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Taylor Jenkins and company match the Memphis youth movement

How did the rookie staff fair in their debut?

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Led by Taylor Jenkins, who was a rookie head coach himself, there were several layers to consider in an unprecedented season highlighted by the COVID effect. The season went from a typical 82-game regular season format usually concluded by mid April, to a 73-game format with the final eight games being played inside of a bubble. In addition, the final eight games were conducted in sort of a tournament style finish, with an additional play in game where Memphis lost to Portland.

For the early half of the season, one must credit the staff for showing growth in schemes and truly adjusting to what initially seemed like a rough but certainly expected turbulent start to the season. By January, the team really started to gel and adopt the confidence of guys like Jae Crowder and of course Ja Morant. One can argue Ja deserves a large share of the credit (especially considering his often 4th quarter performances), but you certainly can’t discount the coaching staff. It was to their credit to give Ja the confidence to go out and be himself as well as the rest of the roster.

Sometimes a coaching staff can do a lot by not doing too much, and this Taylor Jenkins-led staff made sure to observe such a law of coaching. It led to guys finding their games and establishing an organic team identity with a “Let It Fly” approach that lead to the team referring to themselves as #NxtGenGrz. This play style consisted of a very uptempo at pace at times but also featured the perfect balance of traditional post play starring Jonas Valanciunas.

I was very vocal against the re-signing of Jonas initially, as I saw it as a contract the Grizzlies would soon look to shed due to the current direction of the NBA game play. Jonas is a guy who “gets it out the mud” in the post, which is mostly reliant on a slower pace. Despite this concern, the coaching staff did a stellar job of implementing Jonas’ game in a heavy doses of the game plan. Defensively, Jonas was seen as a lumbering big by folks like myself who would struggle to keep up with the current style of play, which is much faster than ideal for the big fella.

Somehow the coaching staff were not only able to implement Jonas in a significant way offensively. The staff were also greatly responsible for being able to plug him in spots he could succeed as much as possible defensively and knowing when to play him in spots of the game that presented the most positive impact for such a player archetype today — let alone the initial make up of the roster which appeared to be a hard turn in modern, up tempo, small-ball play. To a certain degree, they were able to fit a circle into a square peg and that has to be acknowledged.

The coaching staff should also be applauded for furthering the near-maximum development of guys like Dillon Brooks & De’Anthony Melton. Allowing Dillon to be his naturally aggressive self in the shot chart department also motivated him to continue improving defensively. Dillon became a guy who wanted the defensive assignment of the enemy’s biggest perimeter scoring threat in pretty good fashion, along with quenching the blood thirsting hunger he possesses to take shots in the most crucial of moments. On the contrary, one can argue that same coaching approach was to a fault at times with Dillon, but few can argue against the results being far more productive than costly.

Most of the cons of the coaching staff come further down the roster, as well as the season, especially the bubble stretch. The coaching staff showed its inexperience in its use of timeouts as well as coaching challenges. There were many points in the season where the officiating crew made terrible calls against the Grizzlies that likely would’ve been overturned if challenged by the coaching staff. Instead they were left forever to be debated.

Another con of the coaching staff, and maybe the biggest glaring hole of them all, was the lack of development of the non-core members of the roster, such as Yuta Watanabe, John Konchar to a lesser degree, Jontay Porter’s lack of audition time in the bubble, and most certainly the debacle of Josh Jackson’s development. Yuta didn’t appear to improve on his development from his rookie season, despite possessing what many thought to be at least a solid amount of small-ball potential. He never took the next step, which was finding ways to stay on the court with all of his versatility and fairly athletic length/frame. Yuta went from a promising rotation prospect to a guy potentially out of an NBA roster spot this off-season. What makes this such an issue isn’t the team’s apparent void of productive depth at the wing and forward spots that Yuta plays.

One can’t argue too much with the overall team results. But one can also argue that John Konchar didn’t get enough audition time considering his all-around playmaking style and versatility, but it’s not too the degree of the elder Yuta and Josh Jackson. I personally consider Marko Guduric as one of the few botched acquisitions of the front office as opposed to a coaching development blunder. Can’t squeeze juice from a dry turnip; although I see why they gave him a shot, it’s just wasn’t enough to justify.

Josh Jackson is easily the biggest development blunder of those mentioned. In concept, Josh seemed to possess the potential to be the missing link in the Grizzlies need for an aggressive super athletic wing with excellent length. One can argue that the Front Office waited too long to finally bring him up from the G-League, which hampered his experience and thus chemistry with the roster and coaching staff. My biggest issue with the coaching staff is more so on the development guys handling of Jackson.

For a kid who seemed to bring his best levels of energy in every game, it seems as though no one bothered to steer that energy in the direction of developing his biggest areas of need for improvement, which are basketball IQ and shooting. He seemed to show some form of shootings improvement, but he certainly did NOT reflect as a player being coached to emphasize and develop basketball IQ, and understanding of what is needed in every situation he was placed in. Again, one can never fault him for a lack of effort on the court, but in the end how productive Ian effort without appropriate direction.

He was placed with Grizzlies legend Tony Allen, but that ended up merely doubling down on his strengths, which are defense and energy. Even a Brevin Knight would’ve likely been more effective in furthering the all around game of Josh Jackson, mainly the little things and most certainly basketball IQ or what coaches/floor generals equate to efficient play. Tony Allen did also serve as an ideal guide in NBA professionalism and being a man’s man, but that shouldn’t have been the extent of player-coaching assignment for a former fourth overall pick of just three drafts ago.

To make matters worst, before the pandemic stopped play, Josh seemed to really begin finding his groove and thus his role in the lineup. He started putting together a string of very highly productive games and brought an infectious energy to the lineup to a point where one can argue he wasn’t the biggest reason for at least a couple of wins in the few games he played. After the restart, it was as if it wasn’t the team’s first time seeing Josh play. They didn’t give him much rope, although his lack of basketball IQ and shooting didn’t help matters but again part of that is to the fault of the coaching staff.

We’ve seen far less hoops savvy players be successful with a lot less. They certainly could’ve done more, especially from a coaching staff headed by a Gregg Popovich/Mike Budenholzer disciple that prioritizes systemic efficiency.

In my opinion, Jontay Porter is gonna be an intriguing case for the evaluation of Memphis being able to further one’s development. If Jontay is even truly close to healthy and mobile as he once was, which was never freakish anyway, he should be a candidate to be the long-term center next to Jaren if need be. Upon entering the draft as a freshman, I initially referred to Jontay as a Marc Gasol clone with even flashes of Boogie Cousins’ shot-creating potential as a new big man. Now after two ACL tears, one can only hope he can be a savvy big, with at least the potential to make good passes and stretch the court with his shooting ability. If he can get back to the promising potential he displayed as a paint anchor defensively, then he may can still be a long-term solution as a starting center. With that said one would be smart to be cautious with such lofty hopes and dreams after suffering such a devastating injury twice in less than a year.

The team struggled with even the slightest of injuries. Anytime a player went down and missed time, you saw how bad that player was truly missed. You have to attribute that to a lack of compensation and shrewd adjustments from the coaching staff. So when Ja Morant missed time before the bubble, they looked like a nation without its Moses in the wilderness, even though some credit how well Tyus Jones has become as a point guard, including myself to a degree. One can make a clear case that if any rotation player missed time, we saw the Grizzlies’ inability to cover for said player, even those not named Ja, Jonas or Jaren.

Lastly the team’s performance in the NBA restart bubble was a total disappointment based on the momentum they built prior to the layover. I get it, they’re a young team from top of the front office to the last player on the roster. However, the Grizzlies never seemed to really have a sense of urgency. The fish stinks from the head down (looking at you Taylor Jenkins) so with that, it’s only right the head gets the head share of the blame.

There were moments were I felt Taylor could’ve not only been more tactical, but certainly there were times the team needed a fire lit in them to truly spark the sense of urgency. Yes they had injuries, but your backup point guard shouldn’t be that important to the win-loss column. Especially when the same point guard didn’t have much success filling in as a starter when Ja Morant missed games. So with that, the team flat-out collapsed in the bubble. By the time Tyus went down right before the restart, the team instantly became the walking dead figuratively speaking.

When Jaren injured his knee, forget about it. The team clearly couldn’t make the proper adjustments even with quite a bit of talent remaining, albeit inexperienced in comparison. So with that, a team who started the bubble 3.5 games ahead of the 9th seed went on a downward spiral into the 14th selection in which they conveyed (thank the basketball gods). They managed to win a couple of games to earn the play in game, but lost in heartbreaking fashion to the elder statesmen Trail Blazers team at the hands of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

The coaching staff has yet to master the fine line of allowing guys to be themselves and yet holding guys accountable and demanding the most intense of efforts when needed. They appeared far to relaxed at times in the bubble where players like Dame Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic were playing like mad men on a mission. So the Grizzlies proved to be poor pedestrians caught on the wrong side of high speed traffic, and they paid dearly with an early exit from urgency bubble.

Overall, Taylor Jenkins was very much a pleasant surprise in every facet, but that coaching staff needs more diversity, and when I say color, I mean that partly in the sense of more animated coaching when needed. (Research Pat Riley literally trying to drown himself in a bucket of ice water during halftime to drive his point home about the need for the highest sense of urgency at that moment).

That said, I must say the Grizzlies seemed to have found the guy who will be going the distance with Ja Morant as long as he’s with the Memphis Grizzlies. Hopefully they continue to improve his supporting cast, especially in the name of development.

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