This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of MemphiSport.
In early December, I wrote an article entitled A Breakdown of the Grizzlies 2011-12 Roster. Don’t read it.
The Grizzlies have made two trades, signed three free agents, and waived three players since Dec. 24, moving four players out of Memphis and bringing five in—not counting losing Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur due to injuries. Anything written about the Grizzlies’ roster before the season has been rendered useless due to the plethora of personnel moves made by the team.
Greivis Vasquez was the backup point guard. Mikki Moore, Ish Smith and Brian Skinner were still on the team. Dante Cunningham was a restricted free agent without an offer sheet. Hamed Haddadi was still stuck in Iran. Quincy Pondexter was playing for New Orleans and lighting the Grizzlies up in two preseason games. Marreese Speights was sitting on the bench in Philadelphia. Jeremy Pargo was planning on playing in Israel again, and Xavier Henry was…well he wasn’t doing much anyway.
Needless to say, the Memphis roster has been in a state of constant flux since the middle of December. All the while, the Grizzlies just kept grinding and have remained in playoff contention with more than a third of the 2011-12 season under their belt.
Meet the newly minted Grizzlies, all of whom have played a major role so far this season…
When the Grizzlies found out on Dec. 18 that backup power forward Darrell Arthur was going to miss the entire season due to a torn Achilles tendon, Cunningham’s name immediately surfaced as a potential replacement. A restricted free agent of the Charlotte Bobcats at the time, Cunningham would soon be on his way to the Bluff City. The deal became official on Dec. 20 when Charlotte declined to match the Grizzlies’ offer sheet.
Since moving to Memphis, he has averaged 17.5 minutes per game and made the most out of them by putting up 4.8 points and 3.8 rebounds each outing. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Cunningham is a long and lanky presence that can operate on the perimeter and underneath the basket. He has emerged as a solid presence to spell Marreese Speights and Marc Gasol at times in the Grizzlies’ frontcourt. Still, Cunningham would do himself well by bulking up and establishing a more physical post presence, as bigger guys often push him around.
Cunningham averaged 9.0 points and 4.0 rebounds on .508 shooting in 24.0 minutes in 22 games for the Bobcats last season after a midseason trade from the Portland Trail Blazers in February. He turned in 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds on .482 shooting in 31.7 minutes in nine starts with Charlotte, recording a career-high 21 points on April 1 at Orlando and April 11 at New Jersey.
Overall, the Villanova product averaged 6.2 points and 3.6 rebounds on .462 shooting in 78 appearances (18 starts) last season.
On getting to Memphis less than two days before the season began…“Everyday is getting better and better,” Cunningham said. “When you throw someone in just two days we start the games, it’s definitely going to be tough. I’ve had to learn a whole new offense, a whole new defense and gel a lot quicker with 14 or 15 other guys. Everyday has just been a lot easier and a lot better.”
On figuring out his role on the team…“Whenever coach puts me in, I just want to bring energy, defense, hustle and all the grit and the grind.”
On the attitude of winning in the Grizzlies’ locker room…“Winning is contagious. It’s just that feeling and that atmosphere. Once it gets into you, everyone wants a part of it.”
On continuing to win and improve for the rest of the season…“We have to continue to get better and evolve as the season goes on. It’s a long season, but the games are rapid. So, we have to continue to stay healthy and get better.”
Speights has seen the most minutes out of any of the Memphis newcomers, averaging 20.8 per game during the month of January. Standing at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Speights’ overpowering stature is what first drew the attention of the Grizzlies’ front office. It’s hard to replace a player like Zach Randolph – who prides himself as a bruiser down low – but Speights has seemingly taken to that role. Since joining the Grizzlies on Jan. 4, he has averaged 7.8 points per game to along with 6.1 rebounds while making 11 starts.
It would have been hard to envision that type of instant production given Speights’ reputation around the league as being lazy and “defensively challenged.” The guy couldn’t even get off the bench in the 76ers’ first four games, and rumors swirled about possible tension between Speights and Doug Collins, Philadelphia’s head coach. Prior to this season, Speights had seen his minutes and production decline in each of his three seasons in the league. In his best season—his second year—he put up an average of just over eight points and four rebounds per outing. Those numbers are comparable to what he’s done so far in Memphis.
Speights was a member of the 2006-07 Florida squad that won a second-consecutive NCAA title for the Gators, so being in a winning environment is not a new experience for the 24-year-old. For Speights, it seems that motivation has to come from the people around him, and that’s just what he’s found with the Grizzlies. In less than a year, Randolph, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and others have completely changed the culture of the locker room at FedExForum. Now, players are expected to win when they get to Memphis. And, for now, that’s just what Speights is doing.
On fitting in to the Grizzlies’ scheme…“I just come here and play hard every night. I have good teammates around me who welcome me anytime. There are great players on the court to play with and that kind of stuff. It’s been really good since I’ve been here.”
On the culture of winning in the Grizzlies’ locker room; “Definitely. Anywhere you win, a culture of winning exists. But, this team has an edge to it, and I like it.”
Do you see Memphis as a fresh start? “Yeah, it’s a fresh start to come to a new city and team and arena. I’ve had a chance to play, and that’s always good.”
On Dec. 24, Memphis made its first trade of the season by shipping Greivis Vasquez to the New Orleans Hornets in exchange for Quincy Pondexter, affectionately known as Q-Pon to many Memphians. With Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby both expected to see time backing up Mike Conley, Vasquez was the odd man out. In addition, acquiring Pondexter gave Memphis a versatile 6-foot-6 swingman that can play multiple positions and contribute in different ways—the type of player that head coach Lionel Hollins loves.
Since arriving in the Bluff City, Pondexter has filled multiple roles for the Grizzlies. He has averaged 15.1 minutes per contest while putting up 4.5 points and 2.3 rebounds each night. Pondexter’s value won’t be seen in the stat sheet, however. He sees himself as more of a glue guy—almost like a bigger version of Tony Allen.
The 23-year-old recorded 2.8 points and 1.3 rebounds on .406 shooting in 11.1 minutes in 66 games (six starts) as a rookie with the Hornets last season. He was originally taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 26th overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, but a draft-night deal sent Pondexter’s rights to New Orleans.
On adjust to Memphis and fitting in with the team… “I feel like I’m fitting in pretty well,” Pondexter said. “This team has a real goal of winning, so being a part of that has been amazing and a dream come true. I’m happy to be in this situation.”
Would you say there is a culture of winning in the locker room? “There is definitely a culture of winning in this locker room. It starts with players that have been there before. Last year left a taste in their mouth, and they want to get back to the playoffs. I was in the playoffs last year with New Orleans, and I know how that felt.”
(UPDATE: On February 13, Selby was sent down to play for the Reno Bighorns in the NBA Development League.)
A former McDonald’s All-American and highly-touted recruit out of high school, Selby has dealt with so many off the court issues in the past two years it’s easy to forget how much talent he has. Memphis selected Selby with the 49th overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft and subsequently signed him to a multi-year contract prior to the beginning of the season.
Selby is still finding his role on the team and has recently replaced Jeremy Pargo as the first backup to starting point guard Mike Conley. Flashes of Selby’s immense talent are frequently on display, but so too are glaring examples of his youth. Still, he has a positive assist-turnover ratio (2 assists per 1.7 turnovers), and that’s a good sign for a rookie. He’s currently averaging just under 12 minutes and four points per game, but it’s likely those numbers will go up if he continues to be the first option after Mike Conley.
On adjusting to the NBA… “I’m getting used to the point guard position and just learning the plays,” Selby explained. “I’m learning who I need to get the ball to, time management and all those things.”
On the culture of winning in the Grizzlies’ locker room… “Last year, (the Grizzlies) had a great year, so we are trying to do even better this year. That winning and attitude of competitiveness is in this locker room. When we are in here, everyone is just talking about and focusing on winning.”
On whom he looks to as a mentor or role model…“I look to everyone,” Selby said. “From Pargo to Speights to Z-Bo to Marc, Rudy, Sam, Tony—just everyone. I look to all of them because they’ve been here before, and I know I can learn different things from all those guys.”
On his flashy yellow shoes…“Everybody likes the color, so I just wear them for everyone that hits me up on Twitter. People say they like them.”
Preston McClellan covers the Grizzlies for MemphiSport. Follow him on Twitter @p_mcclellan.