MikeCheck: Five initial takeaways as Jenkins embarks on job as Grizzlies' new coach
MEMPHIS – At age 34, Taylor Jenkins didn’t wait long for his first head coaching gig after developing as an assistant on two teams that posted 60-win seasons and the best record in the Eastern Conference over the past four years.
Among the best benefits of landing the Memphis job?
Consider it the organization’s vow that there won’t be any rush to judgement as Jenkins and the Grizzlies partner through a meticulously intriguing process of retooling the roster and expectations.
“We’re taking the long view on this,” said Zach Kleiman, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations. “This organization is making a significant commitment to Taylor – a long-term commitment.”
After hiring their fourth coach in a turbulent span of six years, the Grizzlies’ clearly-stated quest for stability and unilateral strides forward was the biggest takeaway from Jenkins’ introductory press conference earlier this week at FedExForum. It was the culmination of a two-month global search that left the Grizzlies as the NBA’s last team to fill its coaching vacancy. Jenkins arrives after spending last season on Mike Budenholzer’s staff with the Milwaukee Bucks, and was previously with Budenholzer during their stint together with the Atlanta Hawks.
Jenkins, the NBA’s second-youngest coach, joins an organization run by one of the league’s youngest owners in 41-year-old Robert Pera, a 31-year-old top basketball operations executive in Kleiman, 19-year-old All-Rookie first team forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and likely another teenager Memphis selects with the No. 2 pick in next week’s NBA Draft, with 19-year-old Ja Morant a strong possibility at that spot.
Here are four other compelling takeaways from Jenkins’ first appearance on the job.
Ball-poppin’ style of play
As Jenkins laid out the long line of influential coaches and people who have contributed to his basketball career, it was easy to paint a picture of what style of play he wants to implement in Memphis.
Having gotten his start with Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs and then following Budenholzer to the Hawks and Bucks, Jenkins has cut his teeth on up-tempo schemes predicated on ball-movement, spacing, three-point shooting and interchangeable defenders. Those Spurs, Hawks and Bucks teams along the way have ranked among the NBA’s top teams in offensive efficiency, three-point shooting and assists.
Three years ago, David Fizdale spoke at his Memphis introductory press conference about bringing the Grit’N’Grind Grizzlies into the modern era of NBA offense. This time last year, J.B. Bickerstaff spoke at his press conference after landing the full-time job about re-embracing the Grit’N’Grind mentality and defense. Jenkins sounds like he prefers to shift back to a more free-flowing, higher-scoring scheme.
“We want to be the most competitive, unselfish team we can be,” Jenkins said. “We want to create pace and space, where the ball is hopping and popping – an excitement and pride in the way we play.”
Coaching Summer League
Jenkins confirmed he plans to coach the Grizzlies teams that will participate in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas summer leagues next month. That arrangement could help fast-track the continuity and connection the new coaching staff is tasked with building with the current roster of young prospects.
It’s unclear right now which returning players currently under contract will be available for summer league action, although the most likely prospects include second-year contributors Jevon Carter and Yuta Watanabe. Both Jackson and third-year swingman Dillon Brooks attended Jenkins’ press conference on Wednesday, with the new coach thanking both players individually for their support.
Jenkins then challenged Jackson and Brooks to continue to be aggressive and take responsibility for their offseason development. Jackson has said he’s completely recovered from the deep thigh bruise that sidelined him for the final two months of the season. Brooks is also eager to continue his offseason workout regimen after missing most of the season to recover from January’s toe surgery.
Building out the summer roster and the rest of his coaching staff will be a collective process between Jenkins and the front office. Working in “partnership” was a buzzword often repeated among the group.
“This vision is a unified one,” Jenkins said. “I think we’re all on the same page with the environment we want to create. It won’t happen overnight, but it certainly starts from Day One.”
Checking in with Conley, Valanciunas
While much of the initial focus was about the development of the young players and incoming draft prospects, two other pressing matters for the Grizzlies involve the immediate futures of veterans Mike Conley and Jonas Valanciunas.
Jenkins said he’s reached out to most players on the team, and specifically referenced conversations he’s had in recent days with both Conley and Valanciunas. Thursday is the deadline for Valanciunas to decide if he is opting out of the final season of his contract to become a free agent on July 1. The 7-foot Lithuanian center had said he wanted to see who the Grizzlies hired as coach before he decided. Under his current deal, Valanciunas has one season and $17.6 million remaining. Jenkins caught up on the phone this week with Valanciunas, who was on a European fishing expedition.
“He’s excited for me,” Jenkins said. “It shows me these are the type of players we want to work with.”
As far as Conley, neither Jenkins nor Kleiman would speak specifically to whether the Grizzlies intend to keep or trade the franchise’s leader in career points and assists. But both spoke highly of Conley as a competitor and a player who has guided the franchise to its best seasons. The Grizzlies considered multiple deals at the February trade deadline for Conley, who has two years remaining on his five-year $153 million contract. Conley, 31, said after the season he preferred not to be part of a rebuilding effort, but he has not addressed his situation in media interviews since April.
“Mike Conley is a pillar of our franchise,” said Kleiman, who added that the Grizzlies hold Conley in tremendous value. “I’m not going to get into rumors and speculation (about Conley’s future).”
Prince’s role expands
Recently promoted to vice president of basketball affairs, Tayshaun Prince worked in lockstep with Kleiman on the coaching search. A former player who won an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons, Prince has worked his way through the front-office ranks the past two years in Memphis.
Prince’s role and voice have been elevated in recent months, and he’s had a key part in identifying coaching candidates, conducting interviews and evaluating the performances of candidates based on strategy and philosophy. Kleiman confirmed Prince’s role has grown from his initial duties as a liaison between the players, coaching staff and front office.
“I sat down with Zach and asked what he was looking for in attributes in our next coach,” said Prince, who has also been vital in pre-draft preparations and initial free-agency evaluations. “With Taylor, his Xs and Os, some things that showed up fit great with the players we have and the type of players we want to build around. This is not a situation where it’s a short-term process. Going forward, our plan is to be patient in the process.”
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