DimeMag

The Memphis Grizzlies Are Maximizing Their Rebuild With Draft Gems

Just over 19 months ago, on April 11, 2019, the Memphis Grizzlies appointed Zach Kleiman as their executive vice president of basketball operations. A day removed from a transitional season that saw Memphis go 33-49 — well outside of a playoff spot but nowhere near bad enough to likely secure a top pick — owner Robert Pera opted to hire Kleiman as the organization’s new lead decision-maker in the front office.

At the time, the Grizzlies’ future did not appear bleak so much as it appeared rather hazy. Former franchise stalwart Marc Gasol had been dealt to the Toronto Raptors months earlier. His long-time co-star Mike Conley Jr. was involved in trade rumors much of the season, though remained in Memphis past the deadline for a few more months before heading to Utah in an offseason deal. For years, Memphis had ridden the Gasol-Conley tandem and a pestering defense to a string of postseason appearances, including four series victories and a Western Conference Finals cameo in 2013. That identity was no more, and Kleiman now owned the keys to shape this team in his own vision.

A season or so later, Kleiman has wiped away the fog of a murky rebuild to provide Memphis with a clear vision. And that vision has consistently drawn the praise of amateur Draft experts across the Twitter landscape, as they consistently identify and target good basketball players, rather than those who have potential and could be good.

It’s started with nailing the top of the Draft, as Kleiman’s predecessors did very well in taking Jaren Jackson Jr. with the fourth pick in 2018 and, with the help of lottery luck, they vaulted to the No. 2 overall pick to select Ja Morant last year, who went on to win Rookie of the Year honors. However, it’s what the Grizzlies have done later in the Draft that has set them apart. In 2019, they picked up Brandon Clarke, largely a consensus top-10 pick across Draft Twitter, 21st overall. Clarke’s blend of vertical explosion, improved shooting mechanics, premier rim scoring and interior defense was tantalizing. In his first season, he validated the credence of his ardent supporters, averaging 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 66.3 percent true shooting (.618/.359/.759 split) en route to All-Rookie Team honors.

While already 24 years old (Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are each 21), Clarke looks the part of a high-level rotation player and viable starter for many years. His scoring efficiency is elite in a supplementary role, and his ability to function as both a popper and elite roller complements Morant quite well offensively. Despite some strength and length deficiencies, he’s also a tenable help-side rim protector.

In early July 2019, Kleiman and Co. acquired another Draft Twitter fella in De’Anthony Melton, shipping Kyle Korver and Jevon Carter to Phoenix in exchange for Melton and Josh Jackson. Melton has seized his opportunity, offering badgering on-ball defense (3.1 percent steal rate) and another ball-handling presence alongside Morant. His NBA ceiling likely hinges on the development of his jumper (29.4 percent beyond the arc through two years), but the defense and faculty to direct some offensive possessions establishes a useful rotation-level floor. Memphis clearly agrees with the sentiment, having inked him to a four-year, $35 million earlier this offseason, which could make Melton a vastly underpaid player in the near future if his long ball progresses swimmingly.

Adding Clarke and Melton, as well as John Konchar (another Draft Twitter icon), in the summer of 2019, only proved to be the precipice of Memphis procuring the favor of online draftniks. In March, they signed the oft-injured Jontay Porter, a versatile big man with passing, shooting, perimeter mobility and team defense chops. Porter has yet to log any minutes for the Grizzlies, but signed a new deal this offseason worth $6 million over three years. A pair of ACL tears over a year’s span might haunt Porter moving forward and prevent him from ever discovering legitimate footing in the league, but his talent is undeniable and he certainly qualifies as another young member of the roster who can potentially impact the game right away.

Memphis entered this month’s Draft with one pick at 40th overall. Hours later, they emerged with three top-25 prospects on my board, trading up for Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman, and landing Killian Tillie on a two-way contract as they all slid down the board on Draft night.

Separate from the nods to Draft Twitter, and greatly more paramount, these acquisitions maintain a connective theme throughout Kleiman’s accumulation of young talent. All three project as practical complements to the Morant-Jackson bedrock, serving as sound decision-makers and skillful off-ball players who brandish astute feel for the sport. Bane is an elite shooter who manipulates screens like few others and touts enough playmaking equity for a secondary handling role. Tillman is a snappy, sharp passer and decision-maker who sets mammoth picks and operates well in space as a screener and cutter. Tillie is one of the best shooting big men from this draft class, a talented passer and offers some switch-ability, along with valuable team defense awareness, though a lengthy list of lower body ailments may be too hefty of a hurdle to overcome.

So, sure, Kleiman might own a burner account that he uses to stealthily peruse the timeline and check who Draft Twitter’s flavor of the month happens to be. But far more likely is he’s just an executive who’s good at his job, identifies talent, and recognizes how to build around his franchise centerpieces. Clarke, Melton, Porter, Bane, Tillman and Tillie’s existence on this Memphis teams conveys exactly that. They can excel without dominating the ball, while still wielding offensive utility in varying manners, and are intelligent on both ends, particularly defensively.

The Grizzlies probably need one more high-level starter, presumably on the wing, to reach the next level with Morant and Jackson front and center. There’s no guarantee Porter, Bane, Tillman and Tillie pan out. Even so, Zach Kleiman is heading a savvy reconstruction in Memphis, giving a little wink to Draft Twitter with every new young player he brings into the fold.

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