The Memphis Grizzlies lost a tough one -- 83-81 -- to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs Sunday night, but if there was one piece of good news coming out of the weekend, it was the play of center Jake Tsakalidis, who had seven rebounds and a team-high 15 points in 26 minutes in his first start since returning from a late-March thumb injury.
Tsakalidis was once widely deemed useless. Earlier this season, my AM 730 radio partner Chris Vernon only half-jokingly campaigned for Tsakalidis to be named the team's mascot since it seemed to be about the only way he was going to contribute on the court. The decision a couple of years ago to match a three-year, roughly $9 million offer to Tsakalidis from the Cleveland Cavaliers has been routinely derided as one of Jerry West's worst moves.
And for the first three-and-a-half months of the season, Tsakalidis barely played. But even when he was scrapping together garbage time, Tsakalidis' per-minute production was better than you might think. When incumbent starting center Lorenzen Wright's abysmal play finally created an opportunity for him in late February, Tsakalidis seized it, racking up double-doubles in three of four games in mid-March and generally giving the team efficient and effective play.
Why has this once-forgotten man been so productive? Could it be a fluke? A late-season mirage? Or, at age 26, could Tsakalidis finally be emerging as a legit player?
Watch Tsakalidis out on the court, and you'll see he's doing nothing he hasn't always done. The big galoot is capable of scoring in three ways and three ways only: He finishes plays right at the rim off either offensive rebounds or passes from his teammates, he's good for a mid-range spot-up jump shot once every game or two, and he has exactly one post move, dipping his massive left shoulder into his defender and rising ever so slightly off the floor for a short righty hook shot.
Tsakalidis still has so-so hands. He's still slow off the floor. He's still a mediocre free-throw shooter. But, for perhaps the first sustained period in a Grizzlies uniform (if not in his entire career), he's playing with consistent confidence and aggression, and that seems to have made all the difference. He's feeding off playing time, a defined role, and the confidence of his coaches and teammates and is maximizing his limited gifts.
Of course, these limited gifts also include a 7'-2", 290-pound frame that allows Tsakalidis to clear space around the hoop and set brick-wall picks.
Still, when Tsakalidis was sidelined by a thumb injury in the midst of his breakout stretch, you couldn't help thinking that the clock had struck midnight on this particular Cinderella story. But Tsakalidis has been productive since working his way back into the starting lineup. Against San Antonio, he showed confidence by backing Spurs superstar Tim Duncan down, dipping that elephantine shoulder, and dropping that little hook shot right over the front of the rim. He flattened Spurs defender Brent Barry on a pick that freed Mike Miller for an open jumper.
What makes Big Jake's breakout an even better story is that he's such a likable presence. This year, the big guy's palpable-but-always-deadpan joy found expression in a road game at Seattle. After flushing an alley-oop pass from Pau Gasol (in Gasol's triple-double game), Tsakalidis lumbered back down the court flashing the "Stro Show" hand signal of former teammate Stromile Swift.
Tsakalidis' return bodes well for the post-season. Wright has played his best basketball of the year since Tsakalidis' emergence, giving the Grizzlies solid overall production at a position that was once a huge liability. But Tsakalidis is the superior player right now -- he shoots fewer jumpers at a better percentage and gets to the line more, where he's marginally better than Wright. And, more importantly, he's the most effective rebounder on the team. Unless a slump or match-ups dictate otherwise, Tsakalidis should be this team's starting center come playoff time.