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Be Like Marc: How Kosta Koufos' Expanded Role Can Better Himself and the Grizzlies

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With no Ed Davis or James Johnson on the Grizzlies' roster, and with Jon Leuer and Jarnell Stokes being the other options in the front court at the moment, an increase in minutes is likely for Kosta Koufos. As the 25 year old enters the beginning of his prime, how can Kosta Koufos help Memphis most (and himself in the process?)

Kosta Koufos is approaching a key season in his career. How can he benefit himself and the Grizzlies?
Kosta Koufos is approaching a key season in his career. How can he benefit himself and the Grizzlies?
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

With the front office turnover, all of the excitement of Vince Carter's arrival, and the attention on the Summer League performances of Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes, a Grizzlies fan can find themselves thinking that a lot of change has occurred so far this off-season. In ways it has, but as the old saying goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The Grizzlies appear to be prepared to bring back 12 players who appeared in games for them last season, essentially "running it back" after an injury-plagued season found some levels of success.

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This isn't too flawed of a philosophy, considering the fact that three key pieces (including two of the "core four" in Tony Allen and Marc Gasol) played in less than 60 regular season games last season. However, even with so many players supposedly coming back (barring the always possible trade, which has been discussed in a variety of articles on this site) there will be some slight changes. No more James Johnson highlight reel plays and lack of scheme basketball, no more red-hot Mike Miller sightings from beyond the arc...

..and an underrated change will be no more Ed Davis. Yes, Davis was frustrating more than dominating and yes, Ed's time in Memphis was more like a disappointing summer Blockbuster than "like a Boss." Like Davis or not, he played in 63 regular season games and averaged 15 minutes a game. His role, while smaller than some would have liked (likely including Ed himself), was a role nonetheless. Those minutes must be made up in one way or another.

Jon Leuer may well be the answer to that question. His offensive game is possibly the best of any bench big left on the Grizzlies roster, and his ability to space the floor with mid-range and three point shooting would be a welcome addition to the rotation. However, when Leuer played last season he averaged 13 minutes as-is and is limited defensively. The other big on the roster, Jarnell Stokes, clearly has potential but may be in Iowa with the Energy more than in Memphis, at least this season.

If Leuer is not ready for an increased role, and Stokes is being groomed in Iowa due to a lack of PT with the big club, that leaves Kosta Koufos as the answer to the "who fills Ed's minutes" question. You certainly could have worse answers (Tayshaun Prince comes to mind), and as far as back-up bigs go, Kosta Koufos is one of the best. His PER from last season of 16.54 is Hollinger-friendly and his contract is cap-friendly at $3 million for the coming season. Kosta is a rebounding machine who averages a double-double per 36 minutes and according to basketball-reference.com has a higher Win Shares per 48 minutes than Zach Randolph. He is a valuable piece.

Far more valuable than the $3 million per year he is currently being paid. As Koufos enters the final year of his current contract, he is heading for a career crossroads. At 25 years old he is beginning to enter the prime of his athletic abilities, which for most NBA players means prime earnings time. However, with LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, DeAndre Jordan and...gulp...Marc Gasol potentially being free agents themselves, Koufos' value in the open market may be weakened a bit by comparison.

Kosta Koufos has an opportunity to better both his own lot in free agency next season and, through his efforts, the Memphis Grizzlies as well. He will continue to defend the rim and the pick-and-roll well as well as provide stellar rebounding. In order to make himself more competitive in comparison to other names that will be available, he will need to show in increased minutes that he has grown his game.

But where can he make those improvements?

He can look to the guy in front of him on the depth chart for that inspiration. Marc Gasol's game is unique among big men, and while Koufos will likely never be the level of player Marc is, he can fill a niche in the open market once Gasol (hopefully) re-signs with Memphis and is off the table for a lot of teams. Some aspects of Gasol's game are based in his natural skill, but Koufos can grow in the areas where Gasol has improved over the years to be a "Wendigo-lite," and what Kosta may lack in knowledge and natural basketball skill as compared to Marc, he can possibly make up for with raw athleticism.

Expand the Range

So much of Kosta Koufos' offensive game depends on work in the post and paint. His shot chart from last season shows that pretty clearly.

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81% of Koufos' shot attempts last season were in the paint, which is a pretty high amount. Compare this, however, with Koufos' shot chart in his season as a starter with the Denver Nuggets in 2012-2013.

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A tremendous 92.8% of Koufos' shots were attempted in the paint. In George Karl's scheme he was not asked to expand outside of the lane much; his job was to run the floor, clean the glass, play in and defend the pick-and-roll. These are all important aspects of basketball, of course, but so much more can be gained from a big man who can get outside the restricted area and force other bigs to honor his range.

In Memphis, Kosta was asked to be more involved in the mid-range game, and he did some good things in that role. Of the 87 shots he took beyond the paint last season (more than double what he took in Denver despite playing less minutes off the bench for the Grizzlies for much of the season), he hit 34. That is 39% shooting, which doesn't sound fantastic but is an improvement over the 32% he shot from the same areas in Denver. It also is only about 1% worse than what Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol did from similar areas last season.

Of course, sample size is big here. Gasol, for example, shot over 400 shots from outside the paint last season while dealing with a pretty serious knee injury, but Koufos shot less than that in the lane. Gasol shot almost 47% from outside the paint in 2012-2013, and the in-between of that and his 2013-2014 number of 40% is likely what can be expected at worst from a healthy Marc Gasol moving forward.

The fact remains, though, that both Gasol and Randolph are credited for their ability to score the ball from the mid-range and that, by the numbers, Koufos is not too far off of their production percentage-wise. More minutes means more shot attempts and more opportunity for Koufos to showcase that range and give more space for those playing with him, wing or big, to operate in post-up opportunities or by slashing through the paint. Kosta showed improvement in this area last season and more improvement means more versatility in his game. The more versatility he learns, the more money and years on a contract he'll earn.

Kosta the Facilitator

If you watched Grizzlies games last season you saw plenty of an offensive set called "Horns." Our own Kevin Yeung did a fantastic job breaking down just one of the multiple looks out of Horns here, and the key to the Horns set is having versatile players who can both see passing lanes and be able to force defenses to honor their ability to hit that elbow jumper. It is why Marc Gasol is so effective in sets where he plays on the elbow, like in Horns; he can hurt you in a variety of ways as a screener, a shooter, or a facilitator for others.

Kosta Koufos is an excellent screener, and his potential as a shooter is there. As a passer, though, Kosta has never really shined whether it be in Horns or any other set. His highest assist numbers per-36 minutes occurred during his first stint in the NBA in Utah at 1.3 assists. Last season Kosta was at one assist per-36 minutes. For comparison's sake, Zach Randolph averaged 2.7 assists per-36 minutes last season, and Gasol, one of the best big-man/passer combinations in the NBA, averaged almost 4 assists per-36 minutes.

Is this because Kosta is incapable of finding his teammates offensively? Unlikely; while passing seems not to come as naturally to big men, it is a skill that can be developed (see Randolph, Zach). It comes down to minutes, attention on developing the skill, and the understanding of scheme and space. Take a look at this series of screen shots against the Wizards.

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Kosta gets the ball not quite at the elbow as he would in a "Horns" set, but he is at the free throw line in more of a "high-low" look. He receives this pass from Tayshaun Prince on the wing and almost instantly sees Zach Randolph sealing out Trevor Booker just beyond him at the edge of the paint. Kosta's athleticism is on display here; he adjusts his body mid-step to make the pass to Zach.

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This play is a great example of areas of reinforcement and refinement. Kosta does a great job putting just enough on the pass to give Zach a chance to receive the ball and score easily in the lane. However, look at how that lane collapses; John Wall completely abandons Mike Miller to help inside, leaving a guy who shot 46% from three point land last season wide open. If Kosta had gathered himself and viewed the court for a split second, he could have seen this and instead of a Randolph 2, an open Miller 3 could have been achieved.

This comes with coaching and experience. Koufos has the capability to improve as a passer; he just needs the opportunity to work on that aspect of his game. At 25, he can still learn and grow.

Quarterback the Defense

Koufos, per-36 minutes, averaged 1.9 blocks per game last season compared to Marc Gasol's 1.4. Kosta has the length at 7 foot tall, and the athleticism to be a force while defending the rim, perhaps even more than Gasol. No one would say Koufos is a better defender than Gasol, though, and rightfully so. So, what is the major difference? It can be found in an understanding of scheme, situation, and opponent's offensive sets. This clip from a key early season game at Golden State last November showcases that.

The most impressive part of this play is not the block. It's Marc's recognition of the drive, his anticipation and the timing necessary to ensure that Andrew Bogut won't be open as Gasol leaves him to help, and the understanding of angles to attack the driving Harrison Barnes and control the ball so that the Grizzlies get a key extra possession after stopping the Warriors. It isn't about the block; its about what happens after, the extra offensive opportunity.

Gasol is a master of this, whether he blocks the shot or not. Body positioning and extended arms can alter a shot and force misses that can be just as valuable. When Koufos is playing alongside Gasol, of course Marc can fill this void and Kosta can play to his strength of cleaning the boards. When Koufos is playing alongside Z-Bo, Leuer, Stokes, or even Tayshaun Prince at the 4, he will be the best big defender on the floor. It will be up to him to be that defensive tone-setter, the player whose physicality is impressive but who also understands the intricacies of the Grizzlies' defense and makes those around him better. It is a chance to show he can be that kind of player, a dominant post presence who helps to offset the issues of perimeter defenders.

Who better to get that from and pick the brain of than Marc Gasol?

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This season serves as possibly the biggest in Kosta Koufos' career. He is young, athletic, and primed to continue to climb the NBA big-man rankings. As Koufos undoubtedly looks to his future, he must invest in his present to best prepare for a campaign that will set his value on the free agent market. Adding layers to his game on offense and defense will make Koufos a more complete player and more attractive to other teams while helping Memphis solidify their front court in the short term that is this coming season.

The best part for both the Grizzlies and Kosta? A great guy to model Koufos' professional development after is on his team. By emulating Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos can become more offensively versatile, defensively dangerous, and can earn himself a larger role (and pay day) in the future.

For Kosta Koufos and the Memphis Grizzlies, growth and success is only a Wendigo away.

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