Don't look now, but Nick Calathes, once a lightening rod of criticism as the latest in a long line of shaky backup point guards, has grown into his new pot as 3rd string playmaker rather nicely. The man has looked, felt, and played so much more comfortably in the last two months that he might even see floor time in the upcoming playoffs. (Well, maybe not. More on that later.)
Around this time last year, the Grizzlies claimed Beno Udrih off waivers and Dave Joerger said this:
Dave Joerger to #FOX13 on Beno Udrih today "I don't have any intention of playing him in front of Nick Calathes"..— Matt Stark (@MattStarkFOX13) February 27, 2014
It was seen as an insurance policy in an injury-riddled season, as well as adding a much-needed ball handler to the team. But Udrih proved to be a good get: when Calathes was suspended for last year's playoffs, Udrih took advantage with a couple of valuable high-production quarters and was solid enough through the first 13 games of our current season to keep the seat Calathes left open. Nick was relegated to third string, and without his buddy Mike Miller to feed, we worried he would wilt.
Instead, Calathes has thrived in his lower-pressure role with more aggressive defense play and solid ballhandling on offense. His usage is more diverse, sometimes even sharing the floor with Conley and Udrih in super small lineups. These days, Calathes feels better cast as a spot minute role player than he as Mike Conley's oxygen tank - less the floor general, more the plucky enlisted man.
Calathes' hustle has been off the charts lately, and I mean that figuratively - he's visibly more energetic on D than usual - and literally - because it doesn't always show up in the stats. Anecdotally, how many in-bounds passes has Calathes stolen or threatened to steal in the last two months? A half-dozen? Who even does that? (Tony, put your hand down.)
More tangibly, Nick's defensive rating since January 1 is a solid 98 per 100 possessions. Tony Allen's is a 99 on the year (and a 96[!] in 2015). That's not the only area in which Calathes compares to Allen: Nick's 2.6 steals per 36 minutes is second only to Allen's 2.8 (discounting Russ Smith and Kailin Lucas). He's suddenly making a name for himself as a defensive sub, something he's always promised with his size but is now delivering on with more reliability.
Calathes has nicked (see what I did there?) some on-court tendencies from TA as well. Watch him generate this steal by completely ignoring his man and instead hawking the ball handler, narrowing the window to about 0° and then absorbing the attempted pass. Dig the funky finish on the other end, too.
The three-man defensive lineup of Tony (on the wing), Calathes (at the point), and Kosta Koufos (protecting the rim) is a scary one. Last I heard, players are shooting 8% worse from the floor when being guarded by Tony Allen, and Kosta Koufos is grabbing 17% of available rebounds (second only to Z-Bo). Together with Calathes' peskiness, the three will hound most bench squads and more than a few starting units around the league.
Nick has always been sneaky good on offense, especially around the rim. I distinctly remember being in the Forum for this game against the Lakers and sitting behind the play. When Calathes was standing 40 feet away from the rim in front of Shawne Williams, I remember thinking to myself: "What's he gonna do, take him to the rim?" He did just that, and got the and-one. I shut my mouth.
A big area for Calathes is ball responsibility. His turnovers per game are down from 1.4 last year to .8 this year - some of that's due to playing 4 fewer minutes per game, but his assist to turnover ratio is up from 2:1 to 3.1:1, a not insignificant bump in efficiency for a guy whose job is primarily to maintain leads while the starters recharge. Playing spot minutes means not just less time to make mistakes, but also less reason to risk making them, and (again, anecdotally) the Grizzlies have been better about building leads with their starters this year and letting their bench play from ahead.
One area that hasn't improved markedly is his shooting. 17% of his shots are from three this year, down from 20% last year, and he's only made 5 of them. But he's still reliably >55% inside of 10 feet, where the vast majority of his production comes from. That shakes out to a steady 47.8% eFG rating, roughly the same as last year. Again, point production is not his gig, just so long as he's not stopping the ball or turning it over. Shot clock beaters are fair game:
("That's not our play," says Sean Tuohy. "What about this?" says Nick Calathes.)
Okay, so when the lights are on in the playoffs, Calathes probably won't be catching Joerger's eye very often. But there's something to be said for regular season production - yeoman's work. In this life, it's those 6 point, 7 assist games that get you a postgame TV interview, and a lot of high praise from the gallery. And for a team that appreciates energy and a player that thrives on confidence, sometimes that's what makes a difference.