There were excuses for both bad losses, if you want them. The Dallas game seemed like a classic schedule loss, the second night of a back-to-back on the road after a draining overtime win. Monday night, the team was playing without leading scorer Rudy Gay, out of town for a family funeral. Gay's loss, on top of the loss of his own back-up, Quincy Pondexter, had the Grizzlies playing little-used and unconventional lineups all night, and against the league's deepest team. The Clippers, of course, were playing without their best player, point guard Chris Paul.
If the Grizzlies have a good showing — win or lose — in a Wednesday night re-match with the Spurs in San Antonio, these losses can maintain their asterisks. A bad showing Wednesday night — a third in a row — and alarm bells will sound.
But while the Grizzlies' contender status and season trajectory hang yet still in the balance — pending the next game, the next Rudy Gay trade rumor, or the next Lionel Hollins radio interview — let's take a quiet moment amid the clamor to recognize two players on the roster undercard doing good things now that promise even more going forward.
Darrell Arthur missed all last season with an Achilles injury and then missed the start of this season with a more minor leg injury. Upon his return, it's taken him a few weeks to improve his conditioning and timing back to something resembling his pre-injury form. But in recent weeks he's shown why many — myself included, not to mention new Grizzlies exec John Hollinger — thought he was the team's best reserve player and one of the league's better back-up forwards before the injury. Arthur's minutes and production are both up in January — his rebounding rate up, his turnover rate down, his jumper starting to fall more.
Arthur's surface stats don't look like much — 7 points, 3 rebounds a game — but watch him closely and you'll regularly see Arthur make impactful defensive plays that don't register in the box score: Blowing up pick-and-rolls. Switching onto and containing perimeter ballhandlers. Cutting off drives and setting up teammates' steals. Racing down in transition to disrupt a fastbreak.
This month, with the injury to Pondexter, we've seen Arthur add to his resume by playing a more than passable small forward. Prior to Monday night's debacle, the Grizzlies had outscored opponents by nine points in 43 minutes with Arthur on the wing. Against the Clippers, with most of the team in the tank, Arthur fared a little better than most, and did while guarding five different players — Caron Butler, Matt Barnes, Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, and Blake Griffin — over the course of the game.
Arthur was the star of that dramatic win over the Spurs, with his best all-around game since facing the sames Spurs, pre-injury, in the playoffs two seasons prior. Arthur made a series of big plays in the fourth quarter and overtime in that game: Defensive rebounds, mid-range jumpers, winning a tip against Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, and sprinting out for a transition dunk that sealed the game in the final seconds.
But his best moment was easy to overlook. In the final sequence of the game, after Rudy Gay made a pull-up jumper for the go-ahead basket, the Spurs had a chance to tie or take the lead. They ran a high pick-and-roll between point guard Tony Parker and Duncan, their two best players. And Arthur contained it: Switching onto Parker and pushing him outside his shooting range, recovering back to Duncan to deny a pass, and then jumping back out on Parker to contest the fadeaway jumper that was left to take. Three key defensive plays in a matter of seconds to preserve Gay's big shot and set-up Arthur's own dunk at the other end.
Wroten got an unexpected call back before Monday night's game with the Clippers and, with Josh Selby performing poorly in the first half and the game getting out of hand, ended up with his first extended playing time in an NBA game. Wroten finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, three assists, and zero turnovers in 14 minutes and looked even better than his stat line, consistently getting into the paint and to the rim (two of the seven misses were attempted putbacks or tip-ins of his own lay-up attempts) and consistently setting his team up for good shots, even though the recipients of his passes often bobbled the catch or missed the shot. Wroten's halfcourt, no-look whip pass for a Tony Allen dunk was one of the most exciting plays of the season. An earlier bounce feed for an open lay-up that Arthur failed to convert showcased the kind of fastbreak geometry Jason Williams displayed during an earlier Grizzlies era.
The fourth quarter of a blowout isn't something you want to make too much of, and Wroten is as likely to crater as thrive in his next appearance; he is a 19-year-old rookie, after all. But everything Wroten showed against the Clippers matches up with what we saw in the summer league and in the preseason. There's no guarantee on what Wroten will be, but his upside seems both clear and considerable. He's got a strong handle, high-level court vision, and the God-given passing gene in an athletic 6'5” frame. His jump shot is severely lacking, but if you're a point guard who can penetrate, finish, and pass, you can be really good even with a shaky jumper. Defensively, the size, athleticism, and demeanor to be a plus all seem to be there, as long as he can add sharpened fundamentals to the mix.
And because Wroten's a pure point guard with two-guard size, he can play alongside most other guards. It's easy to envision Wroten playing with starting point guard Mike Conley or back-up Jerryd Bayless, in addition to any of the team's scoring guards.
Despite Bayless' recent struggles, it's not reasonable to expect Wroten to move into the regular rotation this season. But the Grizzlies would be well-served to have Wroten rotation-ready for next season, and that might require looking for more developmental minutes when the team can find them the rest of the way. Because whenever Wroten is really ready, his kind of offensive dynamism is badly needed on this team.
If Wroten's development goes well, the Grizzlies, who have very tricky financial issues to confront in the coming weeks and months, can take comfort in knowing that Arthur and Wroten could provide two multi-positional, two-way difference makers off the bench at a combined cost of only $4.4 million next season.
In this time of trade scenarios, let us — and, more importantly, the Grizzlies — keep these two players out of them.
A shorter version of this column appears in the Flyer's January 17th print edition.