Team USA staff, players confident Jenkins will prove ideal fit as Grizzlies new coach
by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media
LAS VEGAS – The reality will hit home the first time a skirmish erupts on the court next season.
That’s when it’ll truly sink in.
That’s when Khris Middleton will grasp that a major presence on the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench is no longer around to restore order and keep everyone in line for the team that posted the NBA’s best record last season. Taylor Jenkins was many things for the Bucks as one of the top assistants on reigning NBA coach of the year Mike Budenholzer’s staff. His role as chief protector in times of trouble is open in Milwaukee, with the 34-year-old Jenkins now three months into his first head coaching job with the Grizzlies.
Middleton still laughs when he reflects on when Jenkins became a viral sensation.
During a playoff game against Detroit in April, cameras caught Jenkins leaping in front of the Bucks’ bench, with arms and legs spread wide, to ensure players wouldn’t enter the court as a fracas ensued on the floor. That instinctive action prevented Milwaukee’s players from being subject to a potential $50,000 league fine for leaving the bench, and an even costlier one-game suspension in the postseason.
“When that first scuffle breaks out, we’re still going to be looking for him to see where he’s at and to make sure he’s on his job,” Middleton told Grind City Media through a reminiscing smile. “That was our guy, always trying to protect our money (from fines) and protect his job. Each time, he was making sure of that. So we’ll always love him for that.”
Count Middleton among those at the USA National Team’s training camp who are confident Grizzlies' players and fans will quickly embrace Jenkins, too. From second-year NBA forward John Collins to five-time NBA champion coach Gregg Popovich, those connected to Team USA who have worked with Jenkins agree on the engaging characteristics the Grizzlies will see in their new coach.
By all accounts, Jenkins blends a surgeon-like attention to detail with an in-your-face intensity. The Grizzlies and the league saw signs of that last month in Las Vegas. Three weeks after taking the job, Jenkins guided Memphis to the MGM Resorts Summer League championship while still working to finalize his staff and with No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant sitting out as a precaution.
The Grizzlies open training camp next month with a team that underwent sweeping changes to the front office, roster and coaching staff. The transitioning franchise is run by one of the NBA’s youngest owners in Robert Pera and directed by one of the league’s youngest top basketball executives in Zach Kleiman. The Grizzlies also now have the NBA’s second-youngest coach in Jenkins and a team built for the future around 19-year-olds in second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and Morant.
Many around the league agree with the conclusion the Grizzlies reached in their coaching search – that Jenkins is equipped to set a solid foundation and rapidly develop young talent from the ground up.
Popovich saw that potential when Jenkins first arrived in San Antonio as a college intern in basketball operations and eventually grinded along a path to coaching the Spurs’ G League affiliate in Austin. At the time, Jenkins was at the back end of a Popovich pipeline that would soon churn out future coaches, including Monty Williams (Suns), Brett Brown (Sixers), Quin Snyder (Jazz), Mike Budenholzer (Bucks) and James Borrego (Hornets).
He has a really high basketball IQ, but it goes beyond so much more than that. He really just wants what’s best for the players. He’s going to go that extra mile, take guys and teach them exactly what they need to be taught to get them ready. - Brook Lopez
“He’s just like everybody else we’ve had that’s moved on, in that pretty quickly into our time with him, you could see that he was highly intelligent,” Popovich told Grind City Media of Jenkins, who pursued a coaching career after attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “But more than anything, he had an ability to deal with people and create relationships. He went to Austin to coach and was an assistant in the beginning. But, his relationships with people stood out in the way he taught and how quickly (players) learned. You knew he had something because they respected him.”
Taylor Jenkins head coach of the Austin Toros talks to his team during practice on December 19, 2012 at the San Antonio Spurs practice facility in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Chris Covatta via Getty Images.
After taking the Memphis job in June, Jenkins talked about the mindset that drove him from intern to coaching the Toros through perennial G League playoff runs.
“The mentality was to keep my head down, grind and soak up as much information as I could,” Jenkins said the day he was hired by the Grizzlies. “It’s your time to make your mark. Experimentation was huge. Even at the NBA level, we’re going to be innovative. So it's from having that exposure to be able to go and try new things with Xs and Os. It was working with the Spurs, doing a lot of what they wanted me to instill.”
After six years working in the Spurs’ organization, Jenkins moved on to join Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta. With a motion offense, predicated on spacing the floor with prolific three-point shooting and versatile playmakers, the Hawks sent four players to the All-Star game during the 2014-15 season and posted the East’s best record at 60-22. Jenkins is bringing some of that same philosophy and approach to Memphis.
Two seasons later, the Hawks went into a rebuilding season after drafting Collins in the first round. A member of the USA Select Team this week, Collins spent his rookie season with Jenkins in Atlanta and remembers how persistent the then-Hawks assistant was about every minor aspect of development. He knows exactly the kind of coach and personality the Grizzlies are getting.
His relationships with people stood out in the way he taught and how quickly (players) learned. You knew he had something because they respected him.Gregg Popovich
“He’s very big on attention to detail, which most coaches on this level are,” Collins said. “But he’ll be very nitpicky, almost to the level of a perfectionist. He’s young, but he’s got a bit of that old-school edge to him, which I like at times. He’ll definitely fit the mold down there in Memphis. He’ll do the city well.”
Collins, a 6-10 versatile power forward, became one of only a handful of players in NBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds in his second NBA season. Jenkins will be coaching another burgeoning prospect of similar size and skill set in Jackson, who is coming off an All-Rookie First Team campaign. Collins and Jackson, who is also on the USA Select Team, have worked together this week and shared notes.
“For the early stages of my career, (Jenkins) was sort of laying the foundation for me and was very instrumental,” Collins said of what he’d tell Jackson about Jenkins. “Obviously, you see him now as a head coach. I didn’t see it coming as quickly as it did, but I definitely knew with the position he had in Atlanta, something like this was on the horizon for him. It was earlier than some may have expected, but it means he’s overachieving. His young team might take that mindset, too.”
If any coach can make a seamless transition from a team contending for a NBA championship to now leading one that’s in the midst of retooling around top young talent, it’s Jenkins. Brook Lopez believes it after seeing the way Jenkins conducted business with the Bucks this past season.
Whether it was the last player on the bench or reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jenkins demanded the same level of accountability and work ethic when it came to improvement. Those traits tend to translate.
“In Memphis now, he obviously has a lot of young guys and it’s going to be great for their development and for player development in general,” said Lopez, the Bucks’ center who is anchoring the post for Team USA. “He has a really high basketball IQ, but it goes beyond so much more than that. He really just wants what’s best for the players. He’s going to go that extra mile, take guys and teach them exactly what they need to be taught to get them ready. It’s going to be a good situation for those guys in Memphis.”
Middleton couldn’t agree more.
“He’s not afraid to pull you to the side and just talk to you sometimes, whether it’s good or bad,” he said of Jenkins. “He’s a student of the game and learner, but he also shares so much. He’s detailed-oriented, which is great. It was good for us last year, and it’s should be great for them this year.”
The same sharp intensity and instincts Jenkins drew from as an assistant to protect Milwaukee's bench are now be used in Memphis to run his own.