When I suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Grizzlies' string of injuries might have actually helped the team, this wasn't quite what I had in mind -- not losing your best player and sole irreplaceable part for two weeks and counting, and being without three other key members of the rotation.
But with Pau Gasol, James Posey, Earl Watson, and Bonzi Wells all in street clothes, the shake-up of the team's regular rotation has provided a chance to get a look at supporting players. And Grizzlies fans have to feel good about what they've seen from the young backcourt tandem of Antonio Burks and Dahntay Jones, who both posted career highs in the Grizzlies' unlikely win over the Phoenix Suns last week.
Entering the season, there seemed to be two impediments to Jones becoming a legitimate NBA player: his ability to defend without fouling and to hit outside shots. He's shown a substantial improvement in both areas. As a rookie, Jones committed a foul every six minutes. In his recent stretch of starts, he's dialed it down to a foul every 10 minutes, which is enough to keep him on the court. As a shooter, his abysmal 28 and 25 percent numbers from the field and the three-point line as a rookie have shot up to 43 and 37 percent, respectively.
Jones still isn't a terribly skilled offensive player. Like Stromile Swift, he has trouble finishing plays in the paint that he can't dunk, but he's become quite adept at hitting the three-point shot from the corner, which gives the second-year player an offensive skill to hang his hat on.
Jones' development pales next to the unexpectedly fine play of second-round pick and hometown hero Burks. The point guard still makes his share of rookie mistakes: Against Phoenix, he drove the lane and drew a whistle, only to pass the ball to a teammate instead of flinging it at the basket. It cost the team free throws and drew a stare of disbelief from Coach Mike Fratello. Against the Clippers, Burks lost track of his defensive assignment -- point guard Rick Brunson -- after making a free throw and gave up an open three-pointer at the other end. And Burks still labors to get the team into its halfcourt offense. His passes seem a few inches off, which, with the speed of the pro game, can be the difference between an open shot and no shot. But Burks has still been better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
The form on Burks' outside shot isn't pretty, but it keeps going in. Against Phoenix and the Clippers, Burks shot six of 13 in 26 minutes, including three of five from three-point range and five of six free throws. Burks' physical tools are impressive. Everyone knows that Burks is lightning-fast with the ball, even by pro standards, but his strength has also been a plus. Last week, the Clippers tried to post him up with guard Marko Jaric, who is seven inches taller. But Burks used his strength to front Jaric so well that the Clippers soon abandoned the ostensible mismatch.
What's been perhaps most impressive is Burks' ability to break his defender down at the end of the shot clock to get good shots for himself or teammates, something he did repeatedly against the Suns and the Clippers last week. This is an extremely important skill for an NBA point guard, and with just a few games under his belt, Burks already looks more adept at it than three-year vet Earl Watson.
With the true backup backcourt -- Watson and Wells -- set to return to the lineup, Jones and Burks will likely take a backseat again. But they've shown enough to suggest that they could be ready for a regular rotation spot next season. With Watson a free agent and with the team holding an option on Wells, changes are likely, either next off-season or perhaps even before the trade deadline at the end of this month. One thing's certain: The play of Jones and Burks has given the Grizzlies more options to work with.