When the Grizzlies announced the signing of point guard Jerryd Bayless this past off-season, quite a few of us saw the move as the franchise finally clearing an enormous roster hurdle. It is no secret that the backup point guard spot has been a revolving door since Lionel Hollins took the reins in Memphis.
In spite of the fact that Bayless was about to bounce his way to his fourth team in just his fifth year of NBA service, his combination of the requisite athleticism and ability insinuated that he would fit the bill at the helm of the Grizzlies’ second unit offense. It finally appeared to be the case that the Grizzlies splurged on an adequate solution to the dilemma.
Now, some nine months later, if you were to measure the success of the Bayless acquisition against this expectation you would be somewhat hard-pressed to value it as all that much better than that of a Jeremy Pargo or Gilbert Arenas. Manning the point off the bench with facilitative intent absolutely proved not to be his strong suit.
“He’s not a Hollins point guard,” was something quite often overheard among fans of the team, and it wasn’t exactly an askew assessment. Even his most valiant moment, a game-winning jumper against the Cavaliers, found him the immediate recipient of a vicious tongue-lashing at the hands of the coach. He may have won the game, but he broke the script on the play and that didn’t sit well with the powers that be on the sidelines.
It would have been easy to write him off as a bust pickup nearing the mid-point of the season, as many had. There was a thread on the Grizzlies message boards entitled, “Things that are More Useful than Jerryd Bayless,” which featured suggestions such as “a cup with a hole at the bottom of it” and “the casket that holds Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.”
Then something happened that changed the trajectory of Bayless’s tenure with the team. On January 22nd, the Grizzlies traded Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, and Josh Selby to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In reaction to the deal, Coach Hollins came out and said something to the effect of “Tony Wroten becomes very important.” The 19 year old Wroten and 10-day contract signee Chris Johnson became the talk of the team, but it was Bayless who quietly stepped up to seize the opportunity that the loss of Ellington freed up at the two spot.
Up to that point, the Grizzlies had played 40 games and Bayless had logged a far-too-modest total of 202 points, scoring double digits in just three contests. The first night post-Ellington trade, he managed to put up 10 points in just 14 minutes. He then rode a streak of double digit outputs for nine straight games and began to establish himself as a regular name on the lips of the announcers and fans alike. On a larger scale, in the 36 games since the trade, he had already more than doubled up that 202 number, bringing his total to 650 points on the year.
Lately, Bayless has been looking fabulous playing the combo role on the floor with the starters. This is something Hollins didn’t do with true regularity until after the Rudy Gay trade. Instead of utilizing Bayless exclusively to spell Mike Conley, he’s been thrust into the lineup as a complement, which has seen exceptional results. Quincy Pondexter used to be the first to sub into the game, replacing Tony Allen, but Bayless has for the most part taken over that role as the primary guy to walk over to the scorer’s table.
We all know his go-to play at this point. That rounded lap just inside the circle – he’s got the ball, going to his right, curls around a screen (usually set by Marc Gasol), plants just above the free throw line, elevates, and it’s money in the bank from there. It’s his bread and butter. If that play doesn’t do the trick for you, it’s also fun as heck watching him climb the ladder to receive a back-door baseline alley-oop.
A glance over at his 82games.com profile highlights that his metrics fare much better when he plays the two-guard over the point, as do those of the Grizzlies. For instance, individually speaking, his effective field goal percentage jumps from 46.4% to 52.9%. From the team’s perspective, the net differential per 48 minutes swings from a -4.2 with Bayless at the point to +6.3 when he’s out there in the company of another point.
It’s also nice having him out there next to Conley because he’s competent enough to bring the ball up, which allows Mike to work off the ball, some. Freeing up Conley to play off the ball a bit not only takes some pressure off his back, but also provides some much needed diversification for the Grizzlies’ offensive attack with his shooting ability.
Against the Spurs this Monday night was a nice case study in this. Bayless had been scoring the well, going 7-10 from the field, and when the defense went to close in on him on the ball, he kicked it to a wide open Conley on the wing for three. As mentioned earlier, this was not Bayless’s first shade of late-game heroics, as he sank that game winner over the Cavs early in the season, and the monster three-pointer that sent the game against the Thunder into overtime a couple weeks ago.
During the first matchup with the Spurs this year, at his NYC rendezvous with the fans, Chris Wallace used two words to define to me his impression of Bayless. He called him a “confidence player.” By my interpretation, as such, the last thing you would want is for him to be playing the game inside his head. Playing with the starters as well as the bench has freed him up to focus on his own execution no matter whom he shares the floor with, as he is now comfortable with how his court-mates like to operate, and where they like to be.
Most importantly, however, he has earned the trust of Coach Hollins. Not only is he feeling more comfortable, himself, but he’s getting the opportunity to do so because he has made the coaching staff comfortable that he will stick to the game plan. Now upon heading to the sidelines, he is greeted by a high five from Hollins, instead of a steamed scolding.
Speaking of Hollins, we all know the key to his coaching heart… tough defensive play. All of my rambling about Bayless has been about his offensive production, but I would be remiss if I closed this out without mention of what he brings to the table on the other end of the court. The switch to a more shooting guard-heavy assignment has surprisingly rendered him more effective on the defensive end of the floor, from a numbers standpoint. You would think Bayless, a “little guy” by to NBA standards, to be a liability when matched up against bigger players, but man is he a bulldog. The story of this can be put on display by his opponent PER ratings. Per 82games, opposing point guards post a PER of 16.8 when matched up with Bayless, but shooting guards are held to a meager 9.6. The only drawback to his defensive approach is that he tends to foul off the ball more than you would like, but his physical style of defense allows him to compensate for the lack of vertical size, and the contact is a drain on his matchup.
To sum it up, he has arguably been playing the best ball of his career lately. It’s certainly the best we’ve seen of him in a Grizzlies uniform, and he has got to be feeling good about it. Right on time for the Grizzlies’ playoff push, he has settled into a role that is a simultaneous fit for him as well as the needs of the team. Hopefully the sore knee that kept him out of Sunday’s game is not serious and rest measures are precautionary, because his scoring presence is of necessity going forward. He has emerged as an unexpected hero and it is reflected in the overall offensive flow, his personal box score, and his demeanor. You can even catch him cracking a smile every now and again, which seemed unheard of back in December!
But who knows, maybe the magic’s just in the headband.