SALT LAKE CITY – Grizzlies assistant coach Greg Buckner broke up the scrimmage session, stood between Wayne Selden and Kobi Simmons beneath the basket and shouted a question - at first, to no one in particular.
“What am I always saying about this situation?” Buckner blurted during a game-day shootaround at the University of Utah’s practice facility. “Wayne, it begins with an ‘L.’”
Seeking confirmation of the correct defensive term for when the Grizzlies shift their defense to strongside coverage, Buckner then turned to Simmons.
"Kobi, you've heard me say it a hundred times, so you should know," Buckner continued. "It's load. We load to take that (look) away from the offense. Load! Load! Load!"
It was one of many teachable moments from the Grizzlies' staff taking place this summer. But these assistants are far from substitutes. The voices of J.B. Bickerstaff's sidekicks are resonating loudly throughout summer league practices, shootarounds and games these days. That will continue as the Grizzlies move on from Utah to this weekend’s start of Las Vegas Summer League play.
Offseason development priorities extend far beyond getting No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and a team of rookies, second-year players and young projects ready for NBA action. This summer for the Grizzlies is also about developing a staff of assistants who are in transition under Bickerstaff.
Buckner takes over summer league coaching duties when the Grizzlies open Las Vegas play on Saturday against the Pistons. He'll be the fourth different assistant in as many games to run the bench while Bickerstaff and new lead assistant Chad Forcier evaluate players and staff off to the side.
The Grizzlies wrapped up the four-team Utah Jazz Summer League with a 2-1 record after falling 94-87 on Thursday to the Spurs. First-year assistant and player development coach Kevin Burleson ran the Grizzlies in that summer league’s finale after Adam Mazarei and J.J. Outlaw coached the team to wins over the Hawks and Jazz, respectively, in the first two games.
Bickerstaff revamped his staff this summer once he was promoted from the interim role he served following David Fizdale’s dismissal in November. Bickerstaff retained Nick Van Exel, Mazarei, Outlaw and Bucker, who was brought in midseason after the coaching change. The staff was completed earlier this summer with the additions of Forcier, Burleson, Jerry Stackhouse and Vitaly Potapenko.
With so many moving parts and shifting roles, Bickerstaff views the summer leagues as crash courses to fast track continuity and communication in advance of the September start of training camp.
But circumstances on the floor come about, and we get a chance to have conversations about what’s happening in real time. We get a chance to learn and study our guys, because we’ve got a bunch of new guys on the staff who haven’t paid as close attention to some of the guys we have. This gives us a chance to learn our guys’ strengths and weaknesses. It gives us a boost going into the season.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff
“We can sit down and have a bunch of meetings, which we have,” Bickerstaff said of rotating the coaching reps. “But circumstances on the floor come about, and we get a chance to have conversations about what’s happening in real time. We get a chance to learn and study our guys, because we’ve got a bunch of new guys on the staff who haven’t paid as close attention to some of the guys we have. This gives us a chance to learn our guys’ strengths and weaknesses. It gives us a boost going into the season.”
Putting his assistants in position to coach through challenges with young players is what this process is about. Most NBA head coaches rely on an assistant to take over the bench for summer league. Bickerstaff is just delegating those duties to a completely different level. Almost everyone has had an opportunity to learn and lead, although Buckner will now handle the duration of the Las Vegas schedule.
“You can’t put a price on it; the ability to keep your composure, work with your staff, maintain the game plan and make adjustments,” said Outlaw, who steered the Grizzlies to Tuesday's win over Utah as they held on after a 26-point lead was squandered. “Being able to communicate with young players as they go through adversity in games, there are lessons to be learned for all of us. And it’s invaluable.”
With a handful of accomplished former players on the Grizzlies’ bench and in the front office, the group has caught the attention of fans and maintains the attention of the team’s young players. During the Grizzlies’ first two games in Utah, Stackhouse and Van Exel sat on the front bench and volunteer summer assistant Mike Bibby was seated a row behind.
During Monday’s win over the Hawks, some fans in the front row at Vivint SmartHome Arena jokingly and repeatedly shouted for the Grizzlies to put Stackhouse, Van Exel and Bibby into the game. Once front-office assistant Tayshaun Prince joins the contingent in Las Vegas, it'll be even more star power.
With their days of scoring NBA points long behind them, the Grizzlies' collection of former NBA standouts are instead delivering key pointers. In various roles, they are fostering the development of Memphis' young players. Between Buckner, Van Exel, Stackhouse, Potapenko and Prince, that’s nearly 65 total seasons of NBA experience and wisdom to impart.
They’ve been there; they’ve been in those situations we’re about to go through. So why wouldn’t you listen to guys like that? They’re not doing anything but telling you the right thing. It’s very easy to listen to.
-- Jevon Carter
“Having those guys around, it obviously means a lot,” rookie point guard Jevon Carter said. “They’ve been there; they’ve been in those situations we’re about to go through. So why wouldn’t you listen to guys like that? They’re not doing anything but telling you the right thing. It’s very easy to listen to.”
After Thursday's loss, that meant listening to lessons about the level of mental toughness required to endure an NBA-like schedule. Playing their third game in four nights, with a trip to one of the nation’s more exotic cities up next, the Grizzlies lacked the consistent energy and execution shown in their two wins.
They fell behind by as many as 18 points, Jackson shot just 1-for-7 from the field and Carter was a game-worst, minus-22 in plus-minus ratio. The Spurs scored 60 of their 94 points on threes and free throws to offset the 25 points Memphis scored off 14 San Antonio turnovers.
“I think mentally, the guys were in 'end-of-the-road-trip' mentality,” said Burleson, who played one season in the NBA. “We’re going to another city, and that city is Vegas. So I think mentally, some guys weren’t locked in. It started at shootaround a bit (Thursday) and it kind of carried over to the game.”
The Grizzlies missed a handful of defensive assignments against the Spurs that were detailed earlier Thursday, when Buckner halted shootaround to reinforce the ‘load’ coverages. But it was also at that practice where Jackson later sought out Stackhouse for their now routine and relentless three-point shooting sessions that have helped the 18-year-old forward find an initial comfort zone.
While some in league circles question whether Jackson's effectiveness in college would translate to the deeper NBA three-point line, he shot 10-for-18 (55.5%) from deep through three games in Utah. Jackson insisted he’d take constructive criticism from any coach in order to help his game transition to the next level.
But he also admitted there is a unique additional layer of credibility when that tutelage comes from an assistant such as Stackhouse, a two-time All-Star who was one of the NBA’s best scorers during an 18-year playing career.
But he’s not just trying to murder you. He’s teaching you as we go along. It’s ‘set your feet this way,’ and that kind of stuff. Whether it’s Nick, Jerry, Tayshaun … you’re talking about guys with hell-a-accolades. They’ve accomplished so much, and they’re giving back to help us. They don’t have to do this. They’re set for life with their money. But they’re teaching us, and they’re trying to improve themselves as coaches, too.
-- Jaren Jackson Jr.
“He’s hard to keep up with because he still shoots it so well,” Jackson said of his daily around-the-arc drills with Stackhouse. “But he’s not just trying to murder you. He’s teaching you as we go along. It’s ‘set your feet this way,’ and that kind of stuff. Whether it’s Nick, Jerry, Tayshaun … you’re talking about guys with hell-a-accolades. They’ve accomplished so much, and they’re giving back to help us. They don’t have to do this. They’re set for life with their money. But they’re teaching us, and they’re trying to improve themselves as coaches, too.”
These days, the Grizzlies’ primary teachers are simultaneously learning in new roles.
It’s all part of a symbiotic summer, both for coaches and players.
The classroom now shifts from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas.
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