They Were Hustlin’ From the Start
Going into their second year of existence, the Memphis Hustle have been getting a lot of preseason hype. Again. Last year, they had a lot going for them: new team, new name, new court, new logo, new jerseys, and new prospects for the Grizzlies. Then, the introduction of Two-Way contracts in the new CBA paved the way for the excitement of former Arizona bucket-getter Kobi Simmons and a familiar name in Vince Hunter.
The hottest name in the front office right now is Chris Makris; well, he served as the Hustle GM before those duties were passed down to Daniel Marcus as Makris shot up the chain of command. Marcus has been with the Grizzlies since he was hired as a basketball operations analyst in 2013, according to realgm.com. In addition to being the Hustle GM, he is also the director of basketball analytics. But before he took over, Makris was able to do a number of things that continued to get Memphis fans excited for the inaugural season of the Hustle.
The first may have been hiring the former University of Memphis Tigers assistant basketball coach, and the former Grizzlies Scout and Director of Pro Personnel, and the former Oklahoma State Cowboys assistant basketball coach who recruited Tony Allen, Glynn Cyprien, as the Head Coach for the Hustle’s inaugural season. Although, you won’t see him on the sidelines any more after he announced back on July 9th that he was hired to be an assistant coach under Chris Beard at Texas Tech.
While he was at the University of Memphis, Tubby Smith neglected and failed to do one thing that Memphis basketball fans hold dear: keep Memphis talent in Memphis. As Makris, Marcus, and company formed the Hustle roster, there were a lot of names coming out as possibilities for the team. Sure, a lot of it was just a few fans who may have not known what they were talking about, but people were still excited especially after the expansion draft that gave Hustle the G-League rights of Jimmer Fredette, Omari Johnson, and Marquis Teague.
The latter two became solid starters for Coach Cyprien and were even call-ups to the Grizzlies. Johnson averaged 16.5 points and 6.4 rebounds and started 36 out of the 44 games he played. Teague ended the season starting 47 out of 47 games. He came in, got 17.6 points and led the team in assists at 6.1. The two didn’t do much while on the Grizzlies’ main roster though. Johnson hit a shot here and there, but it wasn’t about what they brought to the court as much as it was what the Grizzlies could’ve done to pay the two G-League journeymen a little extra for their service.
As far as the Two-Way players went, Kobi Simmons quickly gained favor with the Hustle’s marketing team. He was plastered everywhere. The other Two-Way player, Vince Hunter, got nowhere near the amount of attention that Kobi did because of the three-month difference between them signing. Plus, Kobi is a fast guard who is really good at scoring. That’s a lot more exciting than the bang-it-down-low power forward that Hunter was. Hunter may have been familiar to a few fans because he was a member of the Grizzlies Summer League team and was in training camp fighting for a spot between during the summer and fall of 2016.
Eventually, Vince Hunter was dropped, and the Grizzlies brought on Myke Henry, who was previously a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G-League team, the OKC Blue. Henry, another scoring guard like Kobi, was a part of the training camp for Team USA’s World Cup qualifying team. Then Henry was waived toward the end of July, and the Japanese-born phenom out of George Washington University Yuta Watanabe was brought in as the replacing Two-Way player.
On August 28, it was announced that Watanabe would continue as the lone Two-Way player with the waiving of Kobi Simmons. Kobi went on to have a brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers before being cut alongside Emanuel Terry and Bonzie Colson on October 13. Former Memphis Tiger, DJ Stephens now fills the other Two-Way Contract.
Of the finalized opening roster, the rotation worked out to include Simmons, Teague, Johnson, Austin Nichols, Jordan Crawford, Dusty Hannahs, and Ivan Rabb. Yes, that’s the Ivan Rabb from the main roster. In Rabb’s rookie season last year, he spent 18 games with the Hustle and was quickly a fan favorite with his style of play that even drew Tim Duncan comparisons. In those 18 games, Rabb averaged a 19.6 point and 12.2 rebounds off of 56.5% shooting. One thing you may not know about the relationship between an NBA team and its G-League affiliate is this, for a main roster player to practice, travel, or play with the affiliate team, he has to be officially recalled and assigned to and fro. It soon became comical but enlightening to see that Rabb was assigned and recalled 36 times over the season, according to BasketballReference.com.
As the Grizzlies began to “shift toward player development” in January or so, Rabb was seen a lot less often in Southaven, as he was with the main roster. To fill his minutes Chance Comanche stepped in to fill the gap. Before he went undrafted in the 2017 draft, he played two seasons at Arizona as a backup center. Ryan Kelapire, with SBNation’s Arizona Desert Swarm, suggested that this sudden decision may have been due to a limited allotment of future minutes at center behind the incoming, and 2018 number one overall pick in the draft, Deandre Ayton and Dušan Ristić, who was already ahead of Comanche in the rotation. As rapidly as the Grizzlies’ season fell off in November, Chance arguably became the Hustle’s best prospect in terms of how he could develop. Geoff Langham said it best:
“Through the team’s first 15 games, he made 11 appearances and averaged just 3.9 points and 3.0 rebounds. Over his next 10 games, he averaged 12.1 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 62.0 percent from the field and scoring in double figures seven times, including two performances of 20-or-more.”
Comanche continued to post nearly the same, occasionally better, numbers as Ivan Rabb. He set a season high of 33 points, in a 118 -112 loss to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants on January 27, 2018, off of 15-16 field goals with 9 rebounds.
The Hustle as a team simply played an exciting yet numbing brand of basketball. Consistently high scoring offense and really poor defense. Over the season, Memphis averaged 114.3 points per game (7th most in the G League) while giving up 116 (4th worst in the G League). The team scored 130 points or six times. Their best night on offense came on Friday, March 23, 2018, with a final score of 141 - 118 over the South Bay Lakers in the Landers Center on the first night of a back-to-back to end the season. That win capped off the longest win streak for the Hustle at four games.
Despite everything this team had in their favor, it showed the fans and those paying attention just how hard it is to win and stay consistent in the G-League. The Hustle finished the season with a 21 and 29 record, good enough for last in their division and second to last in the Western Conference. But after some significant changes, it’s time for season two. A new season, new coach, and new roster.