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VOL. 132 | NO. 204 | Friday, October 13, 2017

Core Two: Fizdale Expects and Needs Gasol and Conley to Lead

By Don Wade

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For all of the uncertainty surrounding the Grizzlies as they wind down the preseason – from a still-diminished Chandler Parsons possibly being relegated to backup power forward to ongoing roster spot battles – coach David Fizdale is sure of this much:

Not only must center Marc Gasol and point guard Mike Conley live up to their reputations as the team’s best players, they also must be clear and effective leaders of a young team that will need time to find its direction.

“Marc and Mike have to be the leaders of this team,” Fizdale said. “That’s not even optional.”

Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, left, guard Mike Conley (11) and San Antonio Spurs forward David Lee, center, chase a loose ball during the first half in Game 2 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series, Monday, April 17, 2017, in San Antonio.  (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Conley started in the NBA as a 20-year-old. He was in over his head then as any 20-year-old point guard would be. But by his fourth season and the Grizzlies’ first of their active seven-year playoff run, he was established and had respect. He also was, and until very recently remained, quiet.

When Fizdale came in last season he insisted Conley be more assertive and vocal. Now, with the roster changing and two veterans in Zach Randolph and Tony Allen gone, Conley and Gasol are the only proven, healthy, long-time NBA starters on the team.

“I’ve always had to learn to lead guys who were older than me and I had to earn their respect and position myself in that manner,” Conley said. “Now, it’s all guys who are 21, 22 … just younger guys who look up to everything you do.

“It’s almost like having a child, man. You have to be a role model for them. At the same time, you have to have discipline and have to be demanding to make them better.”

Gasol, at 32, is two years older than Conley and also has the experience of vast international competition. But playing for Spain’s National Team is also nothing like playing for an NBA team. There is an inherent closeness and pulling in the same direction is more natural.

Fizdale, in an effort to build a better relationship with Gasol, caught up with him in Romania this summer and watched Spain play. He was struck by the contrast from the NBA.

“I studied the camaraderie they’d built,” Fizdale said. “Obviously, it’s different because those guys grew up together and money’s not involved. You can come together a little easier when you’re not playing for checks.”

To that point, during the Grizzlies’ preseason game Oct. 11 vs. Houston at FedExForum, Fizdale had players competing with one another for roster spots on the floor at the same time. Ball movement just about came to a halt.

“It’s a tough element to deal with when you’re fighting a guy for a roster spot and also trying to play as a team,” Fizdale said. “We have multiple guys in that situation and what I saw was, when it got tough, guys kind of broke off and did their own thing and said, `At least let me show what I can do.’ I’m not going to stand for it, of course, but also I get it. It’s the human element.”

In theory, there will be less of that kind of thing once the season starts. Although even then, multiple players could be competing for minutes and to be on the court at the end of games. The human element will remain.

Conley and Gasol obviously will be playing big minutes and will be on the floor when it matters most. Conley clearly took a step forward as a leader last season and that included getting past the idea he was being selfish by scoring more. He averaged a career-best 20.5 points per game, tops on the team, and the Grizzlies need as much or more this season.

“I understand that,” Conley said of his scoring role. “Nothing’s going to stop me from doing that.”

Gasol, however, despite pleas from Fizdale, again lapsed into Bad Body Language Big Spain when frustrated last year. He arrived in camp this season slimmer and quicker and with a full season as a 3-point shooter now part of his offensive arsenal.

“I feel responsible even more, without Zach and Tony, for the outcome of the team,” Gasol said.

His mindset for the season: “Not letting the noise affect me or my game and moving forward regardless of what people say within the team or outside the team. I’m always going to lead by example, that’s never going to change. But I think allowing nonsense to affect me, it doesn’t help the team.”

For his part, Fizdale is trying to balance his role as a coach requiring leadership from this best players and the rookie he was a year ago that sometimes took a heavy-handed approach in trying to get leadership.

“I can’t force certain things,” he said. “I tried to force leadership last year and that’s an organic thing. As a rookie coach I tried to push that on the guys and that was totally unfair of me from that standpoint.”

That said, Gasol and Conley must lead and must establish on-court rapport with young players learning minute by minute.

“We’re two of the easiest guys to play with,” Conley said.

But it’s on the young players to also understand their place and how to help the team’s stars be the best they can be for the good of the team.

Leaders, after all, need followers.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Fizdale said.

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