Author's Note: Most of this was written before the Bayless/Courtney Lee trade, which is expected to be finalized today. It's still relevant. We'll have trade coverage up today, too.
Fans seemed to have a strong negative reaction to the game that Nick Calathes played in Denver on Friday night. Calathes entered the game late in the third quarter, when the Grizzlies were leading 69-66, struggling to find any sort of defensive execution against a Denver team that had lost 8 straight and was hungry to get a win, any win. When he left the game at 10:08 in the fourth, the Griz were down 84-77 and wouldn't ever regain a lead.
Calathes has been streaky at best and scared and terrible at worst. The high-water mark for Calathes so far may have been the early home win over Golden State, where Calathes was the solo backup point guard due to a Jerryd Bayless knee injury. Since then he's seen his minutes decrease, and when he's on the floor (which he hasn't been with any regularity since December 18th) his most frustrating and costly tendency has been to dribble around afraid to make a pass, afraid to shoot, afraid to do anything, ending in a shot clock violation with the ball still in his hands. Calathes subsequently lost the backup point guard spot to Jerryd Bayless, who struggles as a point guard, but doens't make as many outright mistakes.
So, when Calathes was inserted into the Denver game on Friday, with the Grizzlies up 3 and clinging to a narrow lead against a struggling team—a team who they beat just barely over a week ago in Memphis by a sizeable margin—largely because the world-famous Grizzlies defense apparently stayed behind at the team hotel in Phoenix, guess what he did: he panicked. He committed a shooting foul, had an assist and didn't accomplish a whole lot else. (The box score shows he had an ORtg of 241 and a DRtg of 128, but that's in 4:50, so... sample size, etc.)
But there's a reason the guy panicked in that situation: he's not used to that situation. Do you guys remember The Lionel Leash for young point guards? The one that everyone—you did it, too, don't act like you didn't—used to kill Lionel Hollins for on a regular basis as point guard project after point guard project saw his minutes dwindle and his confidence shatter to the point that he was traded late in the season (or immediately after) and replaced by some aging veteran who typically hadn't even been in the league? Remember Jamaal Tinsley, and Gilbert Arenas, and Keyon Dooling? And remember how excited we were for Josh Selby, Tony Wroten, Grievis Vasquez, the rest of the train of point guards that's rolled through? O.J. Mayo at backup point during a playoff series?
When a young player needs to adjust to the NBA game, there's only one way to do it: playing in NBA games.
It's not rocket science. If you want to get good at drawing, you have to draw. If you want to get good at writing, the only way to do it is to write. If you want to get better at NBA basketball, you have to play NBA basketball. If you're not very good, and you feel like you're blowing your one shot at making it in the league, because the coach benches you every time you screw up, guess what's going to happen when you get thrown in some random game in a tight spot after you've been sitting for weeks?
You're going to (1) be scared because you don't want to screw up and (2) you're going to screw up. And then you're going to find yourself sitting on the bench for another 20 days.
So yes, there's a reason Calathes—who showed pretty steady signs of becoming comfortable, especially in pick and roll situations with Ed Davis, even as he continued to occasionally make bad passes and brick free throws—hasn't improved much since early in the season: he hasn't played much since early in the season. If the Grizzlies want Calathes to develop his game and grow into a role as the backup point guard, they have to play him, even if it's just in limited minutes, on a consistent basis. If he screws up, yell at him, and put him back out there. Eventually he'll learn what he's doing.
You can't complain that Lionel Hollins never developed players and then not be willing to suffer some bad games from young players on the roster. You cannot have it both ways. For this team to be able to develop the young pieces that it can find—D-League guys like James Johnson, Euro guys like Calathes, second-rounders like current Mad Ant Jamaal Franklin (a move I support, by the way—keep the kid playing basketball)—they're going to have to see the court, even if it's just for five or seven minutes at a time. And they can't be on the Lionel Leash. Mike Conley used to make a lot of mistakes. His first couple of years, watching Mike Conley run around like an idiot was like chewing on aluminum foil. But guess what? Now he's one of the best point guards in the league, and certainly an invaluable piece of the Grizzlies' success recently.
Yes, it was because he was a great athlete with a great work ethic. Of course it is. But he got to use that work ethic during minutes on the basketball court, playing against the best in the league. Calathes will never improve unless he gets that same shot.