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The Renaissance of Zach Randolph

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Renewal and Zach Randolph are nearly synonymous at this point in Memphis, especially from a personal perspective. The renaissance of Z-Bo the basketball player, however, has been a welcome rebirth and a key piece of the Memphis Grizzlies as they embrace their new role of true NBA title contender.

John Wayne + Alonzo Harris = Zach Randolph
John Wayne + Alonzo Harris = Zach Randolph
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Randolph can kick your ass in a variety of ways.

He can pound you in the post, physicality personified. His size and strength have been issues for many throughout his potentially Hall of Fame career. His persona on the court is that of a combination of John Wayne and Alonzo Harris, Denzel Washington's character in the 2001 film "Training Day".  He is indeed the stuff that the prototypical "tough" basketball player is made of, to paraphrase the legendary Wayne, and his game would do Harris proud, as this quote from the movie would attest to;

It's not what you know, it's what you can prove

People think they know a lot about Zach Randolph. They know the story, right? The brute force, the kind demeanor and acts of charity off the court, the checkered past that has faded away in the wake of a personal renaissance in Memphis, Tennessee. These are all good things - to many the best things - the stuff of legend that lead to the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently naming the beloved Z-Bo the Greatest Grizzly of All-Time after a landslide fan vote.

There are also those, mostly outside of #GrizzNation, who think they know that he is a defensive liability, that he is a ball stopping black hole in isolation situations. He is still that Zach in the eyes of some, who see Memphis' bully on the block as more of a real-life bully than a basketball one.

But could you prove that?

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Perception is reality. Enough life experience can teach you that over time. That same life experience also teaches you that people can indeed change, if they really want to. Zach Randolph has changed, but not just over the course of his Grizzly career in general. He has adapted this season in a variety of ways, that would call into question the perception of Zach as that struggling defender, that killer of ball movement. That growth has helped Memphis reach the heights that they currently enjoy among the elite of the NBA.

How has the Grizzlies' renaissance man done it?

The Newly Found Defensive Focus

The Memphis Grizzlies have rediscovered their renowned fury on defense since 2015 began. The bench mob that is Nick Calathes, Tony Allen, and Kosta Koufos get a majority of the attention, as they should. They have the top individual defensive efficiency ratings on the team among players who average at least 14 minutes per game since the start of 2015 (90.8 for Calathes, 91.3 for Allen, and 93.5 for Koufos). Beno Udrih's defensive rating of 96.8 is a direct reflection of their impact; Beno's season defensive rating is 105.

So, the bench has defended very well. Which starter has the best defensive efficiency during that time span? Surely it is former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, right? Actually, no, although his renewed focus on defense has helped to spurn this revival. If not Marc then it must be Mike Conley, the former All-NBA defender, who's the one leading the way! Again, this is not the case; his 100.7 rating, while better than his season 104 number, is actually behind both Gasol (99.8) and Courtney Lee (99.9) during this time frame.

Jeff Green is the low man on the totem poll with a defensive efficiency rating of 101.5 during his 18-game run as a Grizzly. That leaves...Zach Randolph.

Wait...what?

Yes, Zach Randolph's 98.1 leads the starting five. Surprised? Considering he has a defensive rating for the season of 99, perhaps you shouldn't be. Randolph has quietly pieced together one of the best defensive seasons of his career, a career that has Zach as a 106 efficiency defender overall and a 104 efficiency defender in his time in Memphis. Z-Bo has done this as he's aged, losing a step perhaps but still improving and contributing defensively.

How?

With a better understanding of how to defend players of all kinds, especially stretch fours who have given Zach issues in the past. Take this set against the Los Angeles Clippers from Monday night, for example.

Z-Bo Hawes 1

Zach Randolph's positioning, for one thing, is better. He understands the ability of Spencer Hawes to space the floor and how being in a better spot on the floor enables him to compensate for a lack of foot speed. He's in place to help on a possible hedge for Chris Paul, but can still react to a pass to Hawes in the corner to contest the shot.

Z-Bo Hawes 2

The pass does get kicked to Hawes, and Zach is in a place to contest this shot. In the past, whether it be for a lack of effort, desire, or caring, it just hasn't been a priority consistently. His health and conditioning could have played a hand in it as well. Whatever the cause, it is not there nearly as often now. This Hawes example is not the only one; Zach is exerting more energy defensively, running with stretch fours off of screens and contesting shots from range.

It shines through in this defensive tracking stat line of Zach defending three point shots.

Games Played Games Defended DFGM DFGA DFG% FREQ FG% DIFF%







45 39 0.7 2.3 31.10% 19.90% 35.30% -4.20%

That last number for 3 pointers, the -4.2, is the big one here. That means shooters are shooting on average 4.2% WORSE from three when their shot is defensed by Zach Randolph. That number in 2013-2014? A plus 5%. That is a +9.2% swing for Z-Bo, and a major reason for both his personal increased effectiveness and that of the Grizzlies' defense at large.

The Emerging Passer

One of the underrated developments in Zach's game is his ability to pass. His reputation for isolations preceded him, and in fairness, in the past he has been a part of his fair share of frustrating possessions that stop the ball in previous seasons and to a lesser extent this season. During this current stretch of success in 2015, however, Zach has been a revelation as a passer. Take a look at his passing numbers from NBA.com/stats from the 2014-2015 season overall:

Pass to Frequency Passes Per Game
Mike Conley 42.10% 14.7
Beno Udrih 12.80% 4.5
Courtney Lee 11.90% 4.2
Marc Gasol 11.30% 3.9
Tony Allen 5.30% 1.9
Jeff Green 5.00% 1.7

Of the top six guys he passed to, only four of them were passed to more than 10% of the time, and Zach passed to these key six guys 30.9 times per game on average for the season to this point. Compare that with his numbers in 2015 alone:

Pass to Frequency Passes Per Game
Mike Conley 33.90% 13.4
Beno Udrih 16.20% 6.5
Courtney Lee 13.10% 5.2
Marc Gasol 11.80% 4.7
Jeff Green 10.10% 4
Nick Calathes 6.30% 2.5

More distribution, shown through the fact there are five guys with double digit percentage passes received from Z-Bo during the 2015 stretch. To the top six guys he dishes to during these contests, swapping out the slashing Tony Allen for the better ball-handler Nick Calathes, he has kicked out the ball 36.3 times in this run of games, almost 6 more passes to those key pieces than the season average. Ball stopper? Try ball sharer.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of these passes is Courtney Lee, who shoots 62% on two-point shots and 41% on shots beyond the arc off of Z-Bo passes. An example of Zach using his perception to his advantage shines in the Portland Trail Blazers game from this past Sunday.

Z-Bo Lee 1

Zach gets the ball in the very high post against Robin Lopez, which historically is prime Z-Bo iso area. Wesley Matthews seems to be thinking this exact thing. He sinks off of Courtney Lee and watches Randolph, who in this spot often either jab steps a time or two or dribble drives with his left hand to get to the rim. Double team on that low-efficiency isolation play. Z-Bo has different thoughts, however, as he notices Matthews' head turned and poor positioning on Lee.

Z-Bo Lee 2

Zach makes the smart play, kicking to C-Lee for a wide open three due to Matthews being slow to react to the pass from Randolph.

At times in the past, Z-Bo may have gone back to his "Super Z-Bo" days of 2010-2011 and tried to rely on his physicality and positioning to try to muscle his way to the rim, but not this season, and especially not during this time of 2015 dominance. His efficiency offensively (108 overall according to basketball-reference.com) is his best since that 2010-2011 season because he is making the smart play. Sometimes, that is him being aggressive. Other times, it is finding his teammates and allowing for them to create & take advantage of the space created by the attention defenses still pay to Randolph.

Perception is reality, and it works for Zach & the Grizzlies in this situation.

______________________________________________________________________

Special seasons are earned, not given. They come to those willing to adapt, to grow, and to learn and make themselves better through continuity and experience. The Zach Randolph that Memphis Grizzlies fans have watched this season is different and the same, an enigma of a player like the man himself once was. The perception of Z-Bo still does not match up to the reality in a lot of ways, as national media types and other players continue to see Zach for what he once was, not what he has become. He is a better teammate, a stronger leader both on and off the court, an improved defender, and a smarter offensive player.

So bring on the stretch run, the playoffs, and teams thinking that Z-Bo is what he isn't. As John Wayne once said...

Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.

Zach Randolph most certainly has. This Z-Bo may not be "Super" but he is an all-new, smarter monster, and to paraphrase Denzel Washington's Alonzo Harris from "Training Day", King Kong and the rest of the Western Conference may not have a thing on him come April, May, and June.

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Stats were provided by Basketball-Reference.com & NBA.com/stats