How the Memphis Grizzlies made the most of a lost season

The Memphis Grizzlies had a historic 2023-24 season. After back-to-back seasons finishing as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, Memphis has the seventh-best odds to win the NBA Draft Lottery.

That’s not what made this season historic. Despite missing Ja Morant for the first 25 games of the season due to suspension, there was still plenty hope for the Grizzlies to stay afloat until then and make the playoffs. Until there wasn’t.

Memphis suited up 33 different players this season, had 578 total games lost and ran out 51 different starting line up — all NBA records. With the new minimum-games-played threshold for postseason awards, only Jaren Jackson Jr. qualifies. Of the 33 players, just one played at least 65 games this season.

In the middle of their championship window, the Grizzlies and their fans were dealt a season to forget. However, all was not lost.

The Grizzlies were able to use both Desmond Bane and Jackson as primary playmakers. Jaren logged career-highs in field goal attempts (17.6), points (22.5) and assists (2.3). Many nights, Jackson displayed his improved handle, attacking the basket all while learning how to make plays for his teammates — an important development for next season.

Then, there was the emergence of Vince Williams Jr. The No. 47 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft began the season on a two-way deal before signing a standard NBA contract on January 10, 2024.

As a franchise, the Grizzlies have been searching for a small forward who complements their stars. The core four of Mike Conley Jr., Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were always missing that additional piece alongside them. During the “Next Gen era,” Morant, Bane and Jackson Jr. have been searching for the same.

In an empty season, Williams stepped up and inserted his name as an option on the wing. Memphis loves the Grit ‘n Grind mantra and the players like Allen and Marcus Smart who embody it. Williams seems to be next in line.

Williams may emerge as the first true 3-and-D option the Grizzlies have had next to this core. He averaged 10 points per game on 38% shooting from deep while grabbing 5 boards and flashing playmaking ability with 3.4 assists per game.

The Grizzlies obviously believed in his potential as they used a draft pick on a player many felt would go undrafted. The Ringer had him outside their top-50. John Hollinger of The Athletic, a former Grizzlies front office employee, did not rank him in his top-75. Williams seems like a diamond in the rough, something Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman has become astute at finding.

Memphis made the decision to move on from Tyus Jones last offseason, allowing him to be a starter for the Washington Wizards. Jones filled in admirably in games the Grizzlies were without Morant. Kleiman attempted to replace Jones’ presence on the floor with Smart and Derrick Rose, both of whom played less than 25 games this season.

Good fortune found Beale Street when the Los Angeles Lakers parted ways with Scotty Pippen Jr. After converting Williams to an NBA deal, Kleiman signed Pippen to a two-way contract. All Scotty did in 21 games was average 12.9 points, 4.7 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 41% shooting from deep. If the Grizzlies do not want to use Smart as the primary back-up ball handler to Morant, they found a guy who can give them short spurts of solid play.

Back to the history-making and hunt for a starter on the wing, enter GG Jackson. As a reminder, Jackson was supposed to be playing his freshman year of college as the number-one recruit in the 2023 class this past season. His reclassification and tough freshman year at South Carolina caused him to inexplicably fall into the second round of the 2023 NBA Draft.

In the season finale, Jackson became the youngest player in NBA history to have a 40/10 game with 44 points and 12 rebounds, and the second youngest to ever score 40+ points. He is also the second-youngest player to ever put up consecutive 30-point games behind LeBron James.

Speaking of James, GG became the second-youngest player in NBA history to average 10+ points per game, again behind LeBron. And his 14.6 points per game came in just 25.7 minutes — 14 minutes fewer than what James played for his 20.9 points.

Jackson has shown flashes of what made him the No. 1 overall recruit in his class. His game resembles that of Paul George and if Jackson continues to develop, he could be that missing piece Memphis needs to win it all. However, if the Grizzlies were not devastated by injuries, Jackson would have spent most of the year in the G League, likely never getting a shot to display his talents this year.

Kleiman wisely used this season for player development and evaluation. Bringing multiple players in on 10-day contracts and two-way deals, Memphis got a look at potential roster-fillers in guys like Jordan Goodwin and Lamar Stevens as well. Roster holdovers such as Jake LaRavia and Ziaire Williams dealt with their own injuries but were provided an opportunity to prove whether they belong with this organization beyond this season.

Sleep on Memphis at your own peril. With a healthy roster and contributions from these young guys, the Grizzlies will be right back in the thick of things in 2024-25.

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