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Herrington: Desmond Bane’s breakout season, from every angle

The Daily Memphian
The Daily Memphian
 2021-12-31

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Hail the conquering hero.

OK, so that’s Ja Morant, who outdueled LeBron James in a homecoming game at FedExForum on Wednesday, two nights after hitting a dramatic game-winner in Phoenix.

But let’s also hear it for second-year gunner Desmond Bane, something more than a sidekick during the Grizzlies’ current three-game winning streak, with a game-high 28 points Sunday in Sacramento, a career-high 32 points against Phoenix and a comparatively ho-hum 20 on Wednesday against the Lakers.

A few months after the Grizzlies traded incumbent scoring guard Grayson Allen — in large part to clear the way for Bane — the sophomore slinger is riding a crest in a breakout season.

Amid injuries and other absences, Bane is one of only two Grizzlies (along with center Steven Adams) to play all 36 games this season. And Bane is leading the Western Conference’s surprise fourth-place team in both total minutes played and total points scored.

Questions about him have been bubbling: They’re in the air, and in my inbox. Is he the next CJ McCollum or even — dare we dream? — the next Klay Thompson? Should Bane be in the All-Star conversation? Should he be front-runner for Most Improved? Where would he go in a 2020 redraft? Can the Grizzlies win big with a Morant/Bane backcourt?

For this deep dive into the Desmond Bane Discourse, I’ll field each of these queries. But first, let’s enjoy the man in action. (All stats prior to Wednesday night’s games.)

Planes, Trains and Desmond Bane

Rather than just a great spot-up shooter, Bane delivers in multiple ways, by air and by ground.

By air: How good of a 3-point shooter has he been this season? He’s among only eight players league-wide shooting 40% from 3 on at least 6.5 attempts per game.

This season, he has shot 47% from the left corner, 42% from the right corner and 42% above the break (the majority of his attempts), and has established himself as the classic quick-release sniper on catch-and-shoot shots, with increasingly nervy range.

Against Phoenix on Monday, Bane let it fly from 30 feet three times in normal half-court possessions, connecting twice.

While most of Bane’s 3-pointers are assisted, he also has shot 38% on pullup jumpers this season, and has the on-ball craft to create little squiggles of time or space, using stepbacks, sidesteps and most notably, pump-fakes.

The flyby and reload has become Bane’s signature, a testament to his precocious game and calm on-court presence.

A faint, nonchalant shot-fake sends desperate defenders flying by, while Bane serenely resets and lofts a shot skyward.

By ground: If the flyby is Bane’s signature, a low-key competitor is his growing penchant for rumbling, accelerating transition attacks.

Bane’s combination of unusual bulk (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) and sneaky speed gives his occasional full-court forays a runaway freight-train effect. Guys built like that aren’t supposed to go that fast.

But Bane’s also an accomplished cutter and finisher in half-court sets, skilled at using the glass on floaters or elongated layups, attacking off one or two dribbles and using his strength to absorb bumps and still get shots off.

A new wrinkle in the Grizzlies’ offense this season has been the growing two-man game between Bane and Steven Adams, working out of the high post and reacting to the defense with a menu of potential connections.

It might be a handoff or pitchout. Or a denied handoff might circle into a dropoff pass for a little pullup jumper or a cut all the way to the rim, where a slingshot bounce feed awaits.

Here are three Adams-to-Bane connections, in quick succession, early against Phoenix:

Overall, 45 of Adams’ 103 assists this season, prior to Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, have gone to Bane. (The next highest: 15 each to Morant and Dillon Brooks.)

Who is Bane’s best historical comp?

Player comps are unavoidable when trying to get a handle on how young players might evolve.

Rare among NBA players, Bane came into the league with two very good and quite reasonable comps of his own suggestion: Joe Harris and Eric Gordon.

Brooklyn small forward Harris is one of the NBA’s very best role-player shooters. Houston’s Gordon, like Bane, is a scoring guard with a more diverse game.

Grizzlies fans have gotten so excited about Bane that Gordon might no longer be considered an exciting comp, with injuries and some bad teams taking him off the radar.

But Gordon averaged 22 points as a 22-year-old for the Los Angeles Clippers and has averaged more than 16 points a game through 14 NBA seasons. Recurring injuries aside, Bane could do so much worse than mimic Gordon’s career arc.

A more popular comp among fans, and also a good one, is Portland’s McCollum, another scoring guard whose deadly jumper is the basis of his game, but who also has the craft to be more than just a catch-and-shoot option. McCollum is considered one of the best players of his generation to never make an All-Star team (and is a certified Grizz Killer).

More recently, fans have been test-driving an even more lofty comp: Golden State’s still-injured Thompson, whose age 23 season (18.4 points, 42% 3-point shooting on 6.6 attempts per game) is achingly similar to Bane’s still-in-progress age 23 season (17.2 points, 43% 3-point shooting on 6.7 attempts).

If you look for reasonable Bane comps — players of similar size and position who had similar scoring/shooting seasons in their early 20s — all of Gordon, McCollum and Thompson pop up.

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Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane passes past Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox (left) on Sunday, Dec. 26. (Randall Benton/Associated Press)

I’ll add a couple more I haven’t seen mentioned to expand the pool: Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal and former Chicago Bulls shotmaker Ben Gordon. (I’ll spare you the deeper-cut Hersey Hawkins comp.)

Thompson and Beal have eight All-Star appearances between them. McCollum and the two Gordons none, but all three are or were significant players.

I’ll give the biggest Bane boosters this: On the offensive end of the floor, the Thompson comp does stand out among these, both in terms of strengths (the purity of their shots) and relative weaknesses (limitations on the ball).

The other four players, in their respective early-20s breakthrough seasons, had meaningfully higher usage rates and assist percentages. They were more likely to operate as ballhandlers and playmakers, whereas Bane and Thompson function more as off-ball scorers.

That’s stylistic, not qualitative. Thompson is the best player in this conversation. But there are at least a couple of tap-the-brakes issues with the Bane-Thompson comparison.

One is that Thompson took another leap forward after that age 23 performance. Bane could do the same, but it can’t be assumed. The bigger difference is on the other end of the floor: Thompson is only one inch taller than Bane, but has five inches more wingspan and is a rangier, more diverse defender.

Bane is strong and smart and has registered as a net plus defensively for the Grizzlies this season, but he doesn’t have the defensive tools that Thompson does.

None of these comps are perfect. They never are. Bane probably will never be as much of an on-ball player as Beal or Ben Gordon. If his playmaking improves, could he be a stronger McCollum or a bigger, healthier Eric Gordon? If the shooting maintains, could he be a stubbier, more defensively average Thompson?

OK, I lied: Take a look at Hawkins, a 6-3 shooting guard who averaged 18.5 points on 42% 3-point shooting in his age 23 season for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Hawkins made one All-Star team and averaged 18 to 22 points during a four-year stretch in his prime. He finished with a 15-point scoring average in a 13-year career, mostly during the rough-and-tumble 1990s, shooting 39% from 3. Had Hawkins come around during this current let-it-fly era, those numbers would be even better.

That’s my comp for now. Maybe less starry than you were hoping. Call it cautious. The 50th percentile outcome for Bane, still, is probably behind all of these players. But that this is the cohort we’re considering, halfway through Bane’s second season, as the 30th pick in a draft, is quite the testament: To the evaluation by the Grizzlies’ decision-makers, the player development by the team’s coaching staff, and mostly to Bane himself.

Where would Bane go in a 2020 redraft?

Not at No. 30, that’s for sure. He is currently fourth among second-year players in scoring and one of only three averaging better than 15 points a game on a winning team.

Let’s stipulate that the top two picks in a redraft would be LaMelo Ball (No. 3 at the time) and Anthony Edwards (No. 1).

After that, the draft would seem to take a fall, with three rough categories of players to consider:

Unrealized upside: James Wiseman (second), Patrick Williams (fourth), Onyeka Okongwu (sixth) are all young frontcourt players taken in the high lottery who have had the start to their careers stalled by injury. How much faith would teams in a redraft still have in their potential?

On-ball creators: On-ball creation is perhaps the most sought-after skill in basketball. While Ball is the only such player from the 2020 draft who already profiles as an All-Star, three others have shown very well: Tyrese Haliburton (12th), Cole Anthony (15th) and Tyrese Maxey (21st).

Off-ball contributors: Players like Bane who play more off the ball, either on the wing or in the frontcourt. This is a less impressive group, the best of which is probably Detroit “3-and-D” forward Saddiq Bey (19th). Others would be defensive specialist Isaac Okoro (fifth), emerging shooter Devin Vassell (11th) and centers Isaiah Stewart (16th) and Precious Achiuwa (20th).

If I’m drafting, I could not take any of those three raw, unproven frontcourt projects over Bane. As for the on-ball options? It might be the more important skill set, but only at an elite level. None of the non-Ball lead guards seems good enough to be the offensive engine of a contender. Other than a special situation, like the one Maxey has playing with elite center Joel Embiid in Philly, Bane has the clearer path to being a starter on a really good team. In fact, he’s already there. The one exception might be Haliburton, whose combo guard blend of size and skill expands his utility.

Here’s where I get lofty on Bane. My 2020 redraft:

  1. Ball
  2. Edwards
  3. Haliburton
  4. Bane
  5. Maxey

All-Star? Most Improved?

I’ll keep it quick here.

First, I cannot wait for Ja Morant to make the All-Star team, mostly so people in Memphis can stop obsessing over an inevitability. Half of Memphis social media acts as if they’re arguing with someone about Morant being an All-Star. Nobody is holding up a stop sign on this one.

At most, the West will carry six guards on the team, and given the shoddy state of the forward position, should carry six, in roughly this order: Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Morant, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic.

This would leave out Damian Lillard, which should happen. Has Bane worked his way on to the outskirts of the conversation, along with San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray and OKC’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Maybe, but none of these are really candidates.

Most Improved?

Here I was probably a little too skeptical of Bane’s chances earlier in the season.

Bane has a couple of major hurdles to a potential candidacy. One is that a significant number of voters will be reluctant to vote for a second-year player. (If I had a ballot, I would be one of them.)

The other is that Bane is probably not the most compelling candidate from his own team.

I think it’s useful to look at season-to-season Player Efficiency Rating improvements (so far) for the most obvious candidates. PER is a wildly imperfect metric, but it essentially takes a player’s game averages and compresses them into one number, accounting for disparities in minutes and team pace. It’s a better snapshot than simply scoring average, which still tends to drive these conversations.

The biggest PER improvements from last season, among likely MIP candidates (with an asterisk for second-year players):

  • Ja Morant  +7.2
  • *Desmond Bane +4.9
  • *Cole Anthony +4.6
  • Jarrett Allen +4.3
  • DeJounte Murray +3.6
  • Darius Garland +3.6
  • Tyler Herro +2.9
  • Miles Bridges +2.8
  • *Tyrese Maxey +1.7

Bane ranks as the best second-year candidate, and perhaps the best candidate if you take Morant’s hint and declare him too good for this award. As a first-time All-Star, however, Morant pretty well fits the bill of the kind of players who usually do win this. I’d favor Morant, Murray and the two Cleveland players (Allen and Garland) here.

A Mini-Mailbag Question

Not ready for a full mailbag yet, but we’ll end with this unsolicited question:

The implication is whether the defensive limitations of a Morant/Bane backcourt could keep the Grizzlies from becoming true contenders, as it arguably has for Lillard and McCollum in Portland.

This brings us back to the comps.

What’s the difference between the Lillard/McCollum backcourt (one conference finals) and Golden State’s  Curry/Thompson (a title even before Kevin Durant joined)?

Maybe it’s the difference between great shooting and world-historic shooting. But perhaps more so the difference is defense — their own and what’s around them.

Defensively, a Morant/Bane backcourt probably projects somewhere in between. But Portland never really built a team that effectively covered up its backcourt’s defensive limitations. Golden State had a better defensive backcourt, but also had Draymond Green.

Memphis has Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Grizzlies had a top-10 defense last season with Morant and Allen as the most common starting backcourt. They’re trending back up this season after a terrible start.

This is really a Morant question: Will he be so bad that you need elite defenders at both wing spots? Or can he improve enough that you can get by with one elite defender (Brooks) and one league-average one (Bane)?

I’m reasonably confident the Grizzlies will be at least a little better defensively at both spots than those Portland teams, and they’ve already fostered a more complementary defensive environment.

I’m not saying the Grizzlies definitely will become a contender, but I don’t think the Morant/Bane defensive combo alone would prevent it.

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