Z-Bo, Baldwin May Fit Well On Grizzlies’ Second Unit

By Don Wade

In a film session not long before the Grizzlies started preseason play, first-year coach David Fizdale wanted to drive home a point about veteran Zach Randolph’s offensive productivity – especially to the young point guards vying to be Mike Conley’s backup this season.

Veteran Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph is both fine with playing off the bench this season and impressed with rookie point guard Wade Baldwin IV, who appears to have the inside track to being the backup point guard and the guy that will be feeding the ball to Randolph on the second unit.

(AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

“Coach actually set out Z-Bo’s stat line for his career,” rookie Wade Baldwin said after going 5-for-5 from the field with 15 points and displaying a forceful presence in the Grizzlies’ opening win here over Orlando last Monday night. “So when you have Z-Bo down there, it’s give him the ball. I gotta learn my place. Maybe five, six years down the line … but for now, if he’s on that block, give Z-Bo the ball.”

It was an interesting comment at the time, but one that resonates in a whole new way with Fizdale’s announcement that Randolph, as he did Monday night, will play off the bench while JaMychal Green starts. Fizdale’s rationale is simple: He wants the Grizzlies to begin games playing at a faster pace and he wants a proven, go-to scorer on the second unit.

This move accomplishes both goals and Fizdale approached Randolph near the start of training camp with his decision, which explains something Randolph said the other night before the starting lineup switch had been made public.

““He’s a champion. He’s proved it,” Randolph said, referring to Fizdale’s years in Miami as an assistant where the Heat won two NBA titles. “He’s been there. He’s honest. A guy can look you in the eye and tell you the why, what’s this for and what’s that for. A lot of coaches don’t do that.

“He believes in us, man. It’s different.”

There’s a lot to unpack there. First, it’s clear Fizdale was up front with Randolph. That’s the only chance a coach has to earn and keep players’ trust, and Fizdale, before he had coached his first game here, understood that. It’s also obvious he explained his thinking to Randolph and did so in a way that made sense.

In other words, he didn’t make the mistake of trying to sell Randolph a false narrative.

Left unspoken, but perhaps just as important, Randolph’s presence on the second unit could make life much easier for Baldwin. His talent is not up for question. As good as he was at Vanderbilt and as solid of a first-round pick as he appeared to be on draft night, seeing him in camp and in one preseason game – the Grizzlies were to play their second preseason game on Thursday, Oct. 6, and after press time for this story – has been enough to win over teammates.

“He’s got some (Russell) Westbrook. A lot of it,” Randolph said. “A lot of heart. I like him a lot. He’s tough. Fearless. Feisty. I like that.”

Remember, Randolph played off the bench some last year. Traditionally, he has not been easy on backup point guards – even veterans – who do not know their place. That’s why “throw it to the hand” remains an echo throughout FedExForum.

But when Baldwin walked out of the locker room Monday night, there was Randolph shouting to him, “Good job, Rook.”

This early, it’s easy to get caught up in the early returns on Baldwin. Who knows how the rest of the preseason will go? And he does have competition from Andrew Harrison, a former Kentucky player drafted by Phoenix in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft and traded to the Grizzlies; Harrison averaged 18.5 points and 4.9 assists in 46 NBA Development League games for the Iowa Energy last season.

Harrison also had the safer stat line from the first preseason game, too, finishing with six assists and one turnover, plus 11 points, while Baldwin had four assists and five turnovers.

“They both have shown to me they can play,” Conley said.

But Conley, like Randolph, sees some Westbrook in Baldwin. That’s where the higher ceiling is and for long stretches in his debut he did not look like a rookie. Even Fizdale admitted that. He also put the brakes on the inevitable hyperbole.

“Slow down now,” the coach said. “He’s still a rookie and I’m sure we will see his rookie side show up at some point.”

No doubt. But so far, Baldwin is showing a boldness and an aggressiveness laced with just enough humility – he will happily throw it to the hand – to believe that he’s got a lot more game in the tank, levels he can find in one month, three months, six months and beyond.

Asked what he’s mainly learned from Conley, Baldwin said: “Change of speed. You can go zero to 100, zero to 50, zero to 20. That’s what Mike Conley does very well and it’s something I’ve picked up on.”

So has the coach, who has to be thinking that a great way to open the season is knowing he’s got a talented and confident-beyond-his-years rookie to play in the backcourt and a tough, savvy, get-a-bucket-when-you-need-it vet to help the kid learn his way, and to be that option he can turn to when other things aren’t working.

“Every professional must have an edge to them,” Baldwin said. “Every great player in any sport, they have an edge to them. I like to keep my edge with me, but honed in a team, positivity way.”

Well said, Rook.