, but players of his type (those who don’t emerge as lottery-level prospects until deep into their college careers) have a risky history and the star upside seems minimal. I believe in Young as a deep shooter and playmaker, two of the most important skills in the modern NBA, but worry that his severely limited size/athleticism will make him too weak a defensive link to fully mine those skills, and the presence of Mike Conley on a still-lengthy contract makes Memphis a hard place to maximize Young’s value anyway. Carter is a closer call, but I just don’t think he has the same upside as the big men likely to be taken earlier and also think his poor fit alongside Gasol undercuts his instant-impact potential.

6. Trading down can’t be discounted but is still unlikely: The Top 10 of this draft is deep enough to envision a team moving down a few spots and still getting the guy they want or a close runner-up. I could see this as more of an option for the Grizzlies if someone falls hard enough for Bamba (or, less likely, Young) to move up for him. Here’s an entirely made-up scenario:

  • The #4 pick and Ben McLemore to Orlando for #6, Jonathan Simmons, and #35.

Something like that. The Magic’s front office seems to have a hankering for wingspan. Dallas, at #5, needs a center. Maybe Orlando wants Bamba and can’t be sure to get him #6. Who can say at this point?

You’re not adding a star by moving down within the lottery, but I could see scenarios where the Grizzlies can bolster next year’s rotation while still getting a similar-level draft prospect. Still, I probably wouldn’t move down from #4 unless I could still get the exact player I would draft at #4.  

7. Michael Porter is too risky: As consensus Top 4 prospect before last season with a game — a big face-up combo forward with go-to scorer potential — that fits well in the rapidly changing NBA, Porter has to be a candidate at #4 if his medicals aren’t an issue. But I don’t see how his medicals won’t be an issue. He had back surgery less than a year ago and didn’t look right at all during his too-early return at the end of the college season. The back questions, especially given the Grizzlies’ recent history with damaged goods acquisitions, just seems like too big a risk this high in the draft. Even fully healthy, Porter’s not a sure thing. There are questions about every prospect, but defense, shot selection, and mentality are among Porter’s. Let’s set aside the Kevin Durant comp. Porter doesn’t have that length. He could be Jayson Tatum. He could also be a Ghost of Grizzlies Past (Rudy Gay/Jeff Green). He’s on the outside looking in right now. If he gives the Grizzlies access to his medicals and assents to a workout, he could move into the following discussion.

Where That Leaves Us

The process of high-to-mid-lottery elimination leaves three names standing: Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr.

We could spend thousands of words on this trio, but we’ve still got a month to go, so let’s stick to only a few quick observations for now:

Buckets and Boards vs. The Little Things: The debate between Bagley and Jackson in the frontcourt is partially about what you value at the position. Bagley profiles as an Amare Stoudemire/Zach Randolph-style 20-10 machine, a go-to-scorer whom you may have to work around on defense. Jackson profiles as an Al Horford/Serge Ibaka/Draymond Green type: A versatile defender and spot-up shooter who will impact both ends of the floor but may never be a 20-point scorer.

The first type is traditionally perceived as more of a “star,” the second type more of a glorified “role player.” Why take a role player in the top four, some would say?

Because there’s ample evidence that the NBA has shifted in a way that this second type of frontcourt player contributes more to winning.

Bagley’s signature skill is his quickness off the floor. This results in rebounds and dunks.

Jackson’s signature skill is his combination of length and defensive awareness. This results in blocked shots that Jackson shows a knack for keeping in play and snuffed out offensive actions.

The buckets and boards are crowd-pleasing, but are they more important that the defense?

I’m putting a little bit of a thumb on the scale, rhetorically, for Jackson here. I’m torn between the two, and think Bagley has more potential for improvement than his staunchest critics allow. But I do think Jackson has the kind of game that’s built for the modern NBA, more so than it was built for a year of college basketball as an 18-year-old under a traditionalist coach.  

Present vs. Future: Bagley and Doncic have the kinds of pedigrees (elite-ranked prospects who have backed it up with elite production) that have a good NBA track record. They also seem like the players, other than Ayton, best equipped to impact NBA games as soon as they become a part of them.

This combination of future and present value would be hard to pass up for a franchise that hopes to acquire a first foundational piece for a post-Gasol/Conley future but also wants someone who can help make some noise alongside them in the short term.

Positional fit adds to the sense that Doncic or Bagley could be immediate impact players in Memphis. The Grizzlies are weakest on the wing and have put an increasing (probably overdue) emphasis on pairing Conley with secondary perimeter playmakers. Doncic, who needs a ball handler/defender at the point to pair with, seems perfect for the Grizzlies and vice versa.

As for Bagley, his high-motor work around the rim would shore up a Marc Gasol weakness. Perhaps more importantly, Gasol’s ability to (at least theoretically) anchor a defense from the center position while stretching the floor offensively would cover some of the weaknesses Bagley would bring into the league. Memphis is probably the best potential fit for Bagley.

Jackson may present more ultimate risk than Bagley and Doncic (this is debatable), but certainly seems like less of an instant-impact option. He’s younger and less fully formed physically (which might suggest more growth potential going forward) and his best position in the NBA is likely to be at center.

Still, Jackson’s perimeter skills, especially on the defensive end, giving him a path to playing alongside Gasol while he develops into the team’s starting center of the future. That’s why Jackson might be a better short- as well as long-term bet than the more seasoned but also more defensively paint-bound Wendell Carter Jr.    

Tie Goes to the Perimeter: The great case for Donic is history of production paired with position/style. In the old NBA, the tie went to the big man, now the tie goes to the perimeter player. Could even that short-sell the current shift? Might “reaching” for perimeter talent such as a Trae Young or Mikal Bridges prove the smarter gambit?

Positional value would seen to give Doncic an edge over Bagley and Jackson. But the league’s perimeter tilt may work in favor of Jackson, at least relative to Bagley, even if he’s the biggest player in this discussion.

The now-overused term “unicorn” was intended for big men who can both the protect the rim and stretch the floor. In this draft, as eye-popping as Deandre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba may be as physical specimen, that’s Jackson. He blocked shots at a higher rate than Bamba. He was the best three-point shooter among the lottery bigs, a skill projection bolstered by 80 percent three-throw shooting. But Jackson adds a third dimension to this sense of rarity: At north of 6’11” with a wingspan past 7’5”, he’s the most comfortable big in the mix, by far, at guarding the perimeter. At defending pick-and-roll plays, at switching onto guards and wings, at closing out on shooters.

As a more traditional big, Bagley has moved away from the modern game by standing still. But a shift that has endangered big men generally has perhaps had the effect of increasing Jackson’s value.

Maybe the Decision Will Be Made For Them

We can argue about these players for the next few weeks, but odds are the Grizzlies won’t have to on draft night. At #4 there may be only one of them left, and perhaps the lone man standing will be both the obvious and right pick.

Maybe they’ll be debating between the one left vs. taking a chance on Michael Porter vs. trading down. But Doncic vs. Bagley vs. Jackson is likely not a choice the team would actually be making.

Is Doncic really part of all of this? I suspect he’ll be gone before #4, but ESPN’s Jonathan Givony has suggested there’s a 50-50 chance Doncic is still on the board at #4. There are enough legitimate questions about how his athleticism translates to the NBA and enough highly regarded draft competition, that I don’t thinking Doncic “slipping” is at all far-fetched.

Other Related Issues

Mock Draft Consensus: I started tracking 10 higher profile mock drafts after the lottery and the first, um, drafts had Jaren Jackson as a pretty strong consensus at #4. That’s changed a little since. The current distribution for the Grizzlies’ top pick: Bagley (4), Jackson (3), Porter (2), Bamba (1).

Ed Stefanski Moving On: Grizzlies VP of player personnel Ed Stefanski took a plum job last week to oversee a basketball operations rebuild in Detroit, where he’ll apparently have leeway to pick the team’s day-to-day operations leader at GM and a new head coach, allowing the East Coast-based Stefanski to guide the team without having to be on the ground every day. It’s not an unexpected departure — Stefanski has been mentioned as a candidate with multiple teams in the past year. The immediate questions for the Grizzlies: Will Stefanski take anyone else to Detroit with him and will the Grizzlies make any high-level hires to replace him?

On the former, in first reporting Stefanski’s hire, ESPN suggests that Grizzlies front office assistant Tayshaun Prince, a former Pistons star, might follow Stefanski to Detroit. This makes sense on the surface, but I wouldn’t count on it happening until it actually does. Prince has been a quietly important figure for the Grizzlies, as perhaps the front office figure closest day-to-day to the players and coaching staff. Stefanski provided sage advice and guidance, especially to some of the team’s junior executives, which includes not only Prince, but former Iowa Energy general manager Chris Makris, who’s quietly risen within the Grizzlies management structure to a key player personnel/scouting role. Perhaps the Grizzlies hire to replace Stefanski, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the franchise move forward with a core of Chris Wallace, John Hollinger, Prince, and Makris steering the ship.

Josh Okogie: The Georgia Tech wing is now the first and so far only actual draft prospect (at #32) in for a workout in Memphis. I’d expect action on that front to pick up as we get into June. I was on a plane when Okogie was in town, and so wasn’t at the workout. I listed some of my outside-the-lottery faves in my final Pick-and-Pop column. Okogie wasn’t on the list, but that’s only because he wasn’t (yet) considered. He’s on the list of players who were not considered 2018 draft prospects until deeper into the season. Others: Maryland shooter Kevin Huerter, Villanova sixth-man Donte Divincenzo, and international guard Elie Okobo. Divincenzo was on a team I was already watching, and I took a liking to him early. The other three fell under the radar for me.

Okogie’s combination of physical make-up (7’0” wingspan, elite athletic testing results at the draft combine) and production (18-6-3 as a sophomore, with 38 percent three-point shooting, 82 percent free-throw shooting, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks) is impressive and he seems to be trending up enough that he may not last to #32.

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