MikeCheck: Valanciunas, Crowder and Jones among young vets setting camp tone for Grizzlies
MEMPHIS – As one of the most reliable, young point guards on the summer market, Tyus Jones could have chosen a clearer path elsewhere to a potential starting job for the first time in his NBA career.
As an established role player who competed on title contenders at each of his three previous stops, it would have been understandable if Jae Crowder balked at being traded to Memphis amid a roster reset.
And as a productive big man now entering his peak, Jonas Valanciunas could have opted for a featured role on a more established team when he opted out of his contract over the summer to test free agency.
Jones, Crowder, and Valanciunas didn’t confer with one another before they independently approached the next phase of their careers in Memphis. But that didn’t stop them from essentially reaching the same conclusion on what was most attractive about their opportunities with the Grizzlies.
“I just looked beyond myself and at the big picture they presented for the organization as a whole and how they saw me fitting into that” Jones told Grind City Media. “We’re all guys that have a few years under our belts in this league, and that’s valuable on a team like this. You want to be a part of that, be a part of that vision of the team as a whole, continue to help build on it and ultimately reach our goals.”
While the future of the franchise hinges on the development of a promising young core of Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, the leadership and experience of veterans such as Jones, Crowder and Valanciunas will set this team’s foundation. The high-profile draft picks and budding young stars might garner the most attention at Monday’s team media day. But it’s the valuable and reliable veterans who will set the tone from the outset when the Grizzlies open training camp with Tuesday’s practice.
I just looked beyond myself and at the big picture they presented for the organization as a whole and how they saw me fitting into thatTyus Jones
That vision was clear throughout a transformative offseason in Memphis. The franchise reorganized the front office, rebooted the coaching staff and retooled the roster after missing the playoffs for a second straight season. As a result, the Grizzlies are unveiling this week a potentially dynamic blend of promising prospects and proven vets under first-year coach Taylor Jenkins.
The operation is guided collaboratively by an analytics-driven front office that executed nearly a dozen trades and transactions to add future assets, create salary-cap flexibility and build efficiently and effectively around its young stars. And it makes those veteran voices on the roster vital in unique ways.
“Obviously, we all know how to play basketball but at this level, it’s about living the right way, being a professional and being accountable every day,” said Crowder, a seven-year veteran who was acquired from Utah as part of the June trade that sent Mike Conley to the Jazz. “You need guys to show you how to do that, and that’s where I’m at in my career. I want these guys to be the best they can be on the court and show them how to handle themselves off the court and be professionals all around.”
Crowder, 29, was brought to Memphis on the final year of his contract to add a rugged and versatile defender at the forward positions who could also stretch the floor as a 3-point shooter. It’s a role he played admirably on playoff teams in Boston, Cleveland and Utah – coincidentally after being traded each time for a franchise point guard (Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Conley).
The trade to Memphis was one Crowder embraced from the beginning because it reminded him of the challenge he faced after being dealt from Dallas to Boston, when the Celtics moved on from Rondo. At the time, Crowder went to a Boston team getting acclimated to new coach Brad Stevens and was in the midst of a rebuilding season. The Celtics were quickly back in the postseason with a new outlook.
“But no one had expectations of us making it to the playoffs when I got traded there,” said Crowder, who had the two most productive seasons of his career in Boston before being traded to Cleveland in 2017. “So I embraced that whole journey of being the underdog and having to build. It’s a part of my journey. So I embraced the role of being in Memphis because I feel like I’ve been here before and I’ve seen this. I’ve seen where we’ve had to build a culture before of playing winning basketball and giving ourselves a chance to compete at a winning level.”
Obviously, we all know how to play basketball but at this level, it’s about living the right way, being a professional and being accountable every dayJae Crowder
Jenkins respects his veterans for how they’ve conducted themselves throughout their careers, on and off the court. He knows they’ll pick up the schemes and concepts of a new system. But there is also tremendous value in the relationships and knowledge they can share from experiences at previous stops.
Among the league-maximum 20 players the Grizzlies have on their training camp roster, 13 are new. When Memphis opens the regular season on Oct. 23, the starting five will feature a completely different set of players than those in the opening lineup a year ago.
That places a premium on culture and relationship building in the weeks leading into the season.
“What we’re trying to build in Memphis is sustained success, and that’s only done through impactful relationships,” Jenkins said of building bonds and chemistry. “In the NBA, there’s a ton of turnover and players come and go, but hopefully, as we witnessed with the previous era here in Memphis, with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, we can create that again where the community feels that. We’ll work first hand with the athletes we have. They are people first. When I got the job, the first thing you’re doing is calling players, starting a rapport to help them through this.”
Even for the returning Grizzlies players, everything is new. That’s the case with Valanciunas, who opened last season with the Toronto franchise that drafted him seven years ago, then was traded in February to Memphis for Gasol and spent this summer leading Lithuania at the FIBA World Cup in China.
This is Valanciunas’ first training camp in Memphis, but he’s the most experienced returning player on the roster after averaging 19.9 points and 10.2 rebounds over the final three months of last season. Valanciunas, who signed a new three-year deal in July, and Crowder are expected to bracket Jackson at the starting center and small forward spots. Jones, who led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio last season in Minnesota, expects to play extensive minutes at point guard – both behind and, at times, alongside Morant.
It wasn’t too long ago when the Grizzlies’ mid-career vets were themselves being groomed. Now, they bring a combined 15 seasons and nearly 1,500 games of NBA experience to augment Memphis’ young roster. Crowder plans to share some of the lessons he’s learned along the way from former teammates Vince Carter, Dirk Nowitzki and Elton Brand among others. Jones, only 23 himself, can draw on tutelage he gained from Andre Miller, Ricky Rubio, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose.
What we’re trying to build in Memphis is sustained success, and that’s only done through impactful relationshipsCoach Taylor Jenkins
“Being on a team that had the No. 2 pick and adding a talented guy like Ja, I know how that goes,” Jones said. “With Ja coming in as a rookie, it’s not always the easiest thing to be a leader, right away, of a NBA team. Now, it’s my time to kind of help him transition into that point guard role. But it’s not only Ja, it’s with a lot of the younger guys we have on this team. Helping all of them is what drew me here.”
Now, the Grizzlies' young vets enter camp with the right mindset to draw it all together.
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