MEMPHIS – The source of David Fizdale’s insomnia has been a case of Chandler Parsons.
A month into the season, there are still restless nights when the Grizzlies’ second-year coach wrestles with balancing the encouraging progress Parsons has made and the patience required to sustain it.
So far, the process is on track.
“I’ve definitely lost some sleep at night, trying to figure out how to put it all together and get the most out of him,” Fizdale said of getting to this point in the Parsons experiment. “That’s what it’s about – putting him in a situation to help us. So, right now, that’s where the niche has been filled, with him coming off the bench and giving that second unit a big boost.”
From a production standpoint, veteran combo guard Tyreke Evans has been the Grizzlies’ most valuable bench player. Averaging 17.5 points a game, Evans is the NBA’s leading scorer among full-time reserves.
But when it comes to emotion, efficiency and spirit, a strong case can be made that Parsons just might be the backup providing Memphis the biggest boost. In a different role now as a reserve, at a different position, and playing under a different level of expectations, Parsons still has a solid impact on the team.
When the Grizzlies resume their five-game trip Saturday in Houston, Parsons will face the same Rockets who were victims of his best performance in a Memphis uniform. That came two weeks ago, when Parsons scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting in less than 19 minutes off the bench in a 103-89 win at FedExForum that improved Memphis to 5-1.
It was the sort of breakout teammates and fans – but mostly Parsons, himself – have been waiting to see since he was signed to a four-year, $94 million max deal in 2016 free agency.
During the game, I don’t even think about it anymore. Obviously, it’s always going to be something that’s going to kind of loom over me, and something that’s going to be controlled by (the training and coaching staffs). But honestly, I feel like I can do a whole lot more.
That initial season in Memphis started with Parsons rehabbing from the right knee surgery he underwent while with the Dallas Mavericks. And that first frustrating stretch with the Grizzlies ended in March, when he was shut down to undergo left knee surgery – his third procedure in as many years.
Parsons was switched from small forward to power forward in training camp and moved to the bench entering this season. The changes were designed to temper expectations and to help Parsons gradually build his way back into form with as little disruption as possible to the rotations and overall chemistry.
Turns out, Parsons has been anything but a disruption.
The Grizzlies have won seven of the nine games he’s played. Their two other losses came when he sat out of one end of back-to-back sets amid the team’s plans to avoid playing Parsons on consecutive nights. He’s also had his minutes limited to around 20 in games when he’s available.
That strategy is working. Parsons is shooting 48 percent from the field overall, and his 48.4-percent clip from three-point range is ninth-best in the league among players who entered the weekend with at least 30 attempts. He’s also averaging 7.7 points and 2.6 rebounds in 18 minutes.
“I feel like I can really help this team win games when I contribute, not just scoring, but passing the ball, rebounding and defending as well,” said Parsons, who also rates as one of the team’s most efficient defenders. “I think I’m continuing to make strides and getting lean and staying strong, doing all the right things off the court to keep up and maintain in these minutes. Eventually, we’ll keep going up.”
Yet, therein lies the struggle with Fizdale.
On one hand, the coaching and training staffs are thrilled with what they’ve seen from Parsons within the structured framework currently in place to maximize his production. On the other hand, there’s solid evidence that warrants Parsons’ desire to extend himself beyond the parameters and push for more.
That process grows even more complicated now that reinforcements are on the way, with swingman Ben McLemore and power forward JaMychal Green set to return from injuries as soon as Saturday’s game in Houston. McLemore is on the verge of making his Grizzlies debut after recovering from the offseason foot surgery he underwent after he signed in free agency last July. Green will be returning from the sprained foot and ankle he sustained four minutes into the Oct. 18 season opener.
Those are two additional players Fizdale aims to work into what had already been a 10-man rotation, although Green is expected to reclaim the starting power forward spot Jarell Martin has occupied.
And that leads to legitimate questions. Will it be Martin or Parsons bumped to third-string power forward, a spot likely outside of the rotation most nights? Will Parsons’ shots come as frequently with a shooter in McLemore joining a mix that also includes others already averaging double-figure attempts in Evans, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol?
Those answers will play out in the coming games and weeks. Fizdale welcomes the dilemma, but also believes Parsons has added significant value to the rotation.
“Obviously, we can’t win without him, as crazy as that is,” Fizdale said with a grin. “It’s the skillset that he brings to the table with his size that really gives us an added dimension. Every game, he gets more and more confident in his movements and hitting and shooting, making plays off the dribble.”
The previous game against Houston stands out because Parsons caught fire with his shooting stroke. But there was also the game he had two steals and blocked two shots in a win over the Clippers. Then, there were the team-high six assists against the Magic and those five rebounds against the Hornets.
In other words, Parsons has provided a little bit of everything.
And a lot of hope.
“I don’t think he’s exceeded what we expected, because we were around him a lot in the summer and we saw what he was doing,” Conley said of Parsons’ contributions. “We saw how he progressed from a year ago. So we expected what we’re getting. We expected him to be available, being able to play the minutes he’s playing and produce the way he’s producing. We feel he’s going to get even better.”
Parsons is coming off a season-high 22 minutes in Tuesday’s win at Portland and insists he’s ready for an incremental increase in playing time. But he also added that his role and opportunities remain largely out of his hands. He simply campaigns by putting in the work to produce in games, and then by following a routine with trainers to ensure his body recovers in time to do it again the next time he sees action.
“Those are the biggest indicators for me – some days I have more soreness than others, but for the most part, I feel great the day after (games),” Parsons said of staying relatively free of issues with his knees. “During the game, I don’t even think about it anymore. Obviously, it’s always going to be something that’s going to kind of loom over me, and something that’s going to be controlled by (the training and coaching staffs). But honestly, I feel like I can do a whole lot more.”
Parsons was then asked to place a percentage on his progressing health a month into the season.
“I would say about 75 or 80 (percent),” he shot back. “It keeps climbing up. I still have a lot more areas to get better at, but my cardio is great, my legs are great and I’m making shots. I know what I’m capable of when I’m feeling 90 to 100 percent. So being more comfortable, I’m always confident and look to continue building on this to where I’m playing my best basketball deeper into the season.”
Fizdale can look forward to more sleepless nights as he sorts everything out. One thing is for certain: he hasn’t hesitated to make bold moves with star players and his playing rotation. Last season, it wasn’t easy or necessarily popular to move beloved power forward Zach Randolph to the bench.
Fizdale did it anyway, and Randolph had one of his most efficient seasons in years before he departed in free agency. The decision this time around with Parsons was largely based on health, reliability and the freedom of mind and options to initially benefit the team and, eventually, the player.
In this role, Parsons has registered a positive plus-minus rating in eight of the nine games he’s played, which means the Grizzlies have generally outperformed their opponents in his minutes on the court.
“How do we maximize him and, at the same time, not put ourselves in a situation where we can’t build chemistry?” Fizdale reflected on his thought process a month ago regarding the approach with Parsons. “There’s a lot of stuff that weighs into this, man. Right now, his body will tell us when we can add more, when he can do more. But we’re going to take it a day at a time. And every day he’s on the court for me is a plus.”
Not factoring, of course, Fizdale’s sleep deficit.
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