New Grizz coach Taylor Jenkins has a blue-blood resume and a blue-collar style

by Geoff Calkins

Scott Jolly picked up his phone and tapped out a text message.

He had just witnessed Taylor Jenkins, one of his former high school players at St. Mark’s School in Dallas, become a hilarious internet meme.

Jenkins had risen to become an assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks. During a playoff game against Detroit, Jenkins came flying off the bench to restrain the rest of the Milwaukee players when Sterling Brown got into it with Detroit’s Andre Drummond.

Only catch?

None of the Milwaukee players showed the slightest interest in joining the fray. Jenkins was holding back air.

“The rest of the world is discovering what I have long known,” Jolly texted Jenkins. “You were a great defensive player. So glad we worked on defensive stance and step slides at basketball camp and at St. Mark’s.”

Jenkins texted back: “They caught me on camera but I never lost my player identity. Defensive, baby!”

So that is the guy the Memphis Grizzlies have hired to be their ninth head coach. A 34-year-old Milwaukee assistant. A former high school player who never played college ball and got a degree in economics from the University of Pennsylvania’s famed Wharton School. But a man who, at his core, believes in taking care of the blue-collar fundamentals.

“I would say that is the Taylor I know, taking his job seriously,” said Jolly. “Memphis got a really good one as their head coach.”

Which remains to be seen, of course. Memphis was said to have gotten a really good one in David Fizdale and a really good one in J.B. Bickerstaff and a really good one in Marc Iavaroni. They each lasted less than than two years.

You never know with head coaches, especially rising assistants. For every Mike Budenholzer there’s an Iavaroni, for every Nick Nurse there’s a Bickerstaff.

The easy thing to say about Jenkins is that the Grizzlies’ front office picked someone who looked just like them. Team president Jason Wexler went to the University of Virginia and Columbia Law School. General manager Zach Kleiman went to USC and Duke Law School.  Vice president Rich Cho is a former Boeing engineer who went to Pepperdine Law School. Senior adviser Glen Grunwald is a former Indiana player who went to Northwestern Law School.

So of course they put their heads together and chose the guy who went to a fancy private school in Dallas and got a degree in economics from Penn.

Indeed, Jenkins got his big break – a summer internship with the San Antonio Spurs – because his grandmother happened to know Spurs owner Peter Holt.

“Connections are a big thing in this business,” Jenkins told an interviewer back in 2012, which is absolutely true.

And yet they can only take you so far. Connections may be the reason Jenkins got his summer gig in San Antonio. They’re not the reason he was invited back. They’re not the reason the Spurs made him head coach of their G-League team, the Austin Toros. They’re not the reason Budenholzer took Jenkins along with him when he got the head coaching job in Atlanta and then again when he moved from Atlanta to Milwaukee.

You think Gregg Popovich puts people in charge of player development because of connections? You think Budenholzer trusts his career to someone because they went to the right school?

No, Jenkins advanced from Spurs intern to Grizzlies head coach by being superb at his job. He was known as a grinder in Atlanta and Milwaukee, the coach in charge of all the little details. 

“As a coach, you’re like, what can I do to help our team win ball games whether it’s the scouting reports, player development or even a simple moment like that,” Jenkins said in an interview with The Athletic after the Detroit incident. “To let that slip through cracks when you’re right next to it and you could possibly prevent it, you have to show that responsibility.”

None of this comes as the slightest surprise to Jolly, who is flying in for Wednesday’s press conference, and who knows Jenkins as well as anyone.

“The back story is that I was actually at a rival school in Dallas from which his father graduated,” Jolly said. “So I started coaching Taylor in summer camps in third grade. Then, when I became the coach at St. Mark’s, I got to coach him again. He was a three-year starter on some very good teams.”

And what kind of player was he?

“He was brilliant,” Jolly said. “And he played bigger than he was at 6-3. Great rebounder, great defender. A natural leader. One of those tough, gritty guys.”

So maybe this will prove to be a perfect fit. Maybe Jenkins will be the one to show Jaren Jackson Jr. and (presumably) Ja Morant the way to the playoffs.

The Grizzlies need someone to stop their streak of short-term coaches.

Jenkins seems ready to leap to the job.