First-year Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins dives into analytics, staff collaboration and dealing with conflict

By Peter Edmiston

“I hope you can hear me OK, I’m in the airport.”

Finding out that you’re becoming a first-time head coach is exciting. But there’s an awful lot to do to get ready. And that’s why Taylor Jenkins was in transit as he spoke exclusively to The Athletic. Jenkins was in the process of moving his family to Memphis, a major life change that only adds to the list of things he’s already had to do in just a few short months.

He led the Grizzlies to an NBA Summer League championship while simultaneously interviewing candidates to be on his staff. He was evaluating players and coaches alike, all while getting acclimated to a new employer, new surroundings, and a roster that was continually changing during his time in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Now, having settled on a coaching staff, Jenkins had more pressing family things to deal with — and if you talk to Jenkins for more than five minutes, you’ll hear him mention family. He’s very much a family man, and had family in mind as he put his staff together.

Jenkins has six assistant coaches, four of them new to the organization.

  • Brad Jones was the head coach of the Memphis Hustle, and was Jenkins’ boss as head coach of the Austin Toros less than a decade ago.

  • Vitaly Potapenko was on J.B. Bickerstaff’s coaching staff last season, and worked with Jenkins this summer.

  • Notre Dame associate head coach Niele Ivey is the first female assistant coach in Grizzlies history, and the ninth in the NBA. She went to seven Final Fours and won a title during her time on legendary Irish head coach Muffet McGraw’s staff.

  • Scoonie Penn was an Ohio State legend on the court and the Buckeyes’ Director of Player Development off it.

  • David McClure was coached by Jenkins in Austin and went on to be an assistant coach focusing on player development for the Indiana Pacers.

  • Neven Spahija shared a coaching staff with Jenkins under Mike Budenholzer in Atlanta, and was coach of Croatia’s national team and other international club teams.

It’s a diverse staff, to be sure, and the six coaches were hired by Jenkins in consultation with the front office, led by Zach Kleiman, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations. Jenkins volunteered McClure, Jones, and Spahija, while Kleiman and others suggested Ivey and Penn. Potapenko, of course, was the only true holdover from the previous staff.

As you’ll read, Jenkins is a thoughtful guy, and he was willing and excited about working in concert with the front office on his coaching hires. He’s far more open and conversant with analytics than your run-of-the-mill NBA coach, and certainly more than any previous Grizzlies head coach. It’s easy to see in the meticulous way he outlines his development plans what led the Grizzlies to hire him as the leader of their young group, and now he’s finalized his assistants.

In Part 1 of our conversation, Jenkins took the time to explain the hiring process, his collaboration with the front office, his use of analytics in evaluation and development, and much more. In Part 2, he will introduce you to each assistant individually.

Now that the process is over, how did you go about making the decision on who would be part of your staff?

When Zach (Kleiman) and I first sat down during my head coaching interview, we talked a lot about the types of people we wanted on a coaching staff. Obviously, there was going to be a collaborative effort in terms of Zach bringing candidates to the table, me bringing candidates to the table, and us vetting out everybody. It was a long process, but at the end of the day, we wanted to make sure we got people that are going to fit when you put a staff together.

We’ve got six great coaches now. You can’t just get six all at the same time, you’ve got to vet them all out, think about their strengths in certain areas, on the court and off the court. Zach and I interviewed every single candidate together. Parts of his group, Tayshaun (Prince), Rich Cho, Chris Makris, they were heavily involved. I spent a lot of one-on-one time with each of the candidates as well, from phone interviews to meeting in person in Vegas, in Memphis, and ultimately coming down to the point where we made the decisions.

Were the interviews as much personal stuff as pure coaching philosophy?  

For me, the No. 1 thing I wanted to accomplish, and Zach wanted to accomplish, was getting good people. To that personal perspective, we would spend hours with these candidates. Some I’ve known previously. Vitaly was kind of unique because we spent three or four weeks together in summer league, with player workouts before it even got started. I’ve had exposure to the majority of the staff already, which is great. But to be able to go to dinner with them, break bread, talk about their families, their own journeys, what they value in a coaching staff, and to ask them questions outside of Xs and Os was a great deal for me, how they were going to fit into this staff, how they were excited about our direction.

Then we got to the point of going up to the board, talking Xs and Os, I kind of wanted to see what they believed in offensively, defensively, player development-wise, scouting, see what makes them tick, and then see how that fit with my philosophy. I also wanted to let them know that this is how we’re going to play, this is the motion offense we’re going to play, pace and space, then defensively these are our core tenets, and this is how I see the player development program going.

At the end of all that, you get a real strong feel for how they are as people, how important family is to them, how important the staff is to them, how important they’re going to be to me on and off the court. Since we’re going to travel together, laugh and cry together, that was important to me.

There has been some talk about how your staff is going to be more collaborative, that there won’t be a traditional hierarchy. Will that be the case? How do you see responsibilities being allocated among your staff?

I mean, Brad will be our lead assistant. In terms of the hierarchy, what I love about the makeup of this staff is, yes, there will be coaches on the front of the bench and coaches behind the bench, but for me, everyone’s going to have equal responsibility. All six assistant coaches — I haven’t come up with the best term yet — are all going to serve like a department chair role. One coach will oversee our player development program, one coach will oversee advanced scouting for opponent preparation, one’s going to oversee our analytics program, one will oversee our G League process, working with our medical team as well. Everyone’s going to take ownership of something big and major for our basketball program. All six assistant coaches are going to have a significant role on a daily basis.

I expect everyone to be doing player development, scouting opponents, presenting in front of the team, I expect everyone to be getting all the analytics outputs that we’re requesting and working with the front office analytics team on, we’re going to have an internal (analytics department) in our video room as well, so that everyone’s up to speed on what our team is doing and what the players are doing. Everyone’s got significant engagement in our practices, everyone has a voice, they’re taking ownership with certain drills or certain elements of offense or defense. What I’ve been exposed to with Coach Pop (Gregg Popovich) and Coach Bud (Mike Budenholzer) is that organically, you just empower everyone to have a role in everything. I want someone to take the lead on each of the departments, as I call them, in our coaching scheme, but everyone will have a daily role in all those areas. Down the road, they may take over a different department as changes happen on the staff.

The Grizzlies won the NBA Summer League title. (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

Do you like a little bit of an adversarial environment in your coaches’ room? Do you want it to be a little combative when you have disagreements, or do you want everyone to kind of try to get along?

I want to create an environment where everyone feels valued and has a voice, not just in front of me, but also in front of our players. I want to let the environment evolve naturally, me at the helm, like what I’ve seen Bud do for the last six years, what Pop has done for decades, I think it just really empowers the coaches. I’m the one who has to make the final call, but I’m going to be taking votes across the room on a multitude of topics. I want to create that forum, where it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or 10th-plus year in the NBA, your opinion matters. I know you’ve studied the game, I know you’re passionate, you’re strong-minded, I want you to challenge me and bring new ideas to the table.

That was what I like to think one of my big roles was, like all the assistants in Milwaukee and Atlanta, we wanted to challenge Bud. There were times we agreed with him, but there were plenty of times we disagreed, and we wanted to help him grow just as much as he was helping us grow. It kind of goes hand in hand. Having some of those heated dialogues are healthy, because if we have a strong personal relationship where we’re invested in each other, that investment then shows to our players. We’re able to challenge each other because we want this program to grow. As the NBA changes, players change, the rules change, I want new and fresh ideas, I want everyone thinking and challenging themselves so that they’re growing. I benefit the most from that because I’m getting it from all six assistant coaches.

How do you get the best out of your coaching staff? How do you deal with internal conflict and disagreements?

One of the big roles of the head coach is to create situations where you challenge your assistant coaches, it’s not the mundane routine tasks of the entire season, ‘Here’s how we’re going to scout’, ‘Here’s the player development plan for the day.’ Instead, you start throwing some curveballs out there, get everyone to think. We’re going on a coaches’ retreat at the end of the month, and that’s going to be our first time as an entire group to really bunker down, start throwing out all the things we want to kick off the season with. Over the course of the season, you’re naturally going to have occasional problems, but you prepare yourself in how to handle those situations.

It might be a problem I have to solve or a player matter, but everyone’s diverse backgrounds — playing in the NBA, playing overseas, playing in college, coaching in college, playing in the WNBA — all of that is going to benefit me in the long run because it shows the passion over a long period of time with our coaches. What we’re trying to grow in Memphis is that daily approach to how we’re building something, knowing it’s not going to happen overnight. It’s a daily, yearly process. In speaking with all the candidates, saying here’s our plan — and that’s why it was great to have Zach involved, to be able to deliver that same message as to where we want this thing to go — are you going to be able to buy into it? Everyone’s excitement made me excited, knowing that I’m going to have a group of people that are going to challenge me.

As a coach, how do you envision utilizing data and specific analytics to inform your decisions? How open are you to input from the front office? 

Yeah, I think it’s kind of a two-way street, where as a coaching staff, as we’re having all our meetings trying to identify areas for improvement, we’ll obviously deliver those to the front office. We’ll have this big general meeting at the start of the season and sit down with the analytics team on the front office side and say, ‘Hey, we want you to have another set of eyes, where you’re tracking all these team and individual things, styles of play, trends of the NBA, and not completely dictated by the coaching staff. If you guys are seeing something, tell us.’

That’s the beauty of a coaching staff, right? Now we’ve got seven sets of eyeballs on the team, myself and six assistants, and I want that same thing coming from our front office and our analytics team. They’ll be bringing something to the table, after every single game, we’ll have an output for sure, there will be some kind of trend on a weekly basis, or 5- and 10-game increments. For our players, we’ll do the same thing where we’ll be having these large, bi-weekly meetings among the coaches, the analytics team, and our medical team to see how players are progressing towards the goals we’ve set out, and having those routine check-ins, too.

With analytics, you need to have the right sample sizes, but I do want to be aggressive in how we filter all this information. Then we have to figure out how to disseminate the appropriate information to our team to give them an education. Analytics is huge — I’m using this phrase again — as another set of eyes to help you identify what you’re doing well and where you have an opportunity to grow. There’s so many things you can work on that you can’t accomplish everything. But it’s a process to try to get players to master different steps, or for our team to become really good in certain areas of offense or defense, and identify that next thing we can work on. It excites me that there’s a strong effort on the front office side to try and engage us, and to me, it’s not just one-sided. I want to constantly learn because the game is evolving, so having people that are more versed in analytics to help us as coaches see the game differently. We can come up with new ideas and suggestions for research, and it can only benefit us in the long run.

Ivan Rabb closes out and contends on defense in summer league. (Jeff Swinger / USA Today)

Though the amount and use of data has come a long way in a short time, it still seems to me as though most of the analytics and metrics around defense have some limitations. How do you analyze defense for your team and for individual players? Is there a way to talk more accurately about player defense? How will you evaluate it?

I’d say it’s definitely worth exploring more. One of the biggest areas that we figured out last year in Milwaukee, and I think more teams are doing it, is shot quality. You’ve got the four factors, how you are with defensive effective field goal percentage, rebounding, are you turning teams over, but at the end of the day, what shots are you giving up? Are you giving up layups? Are you giving up threes? Or are you giving up mid-range, non-paint twos? We got that on a day-to-day basis, after every single game, and that helps us to see that our defense was in a good spot.

We’re going to utilize someone on our video staff that will work directly with our analytics lead on the coaching staff, and obviously the front office as well, to really dive into what our schemes and principles are, so we’re all speaking the same language, and on a game-to-game basis we’ll have an in-house resource that will be able to chart every single possession defensively, and offensively too. How did we execute our center field pick-and-roll coverage? How did we execute our basic man to man, no-middle defense? Transition defense? It’s just another way to put data on it, where as coaches we watch every single game and use the film to teach from the positive and areas to improve, but now we have numbers that we can track, so that we know what we need to emphasize on film and in practice. We’re also going to work on our main tenets — what, at the end of the day, from an individual and team standpoint, impacts winning? What are winning plays and what are non-winning plays?

It was really important for me to coach the team in summer league because I wanted everyone to hear my voice. My voice is going to be our voice. It’s what our standards are. We’ve got members of our performance staff back there yelling, ‘No middle, no middle, no middle!’ It’s all the things we get the players to chirp out while they’re out there on the court or on the bench. So we’re all speaking the same language. And if we can put some numbers behind it, to give it a little more oomph, that’s part of that education I was talking about. When we’re sitting in front of the team or a player, we’ve got more substance to our teaching philosophies or directives.

But really, there is so much randomness in basketball. Your coverage didn’t work. Why? Well, because they hit a three. But it’s like because of the screening angle before the pick and roll, our guy chased and did it perfectly, then the guy went early and the screen was slipped, like there’s so many factors. There are so many situations that can crop up. One of the best lines I ever learned from Bud is, ‘Shit happens.’ Sometimes you do everything perfectly and the guy hits a shot. That’s why I think basketball is so beautiful.