In the piece, I riff on five defining issues facing this year's team, make five fearless predictions, and put the spotlight on seven high-profile home games. Check it out.
Guard rotation yields options: While the season preview is already out, preseason action, regretfully, is still going on, and it seems like everyone with the Grizzlies is ready to get the real thing started. But that didn't stop the Griz from dispatching the woeful Orlando Magic 115-100 last night at FedExForum, playing something approximating a regular-season rotation and with most everyone who saw court time giving performances in the decent-to-good range.
As the regular season nears, the only real rotation question seems to be in the backcourt, where Mike Conley is set for probably 32-36 minutes a night at point guard, leaving roughly 60 minutes to fill out each night. Tony Allen is the presumptive starter at scoring guard, but has been held out of most preseason games to rest his knee after offseason surgery. Last night, even with Allen active, Wayne Ellington remained in the starting lineup. The team hasn't made any announcements about a starting lineup change, and I still expect Allen in the lineup for opening night, but this does bear watching.
Allen gave the Grizzlies a scare last night in the first half, coming up limping and heading back to the locker room. But it turned out to be a sprained ankle, not a knee issue, and he returned in the second half.
Ellington took only one field-goal attempt in his first 17 minutes, not what you want from someone whose shooting is supposed to be his calling card, but then got up five shots in his next 11 minutes, finishing with a strong 13 points on 5-6 shooting. If Ellington can get and make enough open jumpers — open, not contested 18-footers off the dribble — and pair that with what has been very good defensive effort in the preseason, he can be an adequate option at both ends of the floor.
If “adequate” sounds like faint praise, that's more than the Grizzlies can reasonably assume from Ellington's chief rival for a final rotation spot, Josh Selby, who has given no indication that he can reach the adequate threshold defensively. For Selby, his offense has to be dynamic enough to force the issue, and he just hasn't had enough of a chance this preseason to build on his summer work. He was 0-2 from long-range in a brief appearance last night.
If Ellington had probably his best all-around game of the preseason last night, fellow newcomer Jerryd Bayless was also solid, with 7 points (3-7 shooting, including 1-2 from three), 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in 20 minutes. Losing O.J. Mayo and adding Jerryd Bayless is generally seen as a minor setback in national prognostications that foresee a similar regression for the Grizzlies as a whole, but I think the one thing that national takes are missing the most with this team is that ball-handling was probably an even bigger problem for last year's Griz than three-point shooting — especially in the playoffs. So, while Mayo may be better than Bayless in a vacuum, I suspect Bayless may have a bigger impact on the Grizzlies. He's not the second-coming of Steve Nash or anything, but Bayless looks like a big upgrade on the turnover-prone back-up point guard pu pu platter the Grizzlies employed last season.
Finally, the wild card in this backcourt mix is rookie Tony Wroten, who finally made his FedExForum debut last night in three minutes of unusually entertaining garbage time. Wroten locked up an opponent and forced a turnover seconds after taking the floor. He followed that up with a contested finish on the break, a midcourt steal that he converted into a bucket, and a slick, no-look, over-the-shoulder drive-and-dish feed for a Ronald Dupree layup. He's only 19 and he can't shoot a lick, but Wroten oozes talent and has made things happen in every summer-league and preseason game he's appeared in so far. It's coming, and I think it's coming sooner than expected. I made similar snap judgements on fellow former late first-rounders Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez, asserting, after only a few rookie appearances, that they would develop into significant rotation-level players. I was right on both of those. Hopefully, this time, the player in question can flower in a Grizzlies uniform.