It's funny how perceived moments of need can reveal a diamond in the rough. Nick Calathes might not be a diamond, but he's shown the Memphis Grizzlies that he's capable of more and more when they ask more and more of him. Suddenly, things that looked like worrisome concerns for the Grizzlies were addressed simply by Calathes' own patchwork.
When Jerryd Bayless was traded and Calathes was pushed into sole possession of the backup point guard role, he did a great job of holding down the fort. You probably remember that the consensus opinion of him as the third-string point guard was often negative and mixed at best, so his positive play as the primary backup came as a pleasant surprise. However, the popular belief was that he'd only be a temporary fill-in until the Grizzlies traded from their surplus of big men for a more proven solution as Conley's backup.
When Mike Conley went down with the right ankle sprain that has kept him out until now at the All-Star break, that trade still hadn't happened. There weren't even so much as whispers of a trade for a new backup point guard happening. Suddenly, Calathes was the only point guard on the roster. Sure, Jamaal Franklin had offered a few minutes of relief there before and the Grizzlies quickly signed Darius Morris (who has looked very solid, by the way) to a 10-day contract. However, the expectation was that two weeks without Conley and two weeks with Calathes forced into heavy minutes were going to be a very dicey two weeks, no matter what Morris or Franklin could do.
It hasn't been a pretty two weeks for the Grizzlies who are only 4-3 since Conley's injury, but like he did after the Bayless trade, Calathes has been able to shock everyone by proving capable of holding down the fort. He's shown aspects of his game that we've literally never seen before in him as a Grizzly, and while he's no borderline All-Star like Conley is, Calathes has turned out to be more than we ever thought of him just a month ago.
Small sample size abound, but take a look at Calathes' stats in his seven starts from these past two weeks without Conley and compare them to his stats coming off of the bench in the other 34 games of the season.
(Conveniently, the difference in his minutes per game make it relatively easy to compare Calathes' per-minute stats using this table. Just multiply all of his averages in counting stats coming off of the bench by three. For advanced stat comparisons, click here.)
What stands out most is the leap in both efficiency and usage as a starter. If you look at his advanced stats, there's a considerable 13.0% jump in his True Shooting Percentage and a 2.8% increase in his usage rate. That's incredible, especially since he's never seen this much sustained playing time in the NBA before.
The most obvious explanation for this improved play, though it doesn't account for everything, is that Calathes is seeing much more time playing with the starters who are both a massive talent upgrade and very stylistically different from the second unit Calathes used to play with. With high-usage stars like Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol on this lineup instead of spot-up shooters, cutters and roll men like Mike Miller, James Johnson and Ed Davis, the situation around Calathes is very different. Instead of Calathes having to play facilitator all of the time, he'll be off-ball a lot more as the offense runs through the post (the drop in assists for Calathes as a starter is likely a byproduct of that).
Now, that this would've been a good thing for Calathes is mildly surprising. Before coming into the starting lineup, Calathes had made five three-pointers. He had the look of a rarely aggressive, ball-dominant passer from the start of the season.
But out of nowhere, Calathes has busted out a pretty consistent three-point shot! Like, it literally came out of nowhere: in the Grizzlies' first game without Conley, Calathes blew up to shoot 4-of-5 from deep against the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a 22-point explosion. That was one make away from matching his season total entering that game.
The form on his jumper is pretty gross and his success often comes and goes, but as the stat table earlier shows, Calathes is averaging 1.3 makes from deep per game while hitting at an efficient 40.9%. That still comes out to just nine three-pointers in two weeks (with many coming in that game against the Bucks), hardly anything to take for granted long-term. However, it's certainly something that has been critical in his strong play of late. Even with Courtney Lee in the lineup, putting in a Calathes that couldn't make shots from deep alongside Tayshaun Prince would still be difficult with how much the Grizzlies throw it into the bigs down low.
The one Dave Joerger put in the starting lineup is not only drilling shots, but he's shooting them without hesitation. His rate of three-point attempts is way up, shooting 1.9 more of them as a starter per 36 minutes. That gives less time for defenders to recover, and now that he's earning the respect of those defenders as a three-point shooter, that means they will play closer to him without the ball or otherwise pay the price for giving up an open three to him. It has made plugging him into the starting lineup not only bearable, but genuinely helpful.
Here's Calathes hitting a three in his first game as a starter, where defenses were willing to help off of him.
And now here he is in the Grizzlies' last game before All-Star Weekend, with Jameer Nelson clearly in no rush to leave Calathes open.
It's not just three-point shooting that has suddenly appeared in Calathes' skillset, either. With the second unit, he played with pick-and-roll/pop bigs in Ed Davis and Jon Leuer. Making the switch to playing off-ball with post players that draw the defense's attention in Z-Bo and Marc has also revealed a crafty timing by Calathes on cuts into the paint when guys have their heads turned towards a more pressing threat (Exhibit A above). Calathes is neither an explosive athlete nor a wicked ball-handler, but with 6'6" size and a very deft finger roll move, he's a deceivingly good and smooth finisher off of cuts.
This play is one of my favorite examples of Calathes' ability as a cutter, simply because there's so much to like. He spots the gap in the defense, makes the decision to go from the weak side, and catches and finishes in one fluid motion over Nikola Vucevic.
Don't mistake Calathes for Mike Conley, however. While Calathes can dart to the rim if offered a lane, he won't create his own path around defenders with the ball in his hands. His ball-handling is shaky and he lacks an explosive first step, speed or hops. In pick plays, Calathes simply can't turn the corner and burst into attack mode. If he tries to get aggressive out of the pick-and-roll, he'll usually get a midrange jumper or a contested layup that he'll hit maybe once or twice in five tries.
Instead, with the ball in his hands, Calathes usually looks to pass like he does when he's with the second unit. Though I've been praising his improved scoring ability while playing with the starters, his passing is obviously still a weapon. He won't get the ball as much as in the second unit since a lot of the playmaking goes through Gasol, but Calathes' sharp passing instincts are very much still there. As a matter of fact, I've often thought of them as his best aspect as a player. He has wonderful peripheral vision ("eyes in the back of his head" type of stuff), snap decision-making and tinges of creativity and boldness. If you've ever heard me call Calathes fun, this is what I'm talking about.
A lot of Calathes' assists will come off of finding shooters or making plays in transition. I was a huge fan of his ability to spot guys like Jon Leuer and Mike Miller spotting up, or hitting Ed Davis out of a pick-and-roll. Similarly, a lot of his assists as a starter go to Courtney Lee in catch-and-shoot situations or Marc Gasol out of a pick-and-pop. If he can get the defense rotating or helping by using a pick-and-roll or a catch-and-go, then Calathes can find the open man on the floor.
There's brilliant design on this inbound play, with Courtney Lee making a cut to the far corner after inbounding, Jon Leuer going the opposite way, and a Calathes-Gasol pick-and-roll to cause even more confusion for the defense. Nonetheless, it's a strong find by Calathes to see Lee wide open in the far corner and fling over one of the arcing passes that he loves to use as soon as Gary Neal commits to helping as the third defender on the pick-and-roll.
The main problem is that Calathes is somewhat turnover prone. There are a bunch of times where he gets over-ambitious with his passes, trying to thread a pass through traffic or forcing a flashy play. Defenders will pick off or deflect a lot of his passes before they reach their intended target. The turnover issues existed at the start of the season, and they're one of his most problematic struggles still around today. I'll argue that the second unit is a little more passer-friendly because of better spacing and more catch-and-score guys, but there's no way getting around Calathes' loose-cannon moments.
That's all fine, though. It's his first year in the NBA, he's already made huge strides elsewhere, the rest will come later on, and so on.
We've also got to touch on Calathes' defense, because he's been blowing me away with what he's been doing on that end. Even from basic per-game stats, it's visible that Calathes has been doing work there. He's averaging 2.6 steals per game in his starts. For comparison, Ricky Rubio is leading the league in steals with 2.5 per game. Unlike his three-point shooting, his success in stealing the ball isn't even a little bit reliant on one big performance. Calathes is on an eight-game streak of having recorded at least one steal or more, which obviously encompasses all seven of his starts. In four of those eight games, he's recorded either three or four steals. Impressive stuff.
What is he doing right? Well, what you notice from watching Calathes is that he just likes to get in the way of things with his hands. He's a pest. Calathes is that guy from pick-up who isn't particularly good, but you hate playing against him because he's grabby on defense and goes right at the ball every time.
Whether he's defending the ball-handler or lurking in the passing lanes, Calathes will make a play. He's smart at reading plays as they develop and rotating over to pick off of a pass, and he's really ballsy when it comes to reaching in and ripping the basketball loose. You know, pest things. He's a little slow and struggles to get past screens, but even when he's behind, Calathes does a great job of getting to the ball.
Defending John Wall in the pick-and-roll here, you see that Calathes gets fooled when Wall crosses over and goes away from the screen. Not one to be beat, however, Calathes just goes for the ball and pretty much mugs it off of Wall. It's fun to watch.
Here's what's curious: 20 of his 37 steals this season have come during this eight-game streak of having recorded a steal. The aggressive mentality towards forcing turnovers that we've seen recently definitely wasn't as prevalent earlier this season. It's weird, but like his three-point shooting, it's suddenly appeared there and it's been pretty damn strong since. Having compared his defense now to his defense at the start of the season, what's most apparent is that he was much more wary of being beaten off the dribble earlier in the season. Calathes is slow-footed, especially compared to a lot of the point guards he has to guard, so he played a few steps back and conceded midrange jumpers.
Now? He's active, man. Calathes runs rampant all over the place, forcing turnovers and generally being disruptive. Even when he's not stealing the ball, his effort level is visible. In fact, effort visibly makes up for a lot of his physical limitations. It's that, his size and the help of a strong team defense that make up for his limitations and allow him to be a true plus defender. Calathes is slow, but fights over screens and sticks his body on ball-handlers. When defending off the ball on the weak side and packing the paint, he'll haul ass in recovering to his man when the ball swings over to him. If he gets crossed up, he'll use his hands to disrupt his ball-handler and catch up similar to what we saw in the steal on Wall.
In fact, here's a look at a different possession where Calathes guards Wall. In this one, the game is on the line as the Wizards have the ball with 11.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter and are down 3 points. It's a one-on-one matchup against Wall, and you can see Calathes make everything difficult for him from the catch to the frustratedly jacked-up 26-footer with 3 seconds left on the clock. Even when Wall, an explosively fast runner, turns the corner on the pick-and-roll, Calathes is a flurry of activity as he fights over the screen and makes up the lost ground.
This might surprise you, but Synergy has ranked Calathes as the NBA's third best defender this season, having allowed just 0.59 points per possession (PPP) to date. This includes the third-lowest PPP allowed in spot-up situations (0.61), the fourth-lowest in isolation plays (0.43), and the 11th lowest against pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.58). That's shocking for a player not really regarded as a lockdown defender.
Calathes' strong play as a starter in the past two weeks has raised our perception of him and the level of player he is. Like we struggled to believe he was suitable as the backup point guard after the Bayless trade a month and a bit ago, we struggled to believe he would be a suitable fill-in as a starter when Conley went down. That means this is the second time he's proven us wrong. He's been a revelation as a starter, and in hindsight, it's ironic that we doubted his ability to do something like step in and be a short-term backup point guard when he's here excelling as an injury replacement in the starting lineup.
The greatest irony here is that his strong play as a starter has probably entrenched him as the Grizzlies' long-term backup point guard. Maybe the Grizzlies did their due diligence after the Bayless trade to explore an upgrade behind Conley, but whether they looked into it or not, it's hard to imagine there's any doubts about Calathes after he's continually stepped his production up to the task to reach the top-drawer level of play he's been at over the past two weeks.
When the most recent wave of trade rumors were released earlier this week, the Grizzlies were named in a few reports. Where were they looking to upgrade? Small forward, according to USA Today's Sam Amick. Not backup point guard.
After the All-Star break, Mike Conley will probably be back. If not right away, then likely within a game or two. Calathes probably goes to the bench, and if the Grizzlies' front office has any concerns over point guard depth, Darius Morris has looked good enough to warrant another 10-day contract for further inspection. Regardless, Calathes' play over the past two weeks and really over the past month-plus has at the least been backup-caliber. Long-term backup-caliber.
There are some questions remaining with Calathes, especially ones that will point to how well he'll readjust to the rotation with Conley back. Will the three-point shooting stay constant, or at least tread water? What about the steals? Perhaps most importantly, can Calathes continue to play well when he leaves the starting unit that leans so heavily on the post and returns to the contrasting style of the more uptempo second unit?
Well, there's no way to answer those now. It's not great timing to have questions left in the air, with the trade deadline less than a week away. If things don't pan out as planned, then the Grizzlies could find themselves with a need after the trade deadline has passed. However, if there's anything Calathes has earned, it's the benefit of the doubt.
One of the catchphrases for this team is "We in the Mud". Well, why don't we take what we've found in the rough, and see just what it is?
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