BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – After a week of training camp practices, numerous meetings, countless film sessions and a game-day walkthrough, coach J.B. Bickerstaff will be as eager as any player on the roster to see where the Grizzlies stand.
The tests that actually count in the standings don’t start until the Oct. 17 regular-season opener at Indiana. But it’s essentially quiz time for Bickerstaff’s team. That initial assessment comes in the form of Tuesday night’s neutral-site preseason opener against the Rockets.
And Bickerstaff has given his players a tip sheet going in.
“We’re looking for the details,” Bickerstaff said of expectations entering Tuesday’s performance. “We expect our guys to compete, no matter the situation, and play hard. But are you using your brain? All of the small things we think are going to help us become a good team, it starts (Tuesday) – whether or not we can execute them full speed with the lights on.”
This city deserves a playoff team again. But that starts now. That starts with being the most conditioned, most unselfish, best defensive team in the league.— Garrett Temple
The Grizzlies will have almost their full complement of players available, with backup center Ivan Rabb (concussion), reserve guard MarShon Brooks (illness) and Two-Way developmental forward Yuta Watanabe (shoulder) sitting out Tuesday. Bickerstaff said everyone in the primary rotation is expected to play, with no one likely to exceed 20-to-25 minutes against the Rockets.
The Grizzlies will certainly be pushed by Houston, at least in terms of pace. Guided by reigning league MVP James Harden and Chris Paul, the Rockets boast one of the NBA’s most efficient and fastest offenses, which is a direct contrast to Memphis’ mission to play rugged and aggressive defense.
But it’s the mental aspect of the game that most intrigues Bickerstaff as he evaluates the Grizzlies’ progress coming out of training camp. From the top down this offseason, there was a premium placed on acquiring defensive-minded, high-IQ players as the Grizzlies regroup from a 22-60 season that left them out of the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Bickerstaff is no longer the embattled interim coach promoted to finish out the season after his close friend, David Fizdale, was dismissed last November. With a new multiyear contract, Bickerstaff is now in firm control of the team’s direction and mentality. He sees the five-game preseason slate as quiz opportunities for the Grizzlies, largely because Bickerstaff approached the job with a cerebral, development mindset.
And there were multiple teaching moments throughout training camp as the Grizzlies set a foundation to blend a roster stocked with players at varying stages of their careers.
At one end, there are franchise pillars in Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who are in their 30s, on the back end of max contracts and looking to reestablish Memphis as a contender in the West playoff race. At the other end, there are rookies in 19-year-old lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr., Jevon Carter and Watanabe, each the defensive player of the year in their respective college conferences last season.
And in the middle, the roster is lined with mid-career veterans in Chandler Parsons, Kyle Anderson, JaMychal Green, Omri Casspi and Garrett Temple. Many of them are either stepping into larger roles than they’ve previously held or are trying to reignite their impact coming off injury-riddled seasons.
“Just from a coaching perspective, I think we’ve had a great summer,” Bickerstaff said of a roster that added seven new primary players. “Being able to sit down with the front office and ownership and put together a plan for what we wanted to look like and who we’re trying to be was the start of it. A lot of times, when you put those thoughts into place, the difficult part is going out to find people who can fit that mold. We talked about guys who were gritty, we talked about guys who were intelligent, we talked about guys who were unselfish by nature.”
We’ve accomplished all of those goals with this group. And I think you’re going to really enjoy watching this particular new class of Grizzlies come in and lead us back into the playoffs.— Chris Wallace
The focus, Bickerstaff said, was to form a group of players “whose purpose is greater than themselves.”
Grizzlies’ general manager Chris Wallace underscored that purpose as he sat alongside Bickerstaff at the ‘State of the Franchise’ address to season-ticket holders and MVPs before Saturday’s open scrimmage at FedexForum. The pieces are largely in place. The next step is finding the most effective combinations.
“We set out to add to our defense and, as we keep saying, add to our basketball IQ, add to our group of veterans because we were so young last season and wanted to get older and more experience,” Wallace said. “We’ve accomplished all of those goals with this group. And I think you’re going to really enjoy watching this particular new class of Grizzlies come in and lead us back into the playoffs.”
From the beginning of the preseason, the Grizzlies have their desired finish in mind. But getting there is a gradual, painstaking process, and each player has a vision and a role along that path.
“We all know what we’re here for; it’s to make the playoffs, where this team belongs” said Temple, who is making a strong push for the starting shooting guard spot alongside Conley in the backcourt. “Getting better every day is the micro goal, but the macro – the big picture – is to get back to what this franchise is used to, being in the playoffs. This city deserves a playoff team again. But that starts now. That starts with being the most conditioned, most unselfish, best defensive team in the league.”
Like Temple, Anderson is another veteran newcomer who has embraced the objective. After spending his first four NBA seasons with the Spurs, Anderson admits it’s been a challenge to pick up some of the schemes and concepts with Memphis during the first week of camp. So preseason will continue to be a work in progress.
“I’m still getting used to that, still getting adjusted,” said Anderson, who may open the preseason coming off the bench but eventually emerge as a starter at small forward. “It’s tough to go from team to team, just because I was somewhere for four years. It’s an adjustment, but I’ve got to get used to it. I’m just coming in with an open mind. We’re off to a good start. Everybody has to feel accountable.”
Bickerstaff would have it no other way with this revamped group of Grizzlies.
Case in point: Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick in June’s draft, had to go back to his room to get the right gear to wear on the team plane before the Grizzlies departed for Birmingham after Monday’s practice.
Like almost everything else during camp, Jackson took it all in stride with a big smile. The prized rookie isn’t exactly being handled with kid gloves by the Grizzlies, and Bickerstaff appreciates the resilience he’s seen.
“When you’re coming into a situation like this – as a rookie, where you have a lot of veterans, a lot of good players around – you kind of have to check where you stand,” Bickerstaff said of Jackson, who anchors the center-power forward rotation with Gasol and Green. “I give (Jackson) a ton of credit for his attitude. There have been some frustrating moments for him, because he’s learning. But he hasn’t held onto them. He’s moved on to the next play. He’s asking the right questions, he’s accepting coaching. That’s the only way you get better.”
And by passing a few preseason quizzes along the way.
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