Mired in those initial struggles to get on track with his new team, Grizzlies point guard Tyus Jones would always reassure himself – and others – with four simple words.
“It’s a long season,” Jones would frequently respond after sluggish nights.
It’s that patient, big-picture approach that kept Jones even-keeled and confident that his production would eventually pick up after uncharacteristically erratic stretches of play. And it’s that same mindset that has Jones tempering much of the acknowledgment and praise that have come his way in recent weeks as he’s found his rhythm in Memphis.
It’s not in Jones’ nature to make too much of his performance. It doesn’t matter if he’s enduring a difficult adjustment stage or embracing the process of turning that proverbial corner to consistency. Eventually, he truly believes, everything evens out.
That normal level of stability has returned to his game just as the Grizzlies have turned in their most encouraging month of the season as they face a back-to-back set to close out December. They carry a 7-7 record this month into the final two games of 2019, with Saturday’s stop in Denver to face the Nuggets followed by Sunday’s home matchup with the Charlotte Hornets.
While the Grizzlies’ overall play has been trending in a positive direction recently, that’s especially been the case for Jones and a bench unit that has provided a solid foundation.
Jones is averaging 12.7 points on 73.7 percent shooting overall, including 66.6 percent on threes, in his last three games. Through 14 games in December, the fifth-year playmaker is shooting 52 percent on threes and 50.6 percent overall while averaging 4.9 assists and less than a turnover a game off the bench. Those numbers represent a major breakthrough from Jones’ first 18 games this season, when he shot just 37.4 percent overall and 17.9 percent on threes.
Jones is hardly the only player to provide a big spark off the bench recently, but he embodies everything the Grizzlies’ second unit has been about this season. Aside from rookie forward Brandon Clarke, almost every reserve has endured a turbulent start amid inconsistent performances and playing time. But now, everyone seems to be jelling at just the right time.
The Grizzlies enter the weekend ranked ninth in the NBA for December bench scoring at 39.2 points a game. Memphis’ reserves are second in the league over that stretch in field goal percentage at 47.2, tied for first in steals at 3.9 and top the NBA in assists at 12.2 off the bench. It’s the result of a group of relative newcomers embracing their roles in first-year coach Taylor Jenkins’ egalitarian system. The Grizzlies are also fully healthy for the first time since the season’s opening week back in October, with no players listed on the team’s injury report heading into the weekend.
There’s a lot of new pieces on this team, so it wasn’t all going to come together the first week of training camp. It was going to take a good chunk of the season for us to get better, for our chemistry to continue to go up. So I think we’re finally starting to hit our stride, starting to figure out how we want to play, figure out our identity as a team. And the more success we have at that, the more we’ll believe in our philosophy and believe in one another.
“It’s definitely something we take pride in,” Jones said of the team’s health and depth in recent weeks. “There’s a lot of new pieces on this team, so it wasn’t all going to come together the first week of training camp. It was going to take a good chunk of the season for us to get better, for our chemistry to continue to go up. So I think we’re finally starting to hit our stride, starting to figure out how we want to play, figure out our identity as a team. And the more success we have at that, the more we’ll believe in our philosophy and believe in one another.”
That belief starts with Jones, who never lost faith that he would eventually find his groove after arriving in Memphis on a three-year, $28 million contract as the team’s top free-agent target.
Jones joins guard Dillon Brooks as the lone two players on the roster to contribute in all 32 games so far this season. Even when his shot wasn’t consistently falling, Jones maintained his penchant for sure-handed playmaking. He now leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio among players who have logged at least 600 minutes this season.
That belief extends to fellow backup guard De’Anthony Melton, who’s worked his way into becoming a rotation regular. Melton has played in every game this month after seeing action in only seven of the Grizzlies first 18 games of the season. Playing alongside Jones in that second-unit backcourt, Melton has averaged 8.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 48.3 percent from the field in 20.7 minutes a game in December.
And that belief never wavered in Clarke, who continues to lead all rookies in field goal percentage and rebounding as an explosive athletic presence in the paint on both ends. With veteran forwards Solomon Hill and Kyle Anderson providing the experience and clutch execution in key stretches of games, the Grizzlies have a group that’s bonding well together.
We’re a young team trying to figure out and learn how to close games, and it felt good to go out and do it. Our young guys are locked in. We’re going to make mistakes, but to not go and make the same mistakes and learn from things, that’s big-time for us. It shows growth.
“We kind of show the young guys, because we’ve been on good playoff teams, that sometimes your offense is not going to get rolling, but you’ve got to help out in other ways,” Anderson said after dishing a team-high seven assists off the bench in Thursday’s win at Oklahoma City. “We’re a young team trying to figure out and learn how to close games, and it felt good to go out and do it. Our young guys are locked in. We’re going to make mistakes, but to not go and make the same mistakes and learn from things, that’s big-time for us. It shows growth.”
There was no greater sign of that progress for the Grizzlies than in their last two games. Memphis surrendered franchise opponent records for points allowed in a first quarter (46) and game (145) in Monday’s 30-point home loss to the Spurs. The following game, the Grizzlies limited the Thunder to an opponent quarter low of 18 points in the opening frame and held a team below 100 points for the first time this season in Thursday’s win at Oklahoma City.
The Grizzlies’ bench made a huge difference, with Melton (+25), Anderson (+21), Jones (+12) and Clarke (+10) each registering a positive impact in the plus-minus ratio when in the game.
When you get that kind of production from 11 guys in different areas of the game, we set a tone.
“Our starters were great, but our bench – we talked about it before the game that when they come in, they come locked, loaded and ready to contribute,” Jenkins said of the bench. “When you get that kind of production from 11 guys in different areas of the game, we set a tone.”
And that tone underscores why Jones was adamant about sticking with his original tune.
And it’s also easier to get out of those bumps. At the end of the day, you’re not going to play for 82 games as well as you’d like. It’s about everything balancing out. Just keep playing and believing in one another, and the ebb and flow of the season can balance out.
“This is my fifth year in the league, and you learn the more level-headed you stay, the more even-keeled you stay, the easier it is to keep those highs going when you’re playing well,” Jones said. “And it’s also easier to get out of those bumps. At the end of the day, you’re not going to play for 82 games as well as you’d like. It’s about everything balancing out. Just keep playing and believing in one another, and the ebb and flow of the season can balance out.”
The Grizzlies are finding that balance all the way through the bench.
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