A lot has been made of the youthful exuberance of the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA’s Orlando bubble at Disney World. Led by two young men that aren’t able to legally drink alcohol or rent a car in 20-year olds Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., the future is quite bright and the squad seems to know it. They genuinely enjoy one another and their actions say it louder than any words possibly could. Whether it is Jonas Valanciunas and Justise Winslow fishing after the day’s work is done or picture after picture and video after video of smiles and laughs from within the successful (so far) social experiment the Association has set up in Florida, the Grizzlies have found something that could give them a major advantage as the season resumes.
Not just chemistry, but connection.
While Zachary Kleiman and others within the Grizzlies organization deserve credit for assembling this fun and free-flowing group in less than 18 months, there is one person in particular who should get the majority of praise for where Memphis finds themselves with less than two weeks between them and the start of their sprint for the postseason.
It is head coach Taylor Jenkins. And make no mistake, every shred of success for the Grizzlies both before and after the suspension has his fingerprints all over it.
The X’s and O’s matter, of course. Jenkins has done what no Grizzlies coach has been able to for a decade - the Memphis offense has been modernized, relying on the combined force of pace and space far more than they have in some time. The last time the Grizzlies had a pace ranked 7th in the NBA (their current standing) was the disastrous 2007-2008 campaign where Memphis went 22-60 and hit the reset button on the franchise by trading Pau Gasol. That team was young like this one is, but the 2019-2020 Grizzlies are a team that both runs and guns with purpose. The increase in shot attempts have not made Memphis a liability defensively (16th in the NBA in defensive efficiency according to basketball-reference.com) and Coach Jenkins has put an emphasis on effort and execution on both ends of the floor.
But even beyond the schemes, what has led to the youngest coach in the bubble looking the part of a seasoned vet is an understanding of how important it is to develop shared threads with the squad he is at the head of.
Finally, Taylor Jenkins joins the media availability and begins with a statement on standing up for racial equality. The Grizzlies watched the documentary 13th last night and had a Roundtable discussion afterward. The team also talked to the Memphis police chief. pic.twitter.com/fz7Y61LdWj— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) July 21, 2020
Jenkins has said time and again that he spent the long weeks and months away from his team planning exactly what he would do as the season (hopefully) resumed. Whether it was basic workouts for players to do on their own and Zoom meetings to check in or organized team activities as the bubble became a reality, the meticulous organization and preparedness of Taylor in this situation has shined through. Beyond the bouncing of a ball, Jenkins has shown interest in the lives of those who take the court for him. It’s not just wearing a t-shirt saying “Black Lives Matter”, it is setting up meetings with heads of police in Memphis. It isn’t just watching a documentary, it is facilitating a time to talk about how the information connected with those that viewed it.
And it isn’t just talking. More importantly, it’s about listening.
That willingness to act on the moment he is living in speaks volumes to his awareness of what makes a coach more than just someone players have to listen to. These folks are away from everyone that has ever loved them - wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, friends. They’re tested almost daily for a virus that is very real - that could have long lasting effects on their health if they contract it. All this is happening during the most meaningful social justice movement in a generation, one that they desperately and correctly want to advance while having the platform to speak on meaningful and overdue changes in our society.
On a much smaller scale, balancing all of that while trying to prepare for the most unique and worrisome “start” of a playoff race in the history of the NBA must be taxing to say the least. There are tough decisions ahead for the Grizzlies - who makes the rotation, who starts, how minutes get divided up. Depth has its disadvantages - if a coach makes a call on a player or lineup that the players clearly see as incorrect or biased, that coach risks losing the locker room. Especially for Jenkins, who does not have a traditional basketball background, this would be disastrous. One misstep could trip up everything he has worked for to get to this point.
Thankfully, that likely won’t happen. For Taylor has taken the time to invest in those he is responsible for as not just chess pieces in a running game of chess, but as human beings. All the advanced statistics and lineup data in the world doesn’t equate to the importance of those relationships.
It isn’t just Ja, Jaren, Justise Winslow, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and the other players that make up the Grizzlies roster who will be on the biggest stage of their young careers very soon. Jenkins is about to match up with the likes of Terry Stotts, Gregg Popovich, Alvin Gentry, Quin Snyder, Billy Donovan, Nick Nurse, Brad Stevens, and his most recent mentor Mike Budenholzer. Give or take a Doc Rivers or Rick Carlisle and that may very well be a top-10 or so list of coaches in the NBA, and just among Jenkins’ first three seeding games he will be taking on coaches with a combined 56 years at the helm of an NBA team and 370 games of playoff experience (24 and 284 for Popovich, 12 and 56 for Stotts, 17 and 30 for Gentry). Jenkins, of course, as a rookie head coach has zero such games under his belt.
But when the young Grizzlies look to Jenkins when things get tough, there won’t be doubt in their eyes while viewing their young coach.
There will be trust.
Trust like that doesn’t just get built overnight. A belief in a leader of that magnitude gets molded over time and through moments of turmoil and tension. Memphis’ head coach is a man that these players can look to when adversity strikes. They know he has a plan for every possibility they may encounter. More importantly, they believe that no matter what happens in the bubble and beyond he genuinely wants to see their goals realized and their own hopes for their careers and lives reached. Beyond the Grizzlies family he understands these players have their own worlds waiting on them - and how what they’re doing in Orlando is to benefit them, both now and in the future.
He has allowed for himself to be malleable with the people he shared this first year of his head coaching journey with. This has been achievable in part because of the carefully crafted system he has orchestrated both on and off the floor for the Memphis Grizzlies.
Because of all the effort methodically put in to what has been built so far, when his moment comes it will be theirs, not just his.
Just the way he planned it.