Finding stability amid unrest is hard in the NBA, even when said disquiet is clearly temporary. The 2015-16 Memphis Grizzlies know this. They lived through it.
Injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol changed the trajectory of their season. They used 28 different starting lineups. None of their five-man combinations appeared in more than 26 contests. Twenty-eight players wore their jersey in an actual game by season’s end.
Unearthing keepers from that jumble is even more difficult than soldiering through it. How do you know you have something real, someone genuinely valuable to your cause, when such a large chunk of the season is devoted to surviving first, progressing second?
JaMychal Green made things easy on the Grizzlies. He was not, and is not, a product of last season’s ruction; he signed a multiyear deal, preceded by a pair of 10-day contracts, in March 2015. But his playing time increased after Gasol underwent right foot surgery, and he quickly became a beacon of consistency for a rotation with very little. No Grizzlies player appeared in more games (78) than him, and Zach Randolph was the lone frontcourt mainstay who averaged more spin over the team’s final 30 tilts.
Green flashed glimpses of pretty much everything Memphis needed long term—that athletic combo non-big who could switch seamlessly on defense and, at times, help space out the offense. His efficiency and some of his overall performances didn’t align with this vision, but he did enough, for long enough, to allow Memphis to project.
Though new to the party, head coach David Fizdale wasted little time basking in Green’s adaptability upon arrival. He elected to start him over the more established Randolph and gushed optimism for his dynamism—going as far as comparing him to another Green.
“He has kind of that Draymond Green versatility,” Fizdale said in December, per the Commercial Appeal’s Peter Edmiston. “Maybe not off the dribble yet. But from every other aspect, I like what he brings to the table.”
Months later, Fizdale’s faith in Green, not unfounded to begin with, is drenched in merit and meaning.
Conley and Gasol are the Grizzlies’ most important players. That’s not up for debate. After them, there is Green, their third-most important player, a status beyond discussion in its own right.
Only Conley and Gasol have added more collective value to Memphis’ on-court production this season, according to NBA Math’s total points added. The gap between him and fourth (Vince Carter) and fifth (Tony Allen) is small, but a greater difference exists when looking solely at the defensive end. He is third on the team in NBA Math’s defensive points saved, trailing only Allen and Gasol, with a 24.29-point canyon sitting between him and the fourth-place James Ennis. Green’s DPS (48.69) is a top-50 mark in the league, and it ranks inside the top 10 among all power forwards.
High-volume rim protectors and switchy wings get the most shine and, typically, are the most effective. Green is neither. He challenges three shots at the rim per game, and he’ll be looped under the traditional-big umbrella before he’s mentioned in the same breath as up-and-coming do-it-alls like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter.
But Green toes the line between the two, similar to Draymond Green. It’s telling that Tobias Harris, Paul Millsap and Draymond are the only players who have defended both as many pick-and-roll ball-handler and diver possessions as Memphis’ Green:
“This is something I brought with me from Alabama, being with Coach [Anthony] Grant,” Green told NBA Math. “He’s a great coach on defense. We took that very seriously. It just stuck with me.”
Switching like this is difficult, especially when you’re more Millsap than small-ball 4. That Green does it in a substantial capacity is legitimately a big deal. But he’s going through the motions of adjustment. Opposing ball-handlers score on him almost 50 percent of the time, and his position when guarding around screens can be spotty:
Ditto for when he’s tasked with thwarting off-ball slashers:
Green’s foul rate is high. He’s averaging 4.4 personals per 36 ticks, which, while down a hair from last season (4.7), ties him with Julius Randle for the most in the league among players averaging at least 25 minutes per game.
Many of these infractions are a functional hazard. Green is the Grizzlies’ most active defender. None of their other players have covered more total ground, while Aaron Gordon and Tristan Thompson are the only non-wings who match Green’s average speed with his distance traveled on the less glamorous side. (And Gordon, by the way, has spent most of this year masquerading as a small forward.)
Near-constant states of motion are going to produce more fouls. And this is nothing to say of all the different situations in which Green finds himself. Rotating onto guards, changing off-ball assignments on a whim, facing more rip-throughs—they’re all contributing foul-rate factors.
“I’ve been watching on my iPad before the games just to see everybody’s tendencies from the 1 to the 4,” he says. “I know I’m going to be switching most of the time. I can’t just look at my man and know what he’s going to do. I’ve got to look for their entire team.”
Green is learning. Give him a split-second to gather his stance, and he’s tough to beat, no matter who’s in front of him. He is 13th in total one-on-one sets defended and still hits the 72nd percentile in points allowed per possession:
The lateral gait is there for Green to apply those results to faster, more fluid sets—as are the instincts. He’s pretty good at surveying the ball while monitoring off-action (it helps that Gasol is often around him):
And a bunch of his blocks come before the rest of the defense is set:
He’s already figured out how to use his length and mobility on close-outs. From last season to now, he’s cut his foul rate on spot-up shooters almost in half, despite defending nearly double the number of such possessions per game. Of the 164 players to guard at least 100 spot-up sets, he is second in points allowed per touch:
Adjust the scope to a minimum of 115 possessions, and Green places first out of 132 candidates—excellence he’s actualized through comfort.
“The majority of the time, I’m guarding a stretch 4,” he explains. “I’ve got to get out to him quick. I know that a lot of 4s, when you’re closing out, they like to pump fake and try to get you in the air so they can draw the foul. I just try to keep that in mind.”
Green’s role isn’t as prominent within the Grizzlies’ offense. Conley, Gasol and Randolph all post usage rates north of 25; Green’s own usage rate doesn’t even crack the team’s top 10. His game is defined more by its efficiency and malleability. And while NBA Math’s offensive points added views him as a below-average contributor, there’s too much to like for his value not to inevitably swing in the other direction.
Fizadale made it his mission to modernize the Grizzlies’ attack. They are shooting more three-pointers and come much closer to sniffing league-average output per 100 possessions than last season. Conley and Gasol’s increased aggression—plus Gasol’s long-range marksmanship—are driving forces behind this reinvention, and Green has been able to mold his game around theirs. More than two-thirds of his buckets come off assists, and he’s tripled his three-point volume while improving his conversion rate.
“I’ve been knocking them down,” he says. “Coach came to me today and told me I was 38 percent [from three]. I didn’t know that. He just told me to keep shooting and keep shooting with confidence.”
Green is burying closer to 37 percent of his threebies now, and that number climbs to 38.5 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Defenses can’t slink off him; they also cannot crowd him. He doesn’t put the ball on the floor with absurd frequency, but he’s more comfortable making plays off the bounce. He’s shooting 52.4 percent on drives, up from 30.4 percent in 2015-16, and drawing close to twice as many fouls. He’s also shooting 58.3 percent on his post touches—one of two non-centers to do so on 125 or more grabs:
Turnovers are an issue in these instances given the modest volume. Green’s feet can move well before the ball hits hardwood, and, not surprisingly, he averages more travels per game (0.13) than someone with his usage should, according to NBA Miner. He’s not the cleanest handler on drives, and his turnover rate on post touches is the second highest in the Association (minimum 125 sets).
There’s nothing incurable about Green’s offensive warts. Experience and reps will remedy a lot of his issues. Remember: He has less than two regular seasons worth of games to his name. His offensive approach has come a long way, and he’s both effective and at ease enough with the ball in his hands to one day join the growing list of power forwards regularly initiating pick-and-rolls.
“Maybe sometime,” he says. “If Marc does set a screen for me and I have a guard on me, I’m going to come off strong.”
The Grizzlies don’t need Green to go that far. Not with Conley and Gasol in tow. And there are metrics that don’t paint him as noticeably impactful. Memphis’ net rating is basically a wash with and without him. He plays for some of the team’s most important offensive lineups, but his deepening bag of tricks hasn’t resulted in decidedly plus-contributions. And no one is batting an eye at his 8.9 points per game.
Those more obvious dents will come later. Green can’t be judged by his per-game numbers. The league is moving beyond them anyway, and filling up the box score isn’t his role. What he actually does—almost everything, in measured doses—is hard. Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Nikola Jokic are the only players who have matched his three-point (36.9) and defensive rebounding (21.1) percentages while clearing 1,000 minutes.
This stuff matters. What Green does matters, to the Grizzlies, to the rest of the league, to the direction of the game. When he reaches restricted free agency this summer, the interest will be there. The fanfare won’t.
JaMychal Green isn’t Draymond Green. Or Paul Millsap.
He is, however, one of the most versatile players in the NBA, just like them.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for NBA Math and Bleacher Report. Listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.