MikeCheck: Rising young Grizzlies eager to attack next steps in offseason development process

MikeCheck: Rising young Grizzlies eager to attack next steps in offseason development process

MEMPHIS – The baseline drive, reverse dunk and icy stare-down set it off.

On the way to arguably the Grizzlies’ most improbable victory of the season, rookie Santi Aldama pump-faked Suns defender Jae Crowder into the air at the 3-point line, drove past Phoenix center Deandre Ayton along the baseline and slammed in a reverse dunk.

Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies
Santi Aldama #7 of the Memphis Grizzlies dunks the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on December 8, 2021 at FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee.

As he descended from the air, Aldama calmly stared across the way toward the Grizzlies bench that night in April. Greeting his gaze was a raucous bench, where teammates Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane and others jumped from their seats and emphatically crashed into one another in unbridled excitement.

Aldama was later mobbed by those same teammates when he checked out of the game as the shorthanded Grizzlies throttled a healthy Suns team that posted the NBA’s best record.

When several Grizzlies – from franchise catalysts Morant and Jackson to role players at the end of the bench – declared this week during exit interviews that this was the most fun season many have ever had playing basketball, it’s the ‘Santi dunk’ moments they point to as evidence.

We’ve said it all year long – everybody here loves this team, loves this year, loves these times, loves our locker room. This is probably the most fun I’ve had playing basketball since I was a kid and first picked up a ball.

Desmond Bane

“We’ve got a special group here,” Bane assured. “We’ve said it all year long – everybody here loves this team, loves this year, loves these times, loves our locker room. This is probably the most fun I’ve had playing basketball since I was a kid and first picked up a ball.”

The fact that the Grizzlies maintained their youthful energy all season long made it fun. And the reality that a core of first and second-year players were right in the middle of the season’s most productive moments keeps optimism growing that the fun will keep flowing in Memphis.

As the Grizzlies exit the most prolific season in franchise history and eye next month’s NBA Draft, they’re set up to extend a pipeline of young talent contributing to success. This week’s lottery solidified Memphis with two first-round picks – Nos. 22 and 29 – in the June 23 draft.

Meanwhile, the last four players Memphis selected in the last two drafts will enter the summer eager to improve their games and expand their roles ahead of next season. That development process continues with workouts in preparation for summer league play in July.

I’m going to take a week to see the family, and then after that I want to be here. I want to be in the gym every day, the weightroom, focus on my nutrition. I’ve never been more excited for a summer offseason more than this one. With the progression I made this year alone, I know I’m going to be an even better player by summer league and into next season.

Ziaire Williams

“I told all the coaches I’m locked in this summer,” said swingman Ziaire Williams, who played 71 regular season and playoff games as a rookie after being picked tenth in the 2021 draft. “I’m going to take a week to see the family, and then after that I want to be here. I want to be in the gym every day, the weightroom, focus on my nutrition. I’ve never been more excited for a summer offseason more than this one. With the progression I made this year along, I know I’m going to be an even better player by summer league and into next season.”

Ziaire Williams #8 of the Memphis Grizzlies
MAY 7: Ziaire Williams #8 of the Memphis Grizzlies dunks the ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game 3 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 7, 2022 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

Aldama, picked No. 30 last year, played least but the 6-10 developing power forward provided arguably the most enjoyable highlight of the Grizzlies’ season with that dunk against Phoenix. Bane, Williams and Xavier Tillman gained significant playoff experience and combined for 19 postseason starts during the team’s run to the Western Conference semifinals.

While Morant and Jackson, both age 22, anchor the youth movement as franchise cornerstones, the Grizzlies have meticulously added promising core pieces around them in the two drafts that followed their arrivals. The collective breakthrough led to Memphis posting the league’s second-best record at 56-26 while playing with the NBA’s second-youngest roster.

And from the viral postgame team videos and photos to the celebratory moments on and off the court, the Grizzlies have made sure to enjoy every chance to bond as a team. The enthusiasm and connection are essential aspects of the culture that is in place.

They look out for each other, they care for each other. If you look out for the team, the individual stuff will take care of itself. When I talk about proof of concept in how we operate, I’m encouraged our guys have so deeply bought into that notion. And they enjoy it. Everyone enjoys what we’re doing. We keep our foot on the gas, but we enjoy what we’re doing.

Zach Kleiman

“The care factor is incredibly high,” Grizzlies executive vice president Zach Kleiman said. “They look out for each other, they care for each other. If you look out for the team, the individual stuff will take care of itself. When I talk about proof of concept in how we operate, I’m encouraged our guys have so deeply bought into that notion. And they enjoy it. Everyone enjoys what we’re doing. We keep our foot on the gas, but we enjoy what we’re doing.”

Both Bane and Tillman built on encouraging rookie seasons to plug key holes for the Grizzlies during their second runs through the league. Bane was one of the league’s most improved players and averaged nearly 19 points, four rebounds and two assists during the playoffs.

As the full-time starter alongside Morant in the backcourt, Bane became one of the NBA’s most lethal 3-point shooters this season, knocking down a franchise-record 271 shots from beyond the arc. His 48.9 percent shooting on threes in the playoffs is the highest among players attempting at least six 3-pointers per game.

After spending time in summer league last year primarily at point guard, Bane’s focus this summer is to further improve ball-handling and to shoot even more efficiently and effectively.

It’s about variety. I think I complement Ja’s game well because he collapses the defense and draws attention. So I know I’ll get a few of those (open looks). But to get a few myself off pick-and-rolls, transition threes, on rebounds and kick-aheads, just those things to where I can get 10 efficient threes up a game (is the goal).

Desmond Bane
Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies
MAY 13: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies look on during Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals on May 13, 2021 at Chase Center in San Francisco, California.

“You look at all the high-level scorers in this league, and I feel like they either get to the free-throw line a lot or shoot a lot of threes,” Bane said as he referenced Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. “It’s about variety. I think I complement Ja’s game well because he collapses the defense and draws attention. So I know I’ll get a few of those (open looks). But to get a few myself off pick-and-rolls, transition threes, on rebounds and kick-aheads, just those things to where I can get 10 efficient threes up a game (is the goal).”

Williams is expected to supplant Bane as the primary catalyst on the Grizzlies upcoming summer league teams as he prepares for his sophomore NBA campaign. Bane plans to partner with Williams in workouts this offseason to help Williams take the next leap in production.

The Grizzlies traded up in the lottery to pick Williams at No. 10 overall, and some outside the organization expected the wiry, 6-9 forward to be a development project his first few seasons. But Williams quickly played his way into a rotation role for coach Taylor Jenkins because of his athleticism, defense, confident 3-point shooting and ability to finish in transition.

Williams knows there’s plenty of work ahead to improve in all facets of his game – and frame.

My biggest thing is I want to win. Whatever my role is after the summer, I just want to be the best version of me to help my team for next year. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to show everybody what I can do.

Ziaire Williams

“I think I can tap into another level I haven’t reached with my body yet, for sure,” said Williams, who is listed at 185 pounds. “My biggest thing is I want to win. Whatever my role is after the summer, I just want to be the best version of me to help my team for next year. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to show everybody what I can do.”

The young Grizzlies showed plenty of potential this season.

They’re confident the best is on the horizon.

“This season was successful, for sure,” said Tillman, who stepped in as starting center during the first-round series win over Minnesota. “I didn’t really know where we’d finish at the beginning of the year. It didn’t look too good for us early, but we got it together and went on some serious runs. I had a lot of ups and downs, but I really learned how to be a pro.”

The games have ended this season for the Grizzlies.

But the learning never stops for their budding prospects.