MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Simmons’ energy sparks youth movement providing Grizz encouraging boost
By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
SAN FRANCISCO – Kobi Simmons listens.
That’s the characteristic that most impresses his Memphis Grizzlies’ teammates. Sure, there’s the cat-quick defensive instincts that make Simmons disruptive in passing lanes. There’s also the speed and length that allow him to pressure opponents the entire 94 feet on the court. And don’t overlook the athleticism that drives his playmaking potential into the lane and above the rim.
But above anything else, Simmons listens.
Then, he injects his infectious energy.
And that’s what has elevated the 20-year-old rookie from a seldom used reserve on a two-way developmental contract to essentially the Grizzlies’ sixth man in recent games. The emergence of Simmons into a regular role coincides with interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s increased commitment to a youth movement of sorts with the primary rotation.
“He’s got talent … but everything is new to him,” veteran guard Tyreke Evans said of Simmons. “So when he messes up, he just asks me questions. I talk to him (a lot on the court). It’s little things like when you’ve got the ball on the break and it’s just you and no big back, you have to attack. He’s just picking up little things and trying to find a rhythm while he’s out there. He’s definitely going to get his turn.”
He makes plays that a lot of people can’t make... So as long as he’s playing with that energy, he’ll continue to get some minutes.-- Coach Bickerstaff on Kobi Simmons
Simmons hasn’t been alone in getting his turn lately. Along with fellow rookie Dillon Brooks, second-year players Deyonta Davis and Andrew Harrison and third-year forward Jarell Martin, the Grizzlies hope to build on a promising collective boost from their younger supporting cast the past few games.
Their minutes have gradually increased and it’s allowed the Grizzlies to find somewhat of a rhythm amid a span in which they play seven of eight games on the road entering the New Year. After enduring a brutal six-week stretch since a 7-4 start, Memphis (11-24) has won two of its last three games. Had it not been for two demoralizing possessions in the final seconds of a pair of two-point losses in Phoenix, the Grizzlies would be riding a four-game win streak into Saturday’s matchup against the Warriors.
Instead, Memphis can only seek to maintain the incremental progress shown in Saturday’s home win against the Clippers and then Wednesday’s 109-99 road victory over the Lakers. Over the past four games, the Grizzlies are averaging 104 points a game – well above their season average of the 97.5 points that rank 29th among the NBA’s 30 teams in scoring.
Memphis has also consistently attacked the paint, which has resulted in more trips to the free-throw line, where the team has attempted 25, 29 and a season-high 39 foul shots the last three games. Assists have been up and turnovers have decreased overall in those games. As the first sub off the bench the past three contests, Simmons ignites what literally has been a change of pace for the Grizzlies as they shift to younger and faster combinations of players around anchors in Evans and Marc Gasol.
“This is who we need to be,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ve had those pockets where we struggle offensively, but the more active we are offensively, the more thrust we play with. We’re never going to be a super-fast, break-neck team. But we need to play with more thrust. Even in the halfcourt, our cuts have to be more powerful, just our movement in general … and defenses have to make decisions from that point.”
Bickerstaff also made decisions of his own to get to this point.
A bold one came last week in the second half of the Dec. 21 game against the Suns when he benched veteran point guard Mario Chalmers and Ben McLemore, last summer’s primary target in free agency. Simmons was inserted to handle guard duties alongside Evans and Harrison while James Ennis III has been getting most of the scattered minutes that had gone to McLemore.
The next game, Simmons and Ennis each played more than 25 minutes off the bench and combined for 20 points, six rebounds, four assists and a block in the 115-112 win against the Clippers. The game after that, Bickerstaff played Simmons, Ennis and Martin each at least 21 minutes and saw them collectively add 27 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, four steals and two blocks in Tuesday’s 99-97 loss to the Suns.
And the momentum continued into the matchup with the Lakers on Wednesday, when Martin scored a career-high 20 points and combined with Davis for multiple dunks and clutch plays around the paint as the two accounted for 34 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks to help fend off a Lakers rally.
Brooks has been a starter most of the season, and has regularly taken the responsibility of defending the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Harrison also has been a regular in the rotation, but has seen his three-point shooting and playmaking gradually improve from his rookie season.
But the contributions from Simmons, Davis and Martin have been a much-needed bonus amid the injuries that have sidelined Mike Conley, JaMychal Green and Brandan Wright in addition to a health management plan that still limits Chandler Parsons’ availability to one game on back-to-back sets.
It’s left the Grizzlies with few choices other than to rely on Evans offensively and Gasol to provide leadership, versatility and patience on a nightly basis as the younger players develop on the fly.
On Saturday against the Clippers, Gasol was listed as doubtful with a sore hip but pushed to play and finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds in 35 minutes. On Wednesday, Evans was initially questionable with a knee bruise but had 32 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against the Lakers and is the first player in franchise history with at least 25 points, five assists and five rebounds in three straight games.
Meanwhile, the youngsters have filled in the gaps.
“When those guys are playing like that, it gives you opportunities to rest some of your guys,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ve been killing Marc with his minutes, but when (Davis) plays that way, it gives them an opportunity to take a little bit of a breather. But (Davis) is growing, and I think that’s what’s important. That’s what this is about right now, being able to take what we’re asking you to do and translate it to the court. Jarell is a guy that’s been in and out of the rotation. He’s been up and down, but you look at the effort that he plays with and his skillset, his tools, his natural ability, (that fits) today’s NBA.”
This time a week ago, Bickerstaff used those same words to describe how Simmons’ raw talent is an ideal fit for the up-tempo pace of the current game. In fact, teammates and coaches have been working with Simmons on knowing when to change speeds and adjust to the ebb and flow of the game.
“It’s about executing the right plays out there and taking my time,” said Simmons, who continues to struggle with his shooting touch but has shown promise in transition. “That definitely helps as you get more comfortable out there, with each minute you play. I’m just trying to head in the right direction.”
Navigating the difficult demands of the position at the NBA level after one season at the University of Arizona has been a challenge. But Simmons, who went undrafted last June and signed as a free-agent with Memphis in July, has shown flashes that have made him a consensus keeper in the franchise.
Simmons has averaged 14 minutes in seven games with the Grizzlies, but has averaged nearly 17 points and five assists in 12 appearances with the NBA G League’s Memphis Hustle.
“Bringing the energy he brings kind of picks us up a little bit,” Gasol said of Simmons’ spark the past week. “It gives us a different look that allows more speed and north-south type of playmaking. Off the dribble, he makes pretty good decisions and understands the game. Obviously, defensively, there are a lot of things he still has to learn, but that’s what we’re here for, to help him through it, keep encouraging him. If he has the right mindset and puts all his effort into that, everything should be fine.”
Simmons has the proverbial ‘chip-on-the-shoulder’ swagger and confidence in his ability. But it doesn’t come off as cocky. His speed impresses, but so does his quickness to seek out guidance from veterans. Conley and Evans are among those constantly in his ear, whether it’s on the bench or on the court.
And he listens.
At Staples Center earlier this week, Simmons might have even heard a section of fans shouting, “Kobi, Kobi, Kobi,” at one point when he was on the court. It was a playful reference to his namesake, retired Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who had his jersey numbers raised to the rafters last week.
“I’m just trying to learn from my teammates, pick up what the coaches are telling me and do my job,” Simmons said. “Come in, give energy and defend. I know what I can do on offense, so be aggressive but know when to go (fast) and when to slow it down a bit. But overall, just come in and provide a spark.”
Bickerstaff has just one general requirement of Simmons right now.
“He makes plays that a lot of people can’t make,” Bickerstaff said. “So as long as he’s playing with that energy, he’ll continue to get some minutes.”
That’s exactly what Simmons loves to hear.
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