Apr 30, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Memphis Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph (50) leads the bench in celebration at the end of game five of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center. Grizzlies won 103-93. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies' Bench Better Than Ever?

With the NBA’s summer free agency frenzy coming to a close and the Memphis Grizzlies somewhat surprising transactions seemingly finished, there is plenty of optimism about next season. One of the biggest things the Grizzlies accomplished this offseason was bolstering their bench with the additions of many qualified players. So for now, let’s consider just how good the Grizzlies’ bench will be.

Since the Grizzlies acquired Mike Conley in 2007, a total of 16 point guards have come and gone. Why should we expect newly acquired Nick Calathes to stick? For one, new Griz VP John Hollinger is one of Calathes’ biggest fans, and has been since his days as a draft prospect. This, along with the recent departure of guard Tony Wroten, gives reason to believe that Calathes could very well play a significant role for the Grizzlies next season.

With his 6’6” frame, outstanding playmaking skills, and streaky shooting, Calathes has been compared by some to former Grizzlies guard Greivis Vasquez. Calathes’s experience overseas has been invaluable, and his MVP performance in last year’s Eurocup tournament suggests that he is ready to make the jump to the NBA.

Another Grizzlies’ addition, guard Josh Akognon (A-KOY-en), could see minutes at either point guard or shooting guard. A potentially valuable asset in his own right, Akognon differs from Calathes in many ways. Before he was drafted, Akognon was widely viewed as one of the best shooters in the world outside the NBA. According to Rize Management, a firm that manages Akognon, “He possesses the quickness, athleticism, length, and high basketball IQ that makes him one of the best guards in the world and has shown that he can be a true floor general and at the same time lead his team in scoring.” With that in mind, the Grizzlies will most likely utilize him as more of a scoring threat who can provide “instant offense” than a playmaker.

Akognon spent a good amount of time in China, and in the 2011 CBA season he averaged 29 ppg, 4 rpg, 3apg, 2 spg  FG 56%, 3FG 39%, FT 87%. At 5’11”, Akognon would be considerably undersized for a shooting guard, but this shouldn’t be too much of a problem, given that the Grizzlies have been known to play two point guards at the same time anyway (Conley and Bayless).

Of course, additionally, fans will most likely see guard Jerryd Bayless back up Tony Allen again next season. The return of Bayless, albeit somewhat unexpected at the time, was essential for the Grizzlies. Bayless provides energy, experience, and the ability to create his own shot off the bench. He may not be the smartest player in terms of shot selection, but what he may lack in self-restraint, he more than makes up for in hustle and outright passion.

At small forward, a bit of uncertainty still remains. Whether Quincy Pondexter’s breakout in last year’s playoffs will result in a starting spot next season, or if Coach Joeger prefers to keep him as an energy guy who can provide a scoring punch off the bench, remains to be seen. What is clear is that Pondexter has thrived coming off the bench and made great strides last season, including improving his free throw percentage from 62% to 79% and improving his 3 point percentage from 30% to 40%. With that in mind, he could very well be inserted into the starting lineup to add more balance and a legitimate scoring threat on the perimeter.

Besides Pondexter or Prince, sharpshooter Mike Miller will begin his second stint with the Grizzlies next season. Miller is expected to play primarily at small forward given his size and the fact that, at 33, he can’t match up with smaller, quicker two-guards defensively. Despite his age, at 6’8”, Miller brings an intriguing combination of size and shooting ability. Per 48 minutes, Miller averaged more points and rebounds than Grizzlies forwards Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter last season. Miller’s best days are behind him at this point, but he can still be a vital piece of a Grizzlies team looking to contend for a championship next season.

At power forward, with the departure of Darrell Arthur, Ed Davis will see more minutes as the primary backup behind Zach Randolph. Prior to landing in Memphis, Davis was widely regarded as a young stud with a ton of potential. However, once coming to Memphis, he found himself in a logjam with forwards Zach Randolph, Darrell Arthur, and Jon Leuer. Now, with increased minutes, Davis’s production could skyrocket should he play with the same kind of confidence he did in Toronto. Lots has already been said about Davis, here, and here.

Along with Davis, seldom-used forward Jon Leuer is likely to see more action this season. I personally believe we have yet to see Leuer’s true potential. His numbers weren’t spectacular last season, but it’s hard to judge a guy who plays less than 7 minutes per game.

My impression of Leuer is he’s a hard worker, and what more can you ask of a guy who has sat the bench the majority of his young NBA career? Fans occasionally saw flashes of skill and potential from him last season, but now, he will get his chance.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Leuer develop into a key role player for the Grizzlies next season. Management won’t regret bringing him back.

Finally, possibly the most underrated pickup for the Grizzlies this summer was center Kosta Koufos. Koufos brings what the Grizzlies have lacked for so long, a quality backup center. This means that Marc Gasol will get more much needed rest, and they’ll have someone else to match up against the likes of Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard.

Furthermore, Koufos serves as a respectable insurance policy if center Marc Gasol suffers an injury. (Perish the thought!) At 24, Koufos is in the prime of his career. He shot 58% from the floor last year while averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and blocks per game.

However, there are areas in which he needs to improve: free throw shooting seems to be a struggle for him. He shot 56% from the charity stripe last year, and has not shot better than 63% since his rookie year. With so many games decided by only a few points, the Grizzlies cannot afford to have major free throw liabilities on the floor down the stretch. If Koufos could find his rhythm on the free throw line, he could be the best backup center in the NBA hands down.

In short, the Grizzlies bench will be quite different next season and much improved at that. I would even venture to say that this will be the best second unit in Grizzlies history. With significant threats at every position, this squad has a unique combination of skill, versatility, youth, experience, and passion. Will these recent additions be the finishing touches on a championship team, or will we see more moves? We will find out soon enough. The grind is coming fast.



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