The lights went out as the high-definition projection screen flashed on inside Lecture Room G-88 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
Philadelphia’s 38-degree temperature outside on this overcast afternoon fell in stark contrast to the virtual steam rising from the guest lecturer’s head as the classroom demonstration unfolded.
Most days, in moments like these, Taylor Jenkins is orchestrating a detailed film session at FedExForum or some other NBA arena, preparing Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and the Grizzlies for an upcoming opponent. On this particular day, the Grizzlies’ first-year coach is in a uniquely different comfort zone.
“Whether it’s on an NBA court or in the business world or in everyday life, there’s going to be adversity, because (things) don’t always go as planned,” Jenkins told Wharton business students as he finished his presentation and offered his contact information for them to stay in touch. “(Stuff) happens. What oftentimes defines success and resilience is how you react to what just happened, how you anticipate.”
This week, Jenkins and the Grizzlies (28-26) expect to keep building on arguably the league’s most surprising start to the season as they return from the All-Star break to open a four-game road trip. Sitting in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Memphis has won 22 of its past 32 games but face one of the NBA’s toughest closing schedules over the final months of the regular season.
Yet it was also while sitting at the front of a lecture room earlier this month with future economists, corporate executives and venture capitalists, where Jenkins proved equally adept at laying the foundation for a winning formula off the court. Back at his alma mater during the Grizzlies’ trip before the All-Star break, Jenkins hosted a lunch and lecture on advanced analytics and basketball strategy.
I’ve been pretty repetitive about how we’ve handled situations in November, in December. And there has been a moment here or there where we’ve had growth. But at the end of the day, it’s about consistent growth. It’s trying to coach through the good times, but now we still have a long way to go.
At heart, the Western Conference’s reigning Coach of the Month is a teacher. And with two dozen fascinated young minds surrounding him that afternoon, Jenkins grew slightly animated as he explained how the M.I.G. in the Grizzlies’ defensive rotation missed a coverage that led to an opponent’s score.
The M.I.G. – an acronym for Most Important Guy – is often the player responsible for the last line of defense at the rim. He’s the player tasked with covering the area vacated when a secondary defender is forced to rotate and cover for a primary defender who likely just got beat off the dribble.
In other words, the M.I.G. is ultimately tasked with helping the helper. Hence, the most important guy in Memphis’ scheme must be the most unselfish, most prepared and most willing to adjust to adverse circumstances at any point in a particular game.
In many ways, that description also fits the Grizzlies head coach.
“It’s been great growth,” Jenkins believes. “I’ve been pretty repetitive about how we’ve handled situations in November, in December. And there has been a moment here or there where we’ve had growth. But at the end of the day, it’s about consistent growth. It’s trying to coach through the good times, but now we still have a long way to go.”
Along the way, Jenkins has made it a priority to acknowledge just how far he’s come.
Whether he’s in an Ivy League lecture hall or the visiting team’s locker room in an NBA arena, the 35-year-old Jenkins is excelling in his first year on the job at connecting with those in the room. Any room. Just about every room he enters these days. His mission on and off the court has produced results.
On the court, he’s steered the league’s youngest roster to a winning record at the break for the first time in three years. Most NBA analysts and observers projected the Grizzlies would be mired in a rebuilding year and fortunate to win 30 games this season.
But anchored by rookies in Morant and Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward in Jackson and third-year swingman Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies have been fast learners this season. The No. 2 pick in last June’s draft, Morant has won all three Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors this season. He joined Clarke and Jackson as participants in the Rising Stars Challenge last week in Chicago at All-Star Weekend.
It starts with Morant. They have shooting and scoring, and Jackson is a kid that really has grown, improved his ability to put the ball on the floor, his shooting ability. There are a lot of good things about their team and the most important thing is they’re all young. If they keep them together, they’re going to grow together. They’ll be together for a while.
Combined with veterans in center Jonas Valanciunas, forward Kyle Anderson and reserve guard Tyus Jones, the Grizzlies have flourished in Jenkins’ up-tempo system. Memphis’ scheme is predicated on spacing, pace, ball-movement and aggressive play in the paint and at the three-point line.
Versatility has also been a key component for Jenkins. The Grizzlies have emerged from a 6-16 start by gradually turning some of their early challenges and weaknesses into strengths. Opposing coaches have taken notice how Jenkins has helped his team adjust and adapt to find success.
The Grizzlies went 11-4 in January and led the NBA in scoring, assists and points in the paint – all areas where the team is on pace to set franchise records for single-season production. Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey sees a coaching staff that is putting its young core in position to develop and thrive.
“It’s speed, athleticism, length—all the things that scare you as a coach,” Casey said of the system Jenkins has implemented. “It starts with Morant. They have shooting and scoring, and Jackson is a kid that really has grown, improved his ability to put the ball on the floor, his shooting ability. There are a lot of good things about their team and the most important thing is they’re all young. If they keep them together, they’re going to grow together. They’ll be together for a while.”
Maintaining that continuity is certainly the goal. That message was reiterated when Grizzlies executive vice president Zach Kleiman met with the media before the break for a ‘state of the team’ address. Kleiman credited Jenkins and the coaching staff for keeping a young team connected and improving.
During the coaching search last year, the Grizzlies prioritized candidates with strong developmental backgrounds, along with clear communicators and creative basketball minds. Jenkins checked all boxes and is proving an ideal fit. He’s drawing on experience gained from interning with Gregg Popovich’s Spurs and later working as an assistant on Mike Budenholzer’s 60-win teams in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
From the front-office’s vantagepoint, Jenkins’ attention to detail is what stands out.
“Taylor and his staff have done a tremendous job staying level, staying consistent, putting in the work,” Kleiman said. “They’re letting these guys know, ‘Yeah, the incremental success is fantastic, and it’s great. We’re thrilled with what we’re seeing. But here’s the next step. Here’s where we have to get to tomorrow. Here’s where we have to get to the day after.’ And it’s knowing that the growth doesn’t stop this year. It continues over the summer and it continues well into the future. This is just the beginning.”
Yet so far, so good.
Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone insists the Grizzlies’ balance makes them most dangerous. Six different players have led the team in scoring in games this season, seven have shared the lead in the assists and nine have been the leading rebounder in at least one game.
The byproduct of that balance has been a deep rotation, with Jenkins consistently using as many as 11 players. That’s created opportunities for everyone to contribute, which in turn has activated numerous weapons on the floor at any given time on any given night.
“What you appreciate when you watch them is it’s not just one-on-one basketball,” Malone said of the Grizzlies. “It’s not just Ja taking his turn. They move the ball. When you lead the NBA in assists, you’re playing the right way. The guys have bought into Taylor’s system and they are playing with confidence. When you average 60 points in the paint, that’s a hell of a number. When you average (almost) 20-plus in transition, that’s a hell of a number. They’ve been doing that all season.”
They’re letting these guys know, ‘Yeah, the incremental success is fantastic, and it’s great. We’re thrilled with what we’re seeing. But here’s the next step. Here’s where we have to get to tomorrow. Here’s where we have to get to the day after.’ And it’s knowing that the growth doesn’t stop this year. It continues over the summer and it continues well into the future. This is just the beginning.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry agreed. New Orleans is 2-0 against Memphis this season, but continues to chase the Grizzlies in the standings for the final playoff spot entering the season’s stretch run.
“Taylor’s done a great job,” Gentry said. “You know, they struggled at the start and now have found their rhythm. They’ve got some veteran guys sprinkled in with some really young players. I think Ja is probably playing at the highest level you can possibly be right now, for a young kid, first year in the league. Clarke is having a fantastic rookie year also. Then you sprinkle in some of the veteran guys. They’re just playing on a really high level right now.”
Progress didn’t happen overnight, but Jenkins set the foundation from Day One of training camp. Well, his players believe it was well before that. It started with building relationships on trust and accountability immediately after he landed the job in June.
Jenkins met with players over lunch or dinner to establish an understanding from the outset. What he wanted to make clear was that he didn’t have all the answers; that they’d find them together. Jenkins wanted input from his players, and that approach resonated throughout the roster.
You know, they struggled at the start and now have found their rhythm. They’ve got some veteran guys sprinkled in with some really young players. I think Ja is probably playing at the highest level you can possibly be right now, for a young kid, first year in the league. Clarke is having a fantastic rookie year also. Then you sprinkle in some of the veteran guys. They’re just playing on a really high level right now.
“He left that door open from the start, top to bottom,” said former Grizzlies forward Jae Crowder, who maintains a tight bond with the organization that traded him to Miami earlier this month. “And you have to respect that. He didn’t come in thinking he knew it all. It’s his first year. He’s been open to hearing new suggestions from guys. And from that point on, he’s built a good relationship with guys, one through 15. And that earns the trust from the locker room.”
That flexibility to improvise within the system has been essential to Morant’s breakout rookie season.
“He’s just allowing everybody to play with freedom,” said Morant, who leads all rookies in scoring and assists while ranking among the NBA’s top overall scorers in the fourth quarter. “He’s got a lot of trust in me playing, and he lets me go out and play how I play each and every night. That’s what every point guard wants. There are days when he texts me and I ask him questions, then we’ll come in and have film set up for me on plays where I could have been better. So it’s just me continuing to learn from him.”
It’s a collective learning process. And Jenkins is at his best when teaching.
Although the Grizzlies ranked as one of the league’s most prolific offenses in January, they were a bottom-third team in multiple defensive categories. Adjustments were made to better defend the three-point line, eliminate opponent transition opportunities and tighten up in the fourth quarter of games.
By mid-February, the Grizzlies reversed those previous woes and ranked first in the league in defensive rating over a three-week stretch. A team that also struggled to hold big leads earlier this season is now a squad that regularly has shown the resilience to overcome deficits late in games.
He’s got a lot of trust in me playing, and he lets me go out and play how I play each and every night. That’s what every point guard wants. There are days when he texts me and I ask him questions, then we’ll come in and have film set up for me on plays where I could have been better. So it’s just me continuing to learn from him.
Through it all, Jenkins has found the right touch. He knows when to push and when to ease the burden.
The day before what shaped up as the biggest game of their season to date, Jenkins brought the team together for practice in advance of facing Portland in the final game before All-Star Weekend. Memphis entered that game clinging to a slim lead in the standings over Portland for eighth in the West. Damian Lillard and the veteran Blazers are desperate to salvage their season by overtaking the Grizzlies.
Jenkins had a special plan in place for the practice leading to that game.
“We had a great film session and talked about how we can keep getting better going into and coming out of the All-Star break,” Jenkins said. “And then we came out and played kickball. We all needed it. Guys have been grinding. So it was a mental break, a physical break for the guys.”
So the Grizzlies played kickball inside their practice facility, inviting four families whose children are being treated for cancer at St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis. For Jenkins, the formula is equal parts coaching and caring, on and off the court.
What’s our chemistry on the floor offensively? Are we playing together on the defensive end as well? But for us, it’s the relationships off the court. That’s the first thing we hit these guys with. That’s what we’re about more than anything, establishing a positive environment.
Another component to this encouraging season for the Grizzlies is a program Jenkins set up to donate $10 for every assist the team makes to help support Shelby County Schools. With a league-leading 1,477 assists coming out of the break, that’s already nearly $15,000 – and counting.
And speaking of schools, Jenkins’ recent tour of his former educational stomping grounds started with a visit to his high school in Dallas. Speaking to 400 high school students at the all-male St. Mark’s School of Texas, Jenkins told stories of how he was in the band and also sports editor of the school newspaper.
A day earlier, the Grizzlies beat the Mavericks in a game during which Jenkins granted St. Mark’s student media special access to cover his team the entire day. At one stage in life, Jenkins and his parents were partial season-ticket holders in the 311 nosebleed section at the Mavericks’ American Airlines Center. And now, he just got done leading the Grizzlies to an impressive road win over a playoff contender.
Although Memphis is developing rapidly on his watch, Jenkins cherishes every second of growth in his role with these Grizzlies. And that includes each opportunity this job offers him to give back.
“At the end of the day, it’s about how we play on the court, right?” Jenkins explained. “What’s our chemistry on the floor offensively? Are we playing together on the defensive end as well? But for us, it’s the relationships off the court. That’s the first thing we hit these guys with. That’s what we’re about more than anything, establishing a positive environment.”
As the schedule resumes, these young and emerging Grizzlies are eager to move forward.
They’re guided by a coach who takes pride in never forgetting how he got to this point.
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