Over the last several years, the Memphis Grizzlies' backup point guard situation has been filled with sub-par veteran stopgaps. When it came time for Mike Conley to recharge his batteries on the bench, Grizzly fans collectively held their breath hoping their opponents would not completely blow the game wide open. The already slow-paced Grizzly offense became even more stagnated and unwatchable with Conley's substitution.
During the 'Grit-N-Grind' era of Grizzlies basketball, perhaps the best backup point guard play came from a rookie - Greivis Vasquez. The former Maryland guard and 2010 ACC Player of the Year was drafted by the Grizzlies with the 28th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Vasquez played in 70 regular season games for the Grizzlies and proved his worth to then head coach Lionel Hollins enough for Hollins to play him in 13 post season games - he averaged 4.3 points, 1.9 assists, and 1.5 rebounds during the 2011 playoffs and had this very memorable moment in the 2nd round against OKC:
On Christmas Eve 2011, Vasquez was traded to the then New Orleans Hornets in exchange for Quincy Pondexter.
During the 2011-2012 season, Jeremy Pargo, Gilbert Arenas, and Lester Hudson would shuffle the backup point guard duties between them.
After being eliminated in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, the Grizzlies went out and signed Jerryd Bayless in hopes of fixing their floor spacing and backup point guard situations. It did not take long before Hollins discovered that Bayless was in fact more of a combo, or scoring, guard than he was a true point guard, so journeyman backup point guard Keyon Dooling was signed on April 3, 2013 in order to provide a solid veteran presence and more of a true facilitating point guard off the bench.
The Grizzlies wound up making the Western Conference Finals, and Bayless exercised his player option in order to return to the team for the 2013-2014 season. But Memphis was not satisfied with having Bayless as their primary backup point guard, so the Grizzlies went out and traded for former Florida Gators point guard Nick Calathes, who was playing overseas at the time.
Initially, the Calathes experiment went awfully wrong; in fact, Calathes was, at one point, booed on his home floor due to poor play. It was so bad that the Grizzlies brought in both Seth Curry and Darius Morris in hopes of having one of them secure the the role of relieving Conley. Eventually, Calthes did come through however, and he finished the season averaging 4.9 points, 2.9 assists, 1.9 rebounds, and just a shade under one steal in 16.5 minutes per game.
Calathes brought playmaking and defensive ability that we hadn't seen out of a Grizzly backup point guard since the days of Brevin Knight backing up Jason Williams.
Later that same season, the Grizzlies went out and signed another veteran, journeyman backup point guard, Beno Udrih, for insurances purposes just three days after he was cut by the New York Knicks. The Grizzlies had been interested in signing Udrih during the prior offseason, but the native Slovenian opted to sign in New York.
Udrih appeared in just ten regular season games and logged only 55 minutes, hardly enough time to get an accurate read on how Udrih would play if ever called upon to play significant, meaningful minutes.
Just prior to the start of the 2014 NBA Playoffs, a bombshell was dropped on the Grizzlies as Calathes - who at this point had firmly entrenched himself as the guy to relieve Conley - was suspended for 20 games for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug (PED) use policy, which meant Udrih was going liberated from the bench and get his opportunity to show what he could do when given consistent minutes.
And he did not disappoint. Udrih finished the 2014 playoffs averaging 7.9 points, 1.7 assists, and 1.7 rebounds, including this tremendous performance in Oklahoma City:
This past offseason, Udrih earned himself a two-year contract (second year non-guaranteed) to return to Memphis and serve as the backup point guard while Calathes finished serving the remaining 13 games of his 20-game suspension.
There were concerns about Udrih's style of play and whether he truly was a backup point guard who could properly facilitate for players around him and stay in front of opposing point guards. What Grizzly fans have come to discover is that what Udrih lacks in defense, he more than makes up for in his ability to score the basketball. And he has even doubled his assists per games count from 1.7 in last years playoffs to 3.5 so far during the 2014-2015 regular season.
"No, it's the same Beno," Grizzlies forward Jon Leuer said when asked if he noticed any difference in this season's version of Beno Udrih. "I played with him in Milwaukee. And I know his game and what he's capable of. He just comes in and runs the show, and he's definitely going to be aggressive offensively...he's a good point guard for us."
Udrih has been better than good when compared to some of the other backup point guards the Grizzlies have trotted out over the last few seasons. Instead of leads shrinking or deficits inflating when Conley is subbed out, leads now tend to grow and deficits get smaller thanks to the exceptional point guard play from Udrih.
"I don't know. I'm just part of a great team and great organization," Udrih said when asked why he's been so good for the Grizzlies this season. "I'm just trying to go out there and be aggressive and try to get my teammates open. I just try to play basketball the way I've played in the past."
The Grizzlies have always tried to find a reliable scoring threat off the bench; however, one does not typically think of that scoring threat coming from a point guard such as Udrih. But Udrih has to find that comfortable balance between being a scorer and creating openings for his teammates.
"I'm just trying to play by feel," Udrih went on to say. "Whatever the defense gives me I'm trying to take it. If they pressure me, I'm going to try to get in the paint and try to kick it out to my teammates. If they're sagging off of me, I'm going to try to pull up (and shoot). I'm just trying to (score and facilitate). You can't focus on one thing only."
The way Udrih has played this season has been a pleasant surprise to everyone in and around the Grizzlies organization. During the offseason, the popular line of thinking was that Udrih would man the backup point guard spot until Calathes returned from suspension. Well, here we are at 12 games since Calathes was eligible for his return, and Udrih seems to have a firm grasp on the backup point guard role.
The Grizzlies bench has been one of the best in the league, and it is a true weapon for a team that finds itself fixed among the elite teams in the NBA. We no longer has to worry when we see Mike Conley headed to the bench, because we know that fan-favorite Beno Udrih will be running the show.