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Weekend Focus: D-League detour leads Grizz rookies on path toward progress

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

DES MOINES, Iowa – The text messages started rolling in regularly to Wade Baldwin IV’s phone during a February stretch of games when all of the lessons and constructive criticism appeared to be sinking in.

Mike Conley couldn’t watch the NBA D-League games, mainly because he had his own work to do trying to help the Grizzlies gain momentum heading into the NBA All-Star break. But at least once a week, Memphis’ franchise point guard would go online to check a box score or monitor social media accounts whenever Baldwin took a noticeable step toward progress while on D-League deployment.

Distance didn’t totally disrupt the connection Conley and Baldwin established back in training camp after the Grizzlies selected the former Vanderbilt star with the No. 17 pick in last year’s NBA draft. But the combination of raw athletic talent that needed to be honed and a cocky attitude that needed to be harnessed led to Baldwin spending the bulk of his first NBA season 621 miles north of Memphis with the Grizzlies’ D-League affiliate Iowa Energy.

Still, Conley noticed the Feb. 1 game when Baldwin scored 11 of his 20 points and dished two crucial assists in the fourth quarter of a 106-104 win over the Reno Bighorns. Then, there were the season-high 12 assists Baldwin delivered a week later against the Oklahoma City Blue. And the versatility that underscores Baldwin’s upside was on full display against Sioux Falls the week after that, when he had 10 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks in Iowa’s biggest win of the season.

Each time, there was an encouraging message on the way.

“Just texting him, letting him know we’re thinking about him, checking up on him when he’s had good games and tweeting about it – that’s important,” Conley said of communication with Baldwin. “It goes a long way. Now that he’s back, it feels like he never left and is a part of the team. That’s a good thing.”

Baldwin can receive those messages face-to-face now. After an extended D-League stint, Baldwin capped his first full week back with the Grizzlies by contributing to Friday’s 99-90 victory over the Mavericks. Both Baldwin and fellow rookie Deyonta Davis were in the primary rotation as the Grizzlies clinched a playoff berth for the seventh consecutive season.

They were minor, albeit much-needed contributions as the Grizzlies were down to just 11 healthy players with Chandler Parsons (knee) out for the season and Marc Gasol (foot), JaMychal Green (shoulder) and Andrew Harrison (ankle) recovering from nagging injuries.

The D-League regular season wraps up this weekend, and Iowa did not qualify for the playoffs. So Baldwin is back, just in time for the final two weeks of the NBA’s regular season and Memphis’ push to the playoffs. He’s rejoined a roster that remains unsettled at backup point guard behind Conley.

What’s clear, however, is that Baldwin or any of the young prospects the Grizzlies will groom now and into the future will no longer travel as far to remain connected in the development pipeline. Baldwin, Davis and second-year forward Jarell Martin are the final crop of recent draft picks to detour through the affiliate in Iowa. Starting next season, that process will take place much closer to home when the Grizzlies’ yet-to-be named D-League expansion team plays in Southaven, Miss. at the Landers Center.

“The hardest thing for me was going in, being drafted by the Grizzlies and everybody I know asking me, ‘Where are you?’ and not being able to contribute for those guys,” Baldwin said. “You grow up watching those guys play for years and you think you can have a contribution to something bigger than yourself, and it doesn’t go the way you want. That’s kind of what hurt the most for me.”

This season has been all about channeling that initial pain into progress on the court.

There remains plenty of hope that Baldwin, Davis and Martin will become the franchise’s future building blocks. Each player spent the season’s initial weeks with the Grizzlies before being assigned at different times – and for various lengths – to Iowa. They’re all back now, having worked on specific areas of their games with Iowa under interim coach and Grizzlies’ basketball operations executive Glynn Cyprien.

Baldwin was tasked with improving his fundamental defense and footwork, along with developing a reliable shot from mid-range out to the three-point line. But above all else, he needed an attitude adjustment. In the week Baldwin has been back with the Grizzlies, coach David Fizdale said he’s seen significant signs his 6-foot-4 fledgling playmaker has made strides with both his mechanics and mindset.

“It’s his maturity as a young man,” Fizdale said. “He’s much more humble. He listens better. He’s more coachable. His work ethic was always there. But he was a little stubborn. I’ve seen him not lose the tough stubborn that you want to him to have – that Russell Westbrook stubborn. But he’s lost that stubbornness to listen. I’m really proud of him for that. He’s really taken that challenge I put on him.”

Martin and Davis had different assignments while away.

For the 6-9 Martin, the priorities were to work on defending every frontcourt position in addition to embracing a role as the team’s primary scoring threat. Davis, a 6-10 shot-blocker taken in the second round after his freshman season at Michigan State, simply needed the reps and minutes. He missed all of last year’s summer league and the early part of the regular season to recover from a foot injury.

All three players spent the first half of March together in Iowa. Iowa’s March 17 home game against the Los Angeles D-Fenders proved to be a major collective test for Baldwin, Martin and Davis. The two teams were meeting for the second time in a span of three days.

Showing flashes of both the promise and the problems that relegated him to Iowa, Baldwin altered remarkable plays - dishing a dazzling half-court bounce pass for a layup, and later splitting two defenders at the top of the key for a dunk - with careless turnovers. He ultimately injured his ankle in the fourth quarter and didn’t finish the game.

Martin, who scored a season-high 29 points in the first of the two matchups, was featured atop the D-Fenders scouting report heading into second game. Martin missed seven of his 11 shots and committed four turnovers before he checked out and complained of fatigue midway through the fourth quarter.

Davis battled in the post with former Spurs starting center DeJuan Blair and finished with one of the five double-doubles he posted over a six-game stint in March with the Energy. Iowa lost both games by four points that week to the Lakers’ D-League affiliate that also featured 2011 NBA draft pick Justin Harper. Cyprien didn’t mince words when holding the Energy’s ‘Big 3’ accountable.

“You three are down here for a reason,” Cyprien told Baldwin, Davis and Martin in the locker room after that game. “We have to get more from our pros than that. Their pros made plays down the stretch that decided this game. That’s what we have got to get from you three. But keep grinding and keep fighting. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what you’re here for. To develop and get better.”

Methodically, there has been improvement.

With the Grizzlies, Martin has played in 40 games and has averaged 3.9 points over 13.5 minutes at power forward, where opportunities are hard to come by behind Green, Zach Randolph and Brandan Wright. In Iowa, Martin averaged 16 points and eight rebounds. He shot 49.2 percent from the field.

“I try to look at it as being a positive, that it’s my time to come down and try to get better,” Martin said. “I have to work on my game, develop my craft and everything. Definitely being able to knock down shots and make plays at the rim so I can translate that to Memphis, I can go in there with confidence.”

In Memphis, Davis gets plenty of chances to learn and work out before and after practices with All-Star center Marc Gasol. But he’s played 10 or more minutes only once since the middle of December for the Grizzlies. With the Energy, Davis played 30 minutes a night and was a double-double machine.

“It’s tough getting on and off that plane, going back and forth up there and to Memphis,” Davis said. “At the same time, when I’m in those games, I just try to imagine if that was Marc I was going against, just like in practice. And I just try to play my game. I try to use the tips Marc gives me because he believes in me. He’s been in the game long enough, so he recognizes what I can do if I keep working at it.”

And then there’s Baldwin, who had four assists and just one turnover in 14 minutes Friday against Dallas.

Months ago, he filled the stat sheet in his NBA debut with seven points, six assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks in the Grizzlies’ 102-98 season-opening win over Minnesota. It was the first time since the 1983-84 season anyone debuted with at least three points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.

But then Baldwin faltered amid the realities of being a rookie point guard in the NBA. It takes time to develop. And no one on the Grizzlies’ roster has spent more time working in Iowa on all things than Baldwin, who averaged 12.9 points, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds in 22 games.

He doesn’t despise Des Moines. In fact, Vivian’s Diner downtown was his favorite breakfast spot. It’s only a few blocks from Wells Fargo Arena, where the Energy played home games. A couple of blocks beyond that was the apartment complex where a no-frills, one-bedroom unit was leased for Baldwin.

On St. Patrick’s Day after Iowa’s shootaround, Baldwin finished his eggs and then spread jelly over his toast at Vivian’s as he reminded two guests why he never brought his car to Des Moines.

“I didn’t plan on being here this long,” Baldwin said. “So why try to get too comfortable?”

But patience amid progress was all part of the development process.

“We try to tell them it’s not a demotion,” Cyprien reassured. “When you come down here, you have an opportunity to play and get better. Most of the things we do were catered for those guys. We put them in positions Coach Fizdale and the staff want to see them develop in. Eventually, they understand that.”

And now that Baldwin’s back in Memphis?

“It’s an honor to be a part of the Grizzlies,” a beaming Baldwin said entering the weekend just two days after celebrating his 21st birthday. “I get to be back in my house and be back around these coaches and teammates. It’s great. Now, it’s about doing everything and using all the tools I’ve been working on when I get a chance. That’s my mentality.”

Now reunited, Baldwin is thankful for teammates that kept him connected along the way.

“It was always a message that said, ‘Stay with it’ or ‘It’s all a journey.’” Baldwin said. “Those guys, they had their own things to worry about in Memphis, and they still reached out to see how I was doing. As I said, it’s great being here. It’s great being back.”

Conley is pushing Baldwin to keep grinding. They even spent time in the backcourt together Friday.

“None of this comes easy,” Conley said. “Getting drafted and spending a lot of time in the D-League, that had to be tough. There’s still work to do. But I just wanted to reach out and keep his spirits up, because that’s the same thing I would have wanted someone to do for me in that position.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.