Grizzlies bring D-League franchise to Mid-South

MEMPHIS – The Grizzlies have acquired an expansion NBA-Development League franchise they will own and operate in the Mid-South, multiple league sources confirmed Monday.

The yet-to-be-named affiliate is scheduled to launch for the 2017-18 season and will play its 24-game home schedule at the Landers Center in Southaven, Mississippi, located about 20 miles south of the Grizzlies’ franchise base at FedExForum in downtown Memphis. The team is expected to make a formal announcement on Tuesday.

The Grizzlies are in the final season of an affiliation agreement with the D-League’s Iowa Energy, with the Energy now set to partner with the Minnesota Timberwolves after the completion of this season. The expansion franchise run by Memphis will bring the number of D-League teams to 23 and is the latest indication of Grizzlies’ controlling owner Robert Pera’s commitment to establishing and developing NBA basketball both in Memphis and throughout the region.

“It’s a complete game-changer,” said John Hollinger, Grizzlies executive vice president of basketball operations. “Our affiliation with Iowa has been very effective for several years, both in terms of player development and basketball ops to both cities. To operate our own D-League team in your backyard - the direct access to the development process of our player talent - makes the process so much more efficient.”

As part of the transition, Iowa general manager will Chris Makris will remain with the Energy for the remainder of the 2016-17 season to help the team settle into another NBA partnership affiliation before he moves into a basketball operations role with the new Memphis D-League team. Also, interim Energy coach Glynn Cyprien will finish out the season in Iowa and then continue his multifaceted role within the Grizzlies’ basketball operations staff. Cyprien’s status as the expansion team’s coach in Memphis has yet to be determined. Jed Kaplan will continue to own a minority share in the Grizzlies and the Energy.

Establishing a local D-League franchise makes sense on several levels for the Grizzlies, who currently have three roster players assigned to the Iowa affiliate. Rookies Wade Baldwin IV and Troy Williams have spent most of the past month gaining experience with the Energy, and second-year forward Jarell Martin was assigned to Iowa over the weekend as the Grizzlies return closer to full strength.

Under similar circumstances next season, that transition between assignments will include a 20-minute drive down Interstate-55 for games instead of a four-hour travel day on connecting commercial flights to Iowa. More importantly, on days when there aren’t games, there would be no commute at all for players, trainers, coaches and front-office staff. The new D-League team will work out of the Built Ford Tough Training Facility at FedExForum and have access to the same equipment and resources as the NBA team.

Memphis is also the latest amid a growing number of NBA teams that either own or are affiliated with D-League teams within its metropolitan area. The Los Angeles Lakers (D-Fenders), OKC Thunder (Blue), Chicago Bulls (Windy City Bulls), Brooklyn Nets (Long Island Nets) and the Toronto Raptors (Raptors 905) that essentially run joint operations between NBA and D-League affiliates. The Spurs, Cavaliers, 76ers, Hornets and Suns are also partnered with minor-league teams in close regional proximity.

“It all means the same thing in terms of what you have to do ultimately to get here,” said Grizzlies’ guard Andrew Harrison, who spent all of last season developing in Iowa before joining making the NBA roster this season. “But at the same time, you’re closer to the franchise and you have more help. It’s easier to maneuver around the city and you know more about the city where your NBA team is playing as you come in. Even guys that are on the actual NBA team, we can help those D-League guys every day.”

Proximity is also a plus for front-office executives such as Hollinger and Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace, who no longer have to build in special trips into their scouting schedule to keep tabs on the development of young prospects. Simply put, there will be significant building within the building.

“This allows us to best develop our future Grizzlies players,” Wallace said.

Grizzlies coach David Fizdale looks forward to the flexibility of working with both the team’s veteran core and monitoring the progress of younger players. One example Fizdale pointed to is the ability to have younger primary roster players on the practice court with the D-League team for workouts during what might otherwise be off days for veterans the day after a back-to-back set of games.

That isn’t an option now. It will be as soon as next season. The development aspect should also continue to increase opportunities for assistant coaches to gain experience in lead roles. Current Grizzlies’ assistant Nick Van Exel parlayed a head coaching job in the D-League last season to a spot on Fizdale’s bench this season. Memphis is also one of three franchises with African-Americans as head coaches at both its NBA and D-League affiliate levels.

“You don’t want your young guys to just sit and rot when they can be getting some valuable playing time and experience,” Fizdale said of managing NBA and D-League prospects. “That’s just our philosophy, and we think that’s important that those guys spend some time playing games and going through the process of getting better through experience. Our young guys – Wade, Troy and Jarell – have been up and down and have gotten some playing time due to our injuries. They can now get more experience in the D-League as we continue to get our veterans healthy.”

Having a D-League team nearby might also factor into how the Grizzlies approach decisions with their final roster spots moving forward. With closer development options, the team could trend younger with the 14th and 15th roster spots instead of seeking late-career veterans to fill out the bench.

“I’ve only known it from the standpoint that it’s a valuable resource,” said Fizdale, who has used a direct D-League pipeline while an assistant with the Miami Heat and now in his first season as head coach in Memphis. “Last year, we had Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson go through this in Miami, and now it’s Wade and others in Memphis. It’s an invaluable tool to help development.”