Date: 01/22/2024

How Desmond Bane prepped for his starring role in Memphis

As amazing a shooter as Desmond Bane is, he was anything but a can’t-miss prospect. He played AAU basketball for Indiana Elite’s B team, committed to TCU weeks before high school graduation, stayed in college for four years and was drafted with the last pick of the first round in 2020.

It’s not that it’s hard to find talent evaluators who thought Bane could be the NBA equivalent of a good character actor: Solid pro, excellent floor spacer, secondary playmaker, guy who ties the room together. That’s the part he played as a rookie. But he’s earned more offensive responsibility every year with the Memphis Grizzlies, gradually growing into what he is now: a full-fledged star.

In 2023-24, Bane has averaged 24.7 points, 5.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 36 games, most of them as Memphis’ lead playmaker, the role he’ll remain in for the rest of the season due to Ja Morant’s shoulder surgery. Bane’s usage rate has shot up to 27.6%, but his true shooting percentage (59.8%) has barely budged. Already one of the league’s most feared snipers deep behind the 3-point line, he’s now one of its most dangerous drivers — according to Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting 69% at the rim, an astounding number for a 6-foot-5 guard with a 6-4 wingspan who sees a crowd in the paint on every halfcourt possession. Bane’s All-Star case is convincing, provided that the coaches can get past his banged-up team’s record. 

The Grizzlies are on a three-game winning streak, but they’re 14-23 and 13th in the West. They were prepared to start without Morant because of a suspension and be without Brandon Clarke because of an Achilles injury, but Steven Adams was ruled out for the season just before it began and Marcus SmartLuke Kennard and Santi Aldama have all missed significant time. In nine games with Morant, Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. on the floor together, Memphis’ vision for a more diversified offense was crystal clear … but, until next season, nine games is all it will get.

“We’ve just kind of been scratching and clawing this whole season, trying to fight back and get healthy,” Bane said. “And then, obviously, the news with Ja. So it’s been a roller coaster of a season, but I knew we were going to be without Ja, obviously, at the start of the season, so I took my player development extremely serious, as I always do every summer, to be ready for what teams are going to throw at me as the No. 1 option and being the focal point of everybody else’s scouting report.” 

For all the kids who want to shoot like Stephen Curry, Bane is one of only a few players who actually shoots 3s off the dribble and off movement. “Why do I think it’s not a long list? I mean, it’s hard,” Bane said. When he was studying Joe Harris and Danny Green a few years ago, he had no idea he’d spend the 2023 offseason drilling pick-and-roll reads.

A day after his 32-point, nine-rebound, four-assist performance in a 120-103 win in Dallas with both Morant and Jackson sidelined — during which the public address announcer told him that he thinks about the Mavericks passing on him in the draft on a daily basis — Bane talked to CBS Sports about his ascent.

How would you describe your offensive game right now?

I would just say well-rounded. I feel like there’s a lot of things that I can do on the court. There are still a bunch of areas I want to get better — I want to get better at getting to the free throw line, get better at playing out of ISO situations — but pick-and-rolls, DHOs, transition, playing off of off-ball screens, those are all areas that I’ve put in time and effort to become comfortable playing in. 

A few months ago, your former assistant coach Darko Rajakovic said that, the first time he talked to you, he asked, “What do you want to be, coming into the league as a rookie?” and you said you wanted to be 3-and-D guy. He said he replied, “That’s not going to work, that’s not going to be enough. The game is changing, so you can’t be one-dimensional — you’re a great shooter, what are you going to do if they chase you off the line?” First, is that how you remember it?

Most definitely. Coming into the league, teams were calling and interviewing and stuff like that, asking, like, “What role do you see yourself playing?” I was thinking of guys like Danny Green, Joe Harris, you know, guys that had long, successful NBA careers, made good money. I mean, Danny’s been a starter on a couple championship teams. So I was like, shit, if I can reach that, then that means I’m going to have a long career. And when you’re young, you’re just trying to find a niche and figure out a way to stick. So that was kind of my mindset coming in

So, when Darko tells you that’s not going to be enough, how do you take it? 

I was like, “Well, first, I gotta get on the floor.” Because I feel like, in the NBA, you need minutes to survive. If you’re not playing, you’re going to get cut or pushed out of the rotation one way or another. So I was like, shit, whatever Coach needs of me early on, that’s the role I’m going to play, and I’m glad that I have a coach that feels like I can be more than a spot-up shooter and movement shooter, and through offseason work and other stuff, we can work on things to expand my game

Joe was one of the guys you watched in your film session with Mike Schmitz before the draft. Really good at attacking close-outs, makes good decisions, smart, tough, not just a shooter …

Exactly. Exactly.

… but at no point has he done the stuff you’re doing now with the ball in your hands. To get here, did you have to change the way you saw yourself?

To a degree. When I first came into the league — I mean, in college, if you look back at my tape, my film and stuff, my coach had me be a strictly off-the-ball player. So I hadn’t run a pick-and-roll since I was in high school. My senior year, I started doing a little bit more of that. So I had just kind of assumed that that was kind of going to be my niche or my role, and I kind of played that role my first year and then we went to summer league before my second year and they were like, “We’re going to put the ball in your hands.” And they did that and the rest is history. I went on to average 25 or so, 30 at summer league, and scoring in a variety of ways, and it translated to the regular season and I’ve just been able to continue to build off of that. 

You’ve said previously that summer league changed your career. Did something click in one of those four games? Did that role sort of give you permission to work on different aspects of your game?

Oh, yeah. They basically, like — they’re the ones that made me become who I am. They were like, “Yeah, we’re going to put you on-ball.” When they first told me I was playing summer league, I was pissed. I was like, “Why am I playing summer league? I started 20 games last year, I started games in the playoffs. … I don’t need to play summer league, I’ve already established myself as an NBA player.” And they were like, “Nah, it’s bigger than that.” And they put me on the ball and they were like, “All right, you’re going to be running pick-and-rolls, you’re going to be doing this, you’re going to be doing that.” So immediately once the summer hit, I took my little two weeks off or whatever but then I started working on the stuff that I was going to be doing in summer league. And it clicked.

The idea of a player coming in as a 3-and-D guy and evolving into a star is not new. Kawhi did that, Paul George did it. DeMar DeRozan as a rookie basically stood in the corner on offense—

Yeah, I think it’s like that for — I wouldn’t say more guys than not, but there’s very few guys that come into the league in situations where the teams are just really bad and they’re like, “OK, we’re just going to put the ball in your hands and see what you can do.” Even if you look back at a guy like Jaylen Brown, he wasn’t nearly the player he is now, he’s obviously improved a ton, but that’s kind of how it goes. You gotta earn your stripes, show you’re capable of one thing, OK, then the coach can give you a little more leash. If you work on something, add it to your game and just kind of keep stacking like that. 

The thing that I think is different, though, is, when you came in, people weren’t saying you have crazy upside. You didn’t have the super long arms of Kawhi, you didn’t have the athleticism of, say, someone like Jaylen. 

And that’s their fault. That’s the quote-unquote experts’ fault. They didn’t watch me close enough or see what Memphis saw. ‘Cause all along this was kind of the plan that they had for me. Like not necessarily to be a No. 2 option next to Ja Morant, but to be a guy that can average 15 points a game, 16 points a game in this league. And I don’t think many other teams were thinking that. Some teams were questioning if I could even make it.

You take some of the hardest shots in the NBA, especially this year: on the move, off the dribble, stepbacks late in the shot clock. What has gone into being able to take these shots comfortably?

My trainers do a great job of putting me in a box. Some trainers will be like, “All right, we’re going to work on every single move,” and, you know, it just doesn’t really translate because you don’t have really anything to kind of fall back on. Whereas my trainers will put me in a box, like, showing me, OK, I’m playing one-on-one, I got two guys shifted at the elbows, so I can’t go too far east and west, and I’ve gotta be able to get a layup off, I gotta be able to get a 3 off, I gotta be able to get a midrange off, whatever the case may be. So everything that I do in my workouts is purposeful and precise. It’s not like I’m just coming in there and doing cone drills or working on certain stepbacks. Like, we’ll do that stuff here and there, but it’s more so like game-like reps and putting me in situations so then when those situations come I can be successful. 

So what did that look like last summer? You gave a pretty detailed explanation of how you approached the summer of 2022, so how did you build on that?

It was all pretty much pick-and-roll. Everything was kind of self-creation, just knowing that Ja was out creator. We relied on him so much, through the playoffs and through the regular season, to create. And he’s obviously one hell of a player, but in order to win a championship I just think that we need multiple guys to be able to create. So it was kind of like, yeah, I’m doing this ’cause Ja is out, but I’m also doing this to be able to do this on my own and myself as well. So it was all pick-and-roll and reads. Like, I’m making reads, basically: The big’s up, try to turn the corner. The big’s dropped, shoot a 3. You know, we’re making passing reads. Like you said, it was kind of a similar plan to what I had did before, but we just kind of built on that. And that was the recipe. Six days a week, once I was cleared to get on the court, which really wasn’t until, like, August. So I really only had like two months this year, a month and a half, to work on my game. But when it’s precise and it’s detailed, that’s all you need.

Do you feel like you’ve had to be extra intentional about what you’re working on because, say, if you want to to be a good finisher and you don’t have the long arms or the Ja Morant speed or whatever, you need be crafty?

Yeah, one of my college coaches, Ryan Miller, a big believer in me — Mike Miller‘s brother, so he was with him along the way for 16 years of his career, so he’s seen it — so basically anything that he was saying, I was treating like gold. And he was telling me, yeah, “You’re not gifted like some of these other guys, so you’re going to have to do way more. You’re going to have to spend more time in the gym. You’re going to have to have a higher motor, you’re going to have to know the game better.” And all that stuff is true. I have to put in more time, like you said, ’cause it’s not like I can run to the basket and out-physical somebody with my leaping ability or my reach or my size. It’s all got to be skill and touch. And you see my game: I shoot the ball at a high clip, I’m a smart decision-maker. So like I said, I have to have a well-rounded game in order to be able to survive, not only to be the guy that I am. 

Being from Indiana, it makes sense that you were a Reggie Miller fan. But you were five, six years old when he was near the end of his career. How did he influence your game?

Huge fan. I mean, huge fan. Being from Indiana, he gave Pacers basketball life. When I was young, they were good. They had runs with Jamaal Tinsley, Jermaine O’Neal. They had good teams. And then, as I got older, they kind of had that wave where Paul George was there. So I was blessed to be able to see a bunch of good players in Pacers uniforms, and my family, we were just sports people. Like, my grandma and grandpa were retired, so during the day, they’re doing stuff around the house or chilling or whatever and then after news comes on, we’re watching the games, whether it’s football, basketball. So I just kind of grew up with a love for the game. And Reggie was the best player in Indiana, so that shooting stuff kind of stuck with me.

All-Star weekend is in your home state this year. Given your story — playing on the B team in AAU, extremely late commit to TCU, No. 30 pick, everything we’ve talked about in terms of development — what would it mean if you were selected to the All-Star team?

It would be like the cherry on top. I mean, obviously, making it to the NBA was a lifelong dream of mine and something that was a far-fetched dream and something, like, in the back of your mind, you don’t even know if you really believe it. And it comes true, and not only comes true, but I have some success in this league and I have a chance of really, seriously being in an All-Star Game, and the first time that I’m under real consideration is back home, in my home state, where my family and friends are, where I grew up. It would just kind of be a perfect storm.

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