NEXT MAN UP: Grizzlies give the ball to young players — and they’re running with it

Thanks to this injury-ravaged season, it looks like the Grizzlies have found a couple of diamonds with Vince Williams Jr. and GG Jackson II.

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It’s a reality of NBA life: Large market teams like the Lakers, Clippers, Knicks and Heat can attract big name free agents to form superteams. Small market teams like the Memphis Grizzlies must rely on finding and nurturing talent through the NBA Draft.

Terry Davis

Luck helps. That’s how lottery balls aligned to bring two Top 5 picks in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant to Memphis in back-to-back years. But the Grizzlies’ front office has excelled at unearthing hidden gems and developing them into true players. Just ask Desmond Bane, who went 30th in the 2020 NBA Draft and has blossomed into an All-Star caliber player in Memphis.

And thanks to this injury-ravaged season, it looks like they’ve found a couple of diamonds with Vince Williams Jr. and GG Jackson II.

Williams, who has impressed in the Summer League and with the Memphis Hustle, transitioned from a two-way contract to earning a full contract with the Grizzlies due to his consistent performance, especially on the defensive end. 

“I am more confident and the coach believes in me more,” Williams said after the MLK Game. “With some of the guys out, I had to step up. I am taking advantage of the opportunity and looking forward, not back.”

Williams’ play has drawn comparisons to Tony Allen from the Grit and Grind era. Averaging 9.4 points and 5.4 rebounds, Williams has appeared in 42 games this season.

“I am super excited he got rewarded with an NBA contract,” said Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins. “He has worked so hard on both sides of the ball. Defensively he has versatility.  Taking on tough matchups and being able to switch and help on the boards. Offensively his flooring spacing and quick decision ability is something I have been impressed with.”

The league has taken notice as well. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver plucked Williams as an injury replacement for the Panini Rising Stars Challenge game, set for Friday night in Indianapolis.

From second round pick, to G-League to All Star Weekend. Not bad.

“It is a great honor. It feels good, but I know I have to keep my head down and keep working,” Williams said. “I just play for the guys. The outcome will be my outcome.”

Meanwhile, GG Jackson was expected to have a ‘red-shirt year’ playing in Southaven all year with the Memphis Hustle where he could learn how to be a professional athlete. 

However, with his teammates nursing injuries in street clothes, Jackson’s role expanded significantly. Through the first 36 games, Jackson only appeared in four games and scored eight points. He played a total of 18 minutes in those games.

His breakout game came during the MLK game on Jan. 15, where he had 23 points and six boards off the bench. It earned him a walkoff interview with TNT’s “Inside the NBA” crew.

“Playing with the G-League, you gotta take every game seriously,” Jackson told TNT’s Ernie Johnson. “All glory be to God, I’ve been putting the work in and listening to everything the coaches tell me to do and trying to be as coachable as possible.”

In the last 17 games, Jackson scored in double digits in 11 of those, including a 27-point performance against the Chicago Bulls – a record for a rookie off the bench, breaking a record set by Kobe Bryant, who once scored 25 points off the bench during his rookie season in 1997.

“It’s not a secret. When you see him play, he’s going to be a great, great player,” teammate Santi Aldama said after Jackson’s big game. “He’s always asking questions and trying to be better. When you have a guy with that care factor on top of all the skill he has, he’s going to be special for sure.”

Moments later, NBA Legend Shaquille O’Neal praised the teen on national TV. A clip of the segment went viral because Jackson was visibly starstruck to be speaking to The “Big Aristotle.”

“I just wanna say I’m proud of you, and if people didn’t know who you were, they know now,” Shaq said.  

If all goes well for the Grizzlies — meaning they’re healthy — you may not see as much of Williams or Jackson next season. Those extended minutes they’re getting now presumably will go back to players like Morant, Bane, Smart and Brandon Clarke.

But the youngsters have earned their NBA Contracts and their places on the team. As they gain more experience and refine their skills under the Grizzlies’ developmental system, they could become key contributors to the team’s success — as soon as next season.