No matter the sport, training camp is about building the foundation for the season ahead. And, for their part, the Grizzlies appear to be a little ahead of schedule in their construction.
Think of it as players learning the language they’ll be speaking all year long – terms, reads, tendencies, play calls.
“We’ve got a veteran group,” guard Garrett Temple said, “and most guys understand it’s just different terminology. That’s what we’re trying to do now; get the terminology both offensively and defensively.”
The Grizzlies’ guard says he’s completely healthy again and prepared to show the rest of the NBA that he’s still got plenty left in the tank.
Mark Giannotto, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
For several reasons, the Grizzlies were unable to perform at a high level consistently last season — Mike Conley’s long-term injury, the firing of coach David Fizdale just 19 games into the season, the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth about trading Tyreke Evans that ultimately led to him being a peripheral player after the All-Star break.
One reason, though, has been less discussed. Last year’s team did not possess a high level of basketball IQ, a problem made worse by the fact that 24 different players suited up at one time or another. Adjustments had to be made on the fly, and the team made plenty of mental mistakes as a result. It was a problem that frustrated veterans such as Marc Gasol and stymied the coaches.
John Hollinger, the Grizzlies’ executive vice president of basketball operations, told The Commercial Appeal this summer that the front office was aware of the issue.
“I think it was a discussion we had also had internally,” Hollinger said. “Everyone knew how Marc felt, but it’s hard when you’re playing with a bunch of younger guys and guys on 10-day contracts. That’s just going to be what happens. We wanted to make sure when we had our real team together – and having Mike and the other guys who were out last year makes a huge difference – but when we had that team out there, it would be a team that could maximize what Mike and Marc can do, and I think we have that now.”
To rectify the problem, the Grizzlies added high-IQ players such as Kyle Anderson, Temple, Shelvin Mack and Omri Casspi, and they drafted quick-learning rookies Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter. And after just one week of training camp, coach J.B. Bickerstaff knows the difference in basketball savvy from last year to this one is like night and day.
“There’s no doubt about it. Their IQ makes this fun because you feel like you can push people; you can challenge people; and they’ll respond,” Bickerstaff said. “We’ll do things like, we’ve got our terminology, we’ll just throw it out there and see if they can figure it out, and for the most part, they’ve been able to.”
The difference has been huge on both sides of the ball.
“Our offense is based on layers,” Bickerstaff said, “and whatever call we make, they can layer on to the next part of it, so being able to see guys figure it out is fun, but because of their ability, we can do more.”
The 33-year-old veteran discusses why he and the Grizzlies are excited about Jaren Jackson Jr. and the team’s other young players
Mark Giannotto, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
For his part, Gasol made the point that smarter people are appealing in every profession.
“I think (everyone) would prefer to have co-workers with high IQs, right? Everyone’s asking me – like everyone is shocked that’s what we would prefer to have on this team. I’m very happy with the roster and where we’re at as a team.”
Conley agreed, noting that it’s a big advantage to have teammates who can quickly pick up the base concepts of the offense, and especially the defense.
“I think when you add the guys we added this offseason, the type of players they are defensively, coupled with the schemes we’re trying to do this season, which is actually a little more in-depth and detailed than we’ve had in the past, thankfully we’ve gotten the right personnel for that,” Conley said after a camp session last week.
With the team’s first preseason game coming up on Tuesday in Birmingham, Ala., against the Houston Rockets, the Grizzlies have a chance to see just how far along in offensive and defensive installation they are. And whatever the game result, one thing has become clear – they’re already well ahead of where they were last year.
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