The Memphis Hustle and the TA Approach
Basketball is a universal language. This year’s Memphis Hustle team and staff have made that sentiment evident by bonding in the imprints left from former three-time all-defensive 1st team wing, Tony Allen.
On November 4, 2017, the Memphis Hustle tipped off for the first time ever, and Tony Allen was in a Pelicans jersey facing off against the Chicago Bulls. Nearly a year and a half later, his presence in practice is still felt in the Grizzlies’ Built Ford Tough Training Facility, but it’s not a Grizzlies practice. It’s the Memphis Hustle.
When Hustle head coach Brad Jones and his lone assistant Brett Burman, a holdover from Glynn Cyprien’s previous staff, looked around with three weeks left before the season, Jones realized that he still had three more assistants to hire to round out his staff.
“I was a little bit scrambling,” Jones admitted with a chuckle. He eventually was able to rope in Alex Lloyd of Texas A&M, Antoine Broxsie, a Grizzlies coaching intern, and Altavious Carter from the Orlando Magic. Although, it took the help of a seemingly ceremonial “blessing” from Texas A&M’s Billy Kennedy regarding Lloyd considering the Aggies were already underway in the semester and JB Bickerstaff regarding Broxsie, who played with Bickerstaff in college at Minnesota before graduating from Oklahoma State University in 2002 after helping the Cowboys to two tournament appearances under Eddie Sutton.
With the staff complete, the roster almost rounded out, and the season just over the horizon, Jones had another task in mind. “We were trying to figure out a way defensively to give our guys something to make them have a presence on the ball, to make them feel you.”
“As a coaching staff,” he continued. “We started talking about it one day, and we said, ‘Can we give it a name or a term?’” Broxsie, who had just wrapped up a 15 year overseas playing and coaching career, replied, “How about Tony Allen? He’s the Godfather of Grind City!”
“I liked it a lot, so we went with it and our players have kinda bonded to it,” Jones said of the zany idea. “The second half of the season, we were one of the leading turnover causing defenses. I think that has a lot ot do with the TA Approach.”
What exactly is this “TA Approach”?
“Everytime we do a great thing on defense, we all say, ‘Hey, that’s TA!’ and we really get hyped and really get excited for each other,” said Yuta Watanabe, one of the Grizzlies and Hustle’s Two-Way players. “That TA mindset has been really good for us.”
In the final two months of the season, the Hustle ranked 6th in the league in turnovers forced- or rather, TAs forced- at 17.9 per game. The Santa Cruz Warriors led the way with 19.1. Securing the 5th seed out of the West with a 28-22 record and their first ever playoff berth, the TA Approach has obviously worked.
“That just helps guys play better, saying TAs,” said Julian Washburn, the other Grizzlies and Hustle Two-Way player. “I feel like whenever you put on a Memphis uniform, you always compete because that’s what Memphis is known for. That grit and grind. I feel like Memphis has a great group of guys in the G-League, all of them guys compete.”
Washburn has spent his entire American basketball career in Texas: highschool ball in Duncanville, TX, a four year college career in UTEP, then goes to straight to the Austin Spurs. The Grizzlies picked him up on January 15, replacing Jarnell Stokes to add wing depth.
This season, Watanabe became just the second Japanese born player ever to play in the NBA. He moved to the United States less than 6 years ago to play in high school before eventually becoming the first ever Japanese born player to go to a Division-1 school on a scholarship at George Washington University.
Other than being the Two-Way players, Washburn and Watanabe hold a lot of similarities as both earned their respective college athletic conference’s Defensive Player of the Year titles: Watanabe of the Athletic 10 and Washburn of Conference USA.
Despite those who may not be from Memphis or have spent much time here before this season, Tony Allen’s reputation has become immortalized across the basketball world. Where was everyone at in 2013 when Grit-n-Grind was in full effect inside the Grindhouse?
Watanabe was enrolling in St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Oakdale, Connecticut. Washburn was a sophomore at UTEP, two years before he received his conference DPOY honors. Jones had just been promoted to a full time assistant on Quin Snyder’s staff with the Utah Jazz, a year after his DLeague title run leading the Austin Toros where Lloyd was one of his assistants then. Broxsie was still in the middle of a 13 year paying career that took him to 18 different countries.
“I think there’s no doubt that when they were in their heyday that the rest of the league hated coming to Memphis to play. They didn’t have the most talented players, but they just knew you were coming into a meat-grinder,” Jones said of the impact Allen and the Grizzlies had across the country.
“When I was with the Jazz coming in here, we knew that we were going to get some bumps and bruises coming in here,” Jones reflected. “We’ve kinda taken that, and have kinda tried to build off of some of the guys from Memphis.”
Of the 10 roster players and 2 Two-Way Players, the Hustle features some players from Memphis and surrounding areas: Markel Crawford, Nino Johnson, Dusty Hannahs from Little Rock, AR, and Jay-R Strowbridge from Huntsville, AL. The Hustle started the year off with celebrated former Memphis Tiger DJ Stephens as a Two-Way player, but he was eventually waived for yet another Memphis native in Jarnell Stokes.
“Just the whole thing with respect to Tony Allen for what, like I said, he was the Godfather of, it’s kinda helped our defense, and our guys love it,” Jones continued. “They talk about it all the time.”
“I know him as a tough, great defender,” Watanabe said of Allen. “He’s always been a great defender and really active. We call that TA: being active and being tough.”
For Washburn, it has been easy to see the differences from the Austin Spurs and the Memphis Hustle. “It’s a lot more competitive,” he quickly stated. “Every practice these guys compete. In Austin we competed, but practice was more like a resting bodies thing. These guys compete every practice every game, so that’s the biggest difference… I wouldn’t be surprised if more teams start using that terminology.”
Jones first referenced the “TAs” after a 122-113 win over the Rio Grande Valley Vipers on February 26 after the Hustle scored 20 points off of 23 forced turnovers. “We have this thing we call it in honor of the Godfather of Grit, we call [turnovers] TAs, Tony Allens,” Jones said after the win. “ I thought we had a lot of Tony Allens tonight that led to some easy baskets for us.”
Asked of any other unusual motivational quirks behind this year’s wildly fun Hustle team that finished with the 5th league best scoring offense at 114.2 ppg and an 11th league best turnover percentage of 16.5%, Jones replied, “Mainly the head coach. I’m a quirk in general,” bookending it with laughter.
He continued with a description of a tool that he and the coaching staff have put together for the team and players during film. “We have a whole menu- a thing called an activity meter. A lot of times we’ll show film on where our level on the meter is as far as different types of activities that affect the game.”
The Hustle’s regular season may have come to a close, but the staff and players are very much still locked in as they face the Stockton Kings on Wednesday, March 27. The Kings are a team that Memphis hasn’t had much luck against this season, losing the series 0-3.
“[The Kings] are the one team we haven’t had a lot of success with,” said Jones. “A couple of times, we played them in odd circumstances, so, just because we are 0-3 against them, I don’t know if that means that they have totally dominated us.”
“They are very good in transition baskets, and, if you look at the last ten games,” Jones said of the Kings. “What they’ve really been doing is shooting the three at a high rate. I think they’re now fifth in the league in three-point attempts in the last ten games.”
“They have a lot of talent on that team… You can just go down the list,” Jones said of the Hustle’s playoff game against Stockton. “They got guys.”
“Even though they’re big and strong and we’re going to have to work on them in the post, we’re also going to have to not turn the ball over because turning the ball over leads to their fast break points,” Jones said.
One of the players that contributed to the Kings’ success in transition is Troy Williams. “Troy Williams is as good a transition scorer as anyone in the league,” Jones stated. “ I challenge anybody to find anybody better than him, so that’s going to be a big part of our game plan: trying to find him in transition. Not turning the ball over and getting back to building our defense is a huge key against them.”
One part of the process will be Jones’s “Playoff Prep” which is a bit different than what you might expect because of where the focus is towards. “The Developmental League is not just about player development. It’s about coaches developing and staff developing as well,” Jones said.
Jones continued, “People forget about that, but that’s a developmental part for our assistant coaches as well because there’s a little different prep you do for playoffs opposed to the regular season games that you are playing every other night.”
“Having been around the NBA, I know there’s just a different way to do it,” said Jones. “So we’re going to try and help our assistants grow a little bit through this process as well as our players.”
The Memphis Hustle against the Stockton Kings will be available to watch on the Hustle’s official Facebook page via a livestream at 9PM CST.