The Florida Gators will continue their quest for a third national title Thursday night in FedExForum.
No one, it seems, is pleased by that more than Memphis Grizzlies backup point Nick Calathes.
“I’m happy for the Gators,” Calathes told MemphiSport. “I’m happy for coach (Billy) Donovan. I think they have a chance to really go far. They have a bunch of seniors. They have a deep bench and coach Donovan got them rolling.”
That the top-ranked Gators, the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed who will face UCLA, will continue postseason play in the same venue where Calathes play home games as pro is a microcosm of how well things have gone of late for the Memphis rookie.
The NBA announced recently that Calathes, who starred at Florida from 2007-2009, was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in February. For the 25-year-old Calathes, who was presented with his award prior to Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, receiving such an honor in front of a sellout FedExForum crowd was a moment of redemption, or sorts, for an NBA newcomer who wasn’t a fan favorite during the season’s early stages.
That was evident during the Grizzlies’ home game against Oklahoma City December 11. After checking into the game midway through the third quarter of Memphis’ 116-100 loss, Calathes was met by scattered boos from fans.
As if the unpleasant reception wasn’t enough, the loss began a season-long five-game winless streak for the Grizzlies. Calathes, meanwhile, was trying to find his niche on a Memphis team that was hampered by a slew of injuries and out of playoff contention.
“Man, it’s been a long time, it’s been an up and down year for sure,” Calathes said.
Still, Calathes, a two-time Florida Mr. Basketball and McDonald’s All-American, didn’t seem affected by the early-season heckling from the hometown fans. If nothing else, he used the unpleasant welcome as motivation, given the resilience he has exhibited since the season’s halfway point.
After the Grizzlies on January 7 traded then-backup point guard Jarryd Bayless to Boston for veteran Courtney Lee, Calathes became the relief man to Mike Conley.
He didn’t disappoint.
Instead, February turned out to be a coming-out-party, of sorts, for the Casselbury, Florida native who holds Greek citizenship. While producing the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA for that month, Calathes was second among Western Conference rookies in scoring (10.7 ppg) and assists (apg). Also, he was tied for second in rebounds (3.6 rpg) and was second among NBA rookies in field goal percentage (.495) and steals (1.75 spg).
How to explain the swift progress for a rookie who Grizzlies fans had essentially written off less than one month into the season?
“I think the trade helped me out when they traded Jarryd,” Calathes said. “That gave me an opportunity to play a lot more and I just tried to take full advantage of it and I knew my teammates began to have more confidence in me.”
Conley, the Grizzlies’ longest-tenured player, was among those who felt the harsh reaction Calathes acquired from fans was uncalled for.
“I hated the boos and all that stuff that were geared toward Nick because we all were playing bad,” Conley said. “It wasn’t just one person. It was a collective effort. It was like they were looking for someone to blame and that’s not the case. And I’m so happy he got his chance to show people what he can do and to show people those boos weren’t warranted.”
Two months removed from having been installed as Conley’s backup, Calathes’ surge is among the reasons the Grizzlies are back in playoff contention as they begin a season-long five-game road trip starting Wednesday night at Utah.
Having won 15 of its last 20, Memphis (42-28) is currently seventh in the Western Conference standings with 12 regular-season games remaining.
“He’s done good job of running the team,” Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger said of Calathes. “He took care of the basketball. He still played his game. He’s just been a little more aggressive. He’s great in the pick and roll, a lot better defender than people think. He plays his position and he uses his size, which is good. He’s been great for us.”
Drafted with the 45th picked by Minnesota in the second round in 2009, Calathes — who was traded to Memphis last summer after a brief stint with the Dallas Mavericks — is now a fan favorite in FedExForum. That was evident before Saturday’s game.
“It’s always great to hear that,” Calathes said of the boos. “It obviously gets me going as a player. But fans are going to be fans. All I can do is go out and give my best. We’re all blessed to have an opportunity to play.”
An opportunity that, to his credit, hasn’t gone unnoticed in this, his first year in the NBA.
So much for the scattered boos.