More Rest for Gasol, Conley Means More Minutes for Young Grizzlies

By Don Wade

Five games into their season, the Memphis Grizzlies have provided a small sample size that is simultaneously encouraging, confounding and still mildly concerning. 

Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) is taking 4.5 threes per game so far this season and is shooting 38.9 percent from long range. It’s one way the Grizz have changed their offensive style under first-year coach David Fizdale.  

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

Through games of Wednesday, Nov. 2, the Grizzlies were 3-2. Nothing wrong with that record given the team has a new coach in David Fizdale, is employing a new style of offense, and has new starters and rookies in the rotation. Yet they also needed overtime – at home – to dispatch the Washington Wizards (0-3) and the New Orleans Pelicans (0-5).

The other win came over Minnesota (1-2) on opening night, but the Grizzlies also took a 116-80 beatdown up north when the team for the first time employed the San Antonio Spurs’ rest-your-key-players model and center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley did not play. The Grizzlies’ other loss is also the lone win for the New York Knicks (1-3).

Small sample size or no, let’s dig deeper …

The Grizzlies are Serious about Protecting Gasol and Conley

Gasol had delicate off-season foot surgery. Conley had to be shut down early last season because of Achilles pain. If their wheels go bad, the wheels fall off the whole enterprise.

That said, patience will be required to weather the nights they don’t play and the team gets kicked around. Referring to the blowout at Minnesota, Fizdale said: “Obviously, we paid a price.”

But the concept is simple: Pay a lighter price now instead of a heavier price later. Which doesn’t mean Twitter won’t catch fire on nights the Grizzlies are getting pummeled or that there won’t be some occasional pushback from players, too.

“It’s frustrating for them, of course,” Fizdale said of Conley and Gasol. “But they understand the bigger picture. They understand we’re trying to play deep into the playoffs, so we’re doing it for the best of the team. One game affects the other, so if I overdo it in one game we’re going to have to get it back somewhere else.”

The Offense is Different, Yet Somewhat the Same

We’ve all noticed the Grizzlies are spacing the floor more and shooting more threes. Through their first five games, their 26.2 threes attempted per game ranked 11th in the NBA and their 9.4 threes made also ranked 11th. That’s still a ways from league-leading Houston, which hoists 35.2 threes per game.

But the Grizzlies are shooting a solid 35.9 percent from deep, 12th in the league. The 3-ball has become a legitimate threat and this before Chandler Parsons takes his first shot.

With Zach Randolph playing off the bench, the starting unit has been able to join the current offensive trend in the league. While Conley has been hot from 3-point range, hitting more than 50 percent of his shots (a correction is coming, sorry) the big news is Gasol’s shooting of threes: He is 7 of 18 for 38.9 percent, averaging 4.5 attempts per game. In his last All-Star season, 2014-2015, he was 3 of 17 for 17.6 percent the entire season.

But the Grizzlies still are not paying at a quick clip. Their pace of play – possessions per 48 minutes – is 96.71 and ranks 26th in the league. Oklahoma City leads at 106.60. The Thunder, even minus Kevin Durant, got off to a 4-0 start.

The New Starters

First trivia question of the season: Who are the only two Grizzlies to start all five games?

Yes, the answer really is forwards JaMychal Green and James Ennis.

Each is just 26 years old. Ennis is averaging 12.0 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and has hit 8 of 18 threes for 44.4 percent. Green is averaging 11.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, and has made 7 of 16 from deep for 43.8 percent.

And yes, these shooting percentages will come down. But there will be nights, such as in the grinding OT victory over the Pelicans, when they will shine. Ennis had his first double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Green tied his career high with 21 points and hit 3 of 5 threes.

“He’s growing,” Randolph said of Green, sounding like a proud papa. “The kid works so hard.”

The Real Young Guys

For now, the Grizzlies are going with rookie Wade Baldwin IV as Conley’s backup. First-year guard Andrew Harrison also can play point but started at off-guard in the first couple of games. Neither has shot the ball well – from any distance – but they’ve shown flashes and Baldwin in particular changes the Grizzlies’ athleticism quotient.

So, the evaluation period continues. The Grizzlies yet may try to snare a veteran for insurance and everyone is mindful that former Grizz backup point guard Mario Chalmers (Achilles) could be ready to return to the league by the first of the year.

Also, don’t forget forward Jarrell Martin. The team’s first-round pick in 2015 out of LSU, Martin, 22, has started two of the last three games and had Fizdale raving about his potential. Martin missed much of last year with a foot injury.

“He can arguably be our best talent,” Fizdale said. “It’s just the kid has only played six years of basketball in his whole life. He’s been banged up the last couple of years. He’s missed a lot of repetition. I think he’s just going to get better as the season goes on.”

Defense Could Stand Improvement

The Grizzlies are allowing 102.2 points per game, 13th in the league and a figure somewhat out of whack because of the game at Minnesota. Even so, the defense has not been elite and teams have been able to score in the paint way too easily.

“We’re not keeping the ball in front of us,” Fizdale said. “We’ve got to do a better job of contending the basketball.”

Z-Bo Still Productive

Randolph has adapted to the bench role and is averaging 13.2 points and 8.0 rebounds. He’s still a go-to guy for a bucket, especially when matched against other team’s second units.

He’s also been on the sideline for the close of games. As long as Grizzlies are winning those games, he may be OK. If they lose them? 

Well, you can almost hear Z-Bo snorting around the sideline eager to get into the fray. At that point, Fizdale may have a challenge, although he has played Z-Bo with Gasol and will from time to time.

“It’s not like I’m not going to do it,” he said. “They’re a weapon together, especially when the game is tight and we’re in the bonus and have the right matchups.”