MEMPHIS – For the most part, the Grizzlies refuse to sugarcoat a bitter reality that has encumbered their progress at times early this season.
They’ve been in a foul mood far too frequently.
“We haven’t been getting screwed like we think we have, when we look back and watch the film,” veteran forward Jae Crowder said, flatly. “Offenses are at an advantage in this league right now, and it’s a different style of play. But from our standpoint, we’ve been fouling. I’m not even going to sugarcoat it as it’s a league thing or a referee thing. We’ve been fouling. And when you put yourself in that position, they’re going to call it nine times out of 10.”
It’s that sort of honesty, accountability and constructive criticism that permeates the Grizzlies’ preparation as they try to carry corrective actions into Saturday’s home game against the Suns. By then, Memphis (1-3) will have had three full days to evaluate and regroup from Tuesday’s record-setting setback in Los Angeles against the Lakers.
It was in that 120-91 loss when forward Anthony Davis made 26 of 27 free throws – setting franchise records as the most prolific performance ever from the line for the Lakers and the most made by a Grizzlies opponent in team history. That game served as the most glaring example of a developing trend the Grizzlies want to curb before it gains any more traction.
A report from FiveThirtyEight this week detailed how foul calls overall throughout the NBA are up by 20 percent over last season. On top of that, player disqualifications after picking up their sixth foul in a game are on pace to spike at this rate by a whopping 60 percent from last season. The FiveThirtyEight study reveals that NBA referees are particularly cracking down on offensive fouls, specifically charging calls and whistles for illegal screens.
Entering this week, foul calls overall were up by an average of seven infractions per game. The Grizzlies, building around a young core and installing new schemes offensively and defensively under first-year coach Taylor Jenkins, aim to untangle themselves from the web.
It’s going to take us a while to get there. We’ve got a lot of areas to clean up. But in terms of fouls, our foul rate, we’ve got to be more disciplined. It’s control what you can control.Taylor Jenkins
The Grizzlies were allowing the most free throws made by an opponent (28.5), the second-most attempted (34.8) and the third-highest opponent free-throw percentage (82.0) per game entering the weekend. And the 27 fouls committed per game through Memphis’ first four contests were tied for third-most in the league.
It’s all part of the early growing pains for a team that is building chemistry and continuity with a roster that features nine players who weren’t with the team this time a year ago. The primary playing rotation also includes rookies Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and Marko Guduric along with second-year power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Jenkins has used the past few days of practice time to hone in on film study and refine defensive fundamentals and concepts.
“It’s good that those (league-wide) statistics are out there, but I’m solely focused on our guys, and how we can be a top defensive team,” Jenkins said. “It’s going to take us a while to get there. We’ve got a lot of areas to clean up. But in terms of fouls, our foul rate, we’ve got to be more disciplined. It’s control what you can control.”
For the Grizzlies, those teaching principles involve striking a balance between being aggressive defensively without compromising technique and positioning that lead to foul calls. One of the biggest challenges has been managing stretches in games when Jackson is limited by foul trouble, especially when center Jonas Valanciunas’ playing time is conservatively managed as he gradually builds toward normal rotation minutes.
Jackson has battled foul trouble in three of the first four games, which included fouling out in last Sunday’s home win over Brooklyn and finishing with five fouls in two other games. An essential part of the team’s defensive concept, the 6-11 Jackson is coming off a NBA All-Rookie first team season as the only first-year player to ever finish with at least 50 blocks, 50 steals and 50 made three-pointers while shooting at least 50 percent from the field.
But the same versatility and shot-blocking instincts that make Jackson an intriguing franchise cornerstone also leave him prone to picking up fouls. That’s been the case when he’s out of position, gambling defensively or over-aggressively rotating to help teammates in the paint.
Both Jackson and swingman Dillon Brooks, considered one of the Grizzlies top two perimeter defenders, are tied for the team lead with 19 fouls through four games. The hope is as they gain experience, they’ll garner more respect in matchups against an opposing team’s elite players. The reality is the Grizzlies, individually and collectively, are learning and adjusting on the fly.
We went back and watched the film and showed guys where we can be more urgent in certain situations, how we can be more disciplined. A lot of those fouls, we caused by not staying disciplined. So guys recognize how we can be significantly better in that area.Taylor Jenkins
“These are not frustrations; this is part of our jobs,” said Jackson, who is averaging 14.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 32 minutes this season. “At the end of the day, lingering frustration only makes it harder to do your job and make adjustments. So you have to relieve yourself of that and key in on the film and the little things you have to do more to move on.”
By most accounts, the lines of communication are open across the board. The Grizzlies insist they’re taking a holistic approach to working through some of the early kinks.
“We’ve been talking in the locker room,” said Valanciunas, who has posted three consecutive double-doubles after missing the preseason with foot soreness. “We’re a young team. We see a lot of new stuff. We have guys who had never played in the league or are in their first or second year, coming into a man’s league. It’s hard. You’ve got to pick up your mental toughness, be humble, come back to the gym. Everything is going to come if you stay the right way.”
That path involved a return to the basics this week.
“All of the things we talked about Day One in camp,” Jenkins said. “It’s doing our work early. We went back and watched the film and showed guys where we can be more urgent in certain situations, how we can be more disciplined. A lot of those fouls, we caused by not staying disciplined. So guys recognize how we can be significantly better in that area.”
At the end of the day, lingering frustration only makes it harder to do your job and make adjustments. So you have to relieve yourself of that and key in on the film and the little things you have to do more to move on.Jaren Jackson Jr.
As Crowder insisted, it starts with accountability.
And it ends with corrective action, Jackson vowed.
“You can’t overreact to certain things,” Jackson said of his mindset moving forward. “Fix the mistakes so you won’t keep making them over and over. A lot of similar things happen in games. And when you notice those trends, you adjust and correct them.”
For the developing Grizzlies, it’s a fair approach to address foul play.
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