Desmond Bane can do anything, but can he do everything?
With Ja Morant suspended and some significant roster turnover, Memphis will lean on its rising star more than ever
Desmond Bane is even better than you think.
The Grizzly with the beach ball biceps isn’t just a shooter, although he certainly is that. Few do it better. His 7.0 three-point attempts per game were the 26th-most in the league; of players who shot more, only Klay Thompson, Buddy Hield, and Michael Porter Jr. had a better shooting percentage than Bane’s 40.8%.
40.8% is somehow the lowest percentage of Bane’s short career; he shot 43.2% as a rookie and 43.6% as a sophomore on a similar number of attempts. There is room for improvement in accuracy and volume, a scary thought for the rest of the league.
He’s not a catch-and-shoot specialist, either. His triples were split evenly between catch-and-shoots and pull-ups off the dribble, and he hit >40% on both. Steph Curry is the only player who shot more pull-ups more accurately. The ability to hit triples off the dribble is a skill that differentiates stars from role players, and Bane looked effortless in doing so. Many of Bane’s came as pull-ups in transition, where he was equally likely to drain a step-back right in a defender’s face as he was to launch an extremely unnecessary, almost mocking, moonball from 30 feet with 18 seconds on the shot clock:
But we all know Bane can shoot the embossing off the ball. It’s his emerging ability to do everything else that has made him such an intriguing player.
Despite his famously short arms, Bane has become an above-average defender. One look at his superhero muscles confirms that, yep, he’s strong, but he’s lighter on his feet than he should be. Watch him stick with a stampeding Tyrese Maxey step-for-step as he forces a miss:
Bane’s a physical hand-checker with a wide body, and he can steer ballhandlers away from the rim like a Whomp deterring Mario. If they do get there, however, it’s up to teammates Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. to prevent easy layups, as Bane cannot provide much resistance. Bane rarely contests a shot at the rim, perhaps not trusting his T-Rex arms to do anything other than ineffectually flail if he lifts them skyward (he understandably prefers to tie up the ball while it’s still low).
Adams’ presence also boosts Bane’s rebounding. Bane averaged five boards per game last season and sported an above-average defensive rebounding rate thanks partially to the big man’s ability to box out half of a team. A Bane rebound is more dangerous than a typical board, as he loves to jet coast-to-coast, hunting transition threes.
When things slow down, though, Bane has become a reliable pick-and-roll orchestrator. Per Synergy Sports, Bane ran about seven pick-and-rolls per game last season (about as many as Kevin Durant and Jaylen Brown), and the team scored 1.04 points on average, in the 72nd percentile.
This wasn’t paint-by-numbers stuff, either. He routinely hit Memphis’ bevy of rollers even in tight pockets. Watch as he finds Santi Aldama with a beautiful lefty sling through a basketball-sized window:
For a non-point-guard, Bane possesses above-average vision, which he complements with a bag full of unconventional and funky deliveries. He’ll throw sidearms like he’s Patrick Mahomes or skip strange, low bounce passes like pebbles thrown across a lake:
Bane’s 5.0 assists per 36 minutes last year were half-again as many as the year prior and a substantial number for someone who only played 3% of his minutes at point guard (he averaged about the same number of touches as Jimmy Butler, Devin Booker, and Jaylen Brown).
Bane’s not just about the box-score stats, though. He’ll do the dirty work. Taking a page from Steph Curry, Bane leveraged the defensive attention given to him to spring teammates open on unexpected veerbacks and fake cuts that turned into bone-shattering screens. Watch as he starts to dart down the lane before slowing and using his own man to screen Santi Aldama’s defender, leading to an easy lob:
The Grizzlies ran that play consistently throughout the season as a nice counter to some of their more traditional sets designed to pop Bane open. Memphis also loves to have Bane set picks for Jaren Jackson Jr. to create switches and give both guys mismatches.
One more reason for optimism: Bane started last season like the Juggernaut, averaging 25/5/5 on 47/45/91 percent shooting splits in his first 12 games last season. He showed a new level of burst and the ability to stop on a dime to fire up his laser-guided shots.
Then, he hurt his big toe, an injury he missed time for and then played with for the rest of the year. He had successful surgery on it immediately following the end of the season, and the hope is that it has no effect on his play going forward. Anybody who’s ever played with a big toe injury knows that it destroys a player’s ability to push off and quickly stop. Acceleration and deceleration are kind of important for basketball, so there’s a chance the 25-year-old Bane comes back looking like a new athlete.
He has room to improve in areas besides health. Bane’s handle going left is a little shaky, and he loses his dribble in traffic more than he should. Occasionally, he’ll throw a pass to where a teammate was, not where a teammate is. He’s not an explosive athlete with the ball, so he can struggle to gain separation from his defender on drives. He sometimes picks the ball up a half-step too early or too late, leading to awkward layup attempts from no-man’s land:
But these are opportunities to improve, not fatal flaws. If improved ball control and a healthy toe mitigate the athleticism issues to an extent, there won’t be much that Bane can’t do. He’s already one of the best shooters in the league, a solid positional defender and rebounder, and a burgeoning creative with the ball. Most importantly, Bane fits any lineup. He’s a natural wing, but he can dabble at point guard or power forward for short stints as the case may be. Unlike co-stars Jaren Jackson or Ja Morant, there are no weaknesses that need to be papered over, no problems that other teammates have to solve. In fact, Bane is typically the solution.
Which is good news, because the Grizzlies have plenty of issues to start the season. Volcanic dunker and all-around dynamo Ja Morant was suspended for 25 games after a series of troubling incidents, and superb backup point guard Tyus Jones is gone, traded to Washington in the Kristaps Porzingis/Marcus Smart deal. The Grizzlies did receive Smart back — a great fit next to or backing up Morant — but that’s still a net loss of one rotation point guard for the first third of the season (and if you’re counting on new addition Derrick Rose to play heavy minutes, well, good luck).
And there’s a lot more going on than Morant’s absence. Will Steven Adams, coming back from a mysterious and lingering knee injury, return to full health? Will Brandon Clarke, who tore his Achilles toward the end of last season, be in anything resembling game shape before the playoffs begin? Can the Grizz replace Dillon Brooks’ wing defense? Tyus Jones was a perfect Grizzly and productive player; Marcus Smart is undeniably more talented, particularly on defense, but he slipped last year and will be out of the comfortable confines of Boston for the first time in his career. Does he still have what it takes?
Smart will be the starting point guard, but he’s comfortable working off the ball. Bane should see a rise in his on-ball opportunities while Morant serves his sentence, and there should be more shots to go around with the departure of the shot-happy Brooks. (I love Dillon Brooks far more than most, but his absence should only benefit Bane’s offensive output). Bane looks equipped to carry the load, and the Grizzlies have historically performed well in the regular season even without Morant, going 20-5 in 2021-22 and 11-10 last season.
Surprisingly, the Grizzlies were able to negotiate a non-max deal with Bane, too, contrary to what was initially reported. Five years for $197 million (with $10 million more in unlikely to be obtained incentives that make it a “max” deal in name, if not substance) isn’t cheap, but every saved dollar matters when building a contender, particularly in a smaller market. This, on top of Jaren Jackson’s four-year, $105 million (descending!) contract and Ja Morant’s missing All-NBA this season (precluding him from earning the supermax), means that the small-market Grizzlies have received significant financial relief from their core that should enable them to field a contending team for at least the next couple of seasons.
Bane’s stats didn’t take a massive jump without Morant last season, but I’m not sure the Grizzlies were fully comfortable letting him cook. This year, there should be no such restrictions, and even with Smart handling most of the traditional point guard duties, Bane should come roaring out of the gates.
He’ll have to. The Grizzlies have been the #2 seed in the West in each of the last two seasons but have just one playoff series victory over that time frame (yes, there were plenty of mitigating factors, but the results are what they are). I think they are contenders right now, but they need to prove it. And although the team has seemingly solved the regular season, they enter this year with more uncertainty than they’re used to.
We can’t know the answers to Memphis’ myriad questions until the season is underway, but it’s clear that the Grizzlies may not even be close to full strength until navy, blue, and yellow Christmas ornaments are hung from trees. In a cutthroat Western conference, they need to stay afloat until then. Luckily, Bane’s shoulders are as broad as a lifeboat.