After back-to-back seasons appearing in the play-in tournament, the Memphis Grizzlies have reached the NBA Playoffs for the first time since 2017, fueled in large part by second-year head coach and 2007 Wharton graduate Taylor Jenkins.
The Grizzlies showed a great deal of resolve in their two "win-or-go-home" play-in games, beating both the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors in close matchups. Memphis will become the youngest team to reach the playoffs since the 2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder, which is similar to Jenkins, who is currently the youngest head coach in the playoffs as well as the second-youngest head coach in the entire NBA.
His relatively quick rise through the coaching ranks took several stops along the way.
Jenkins fell in love with coaching while he was at Penn, though he was not involved with any of the Quakers’ basketball teams. He did, however, work diligently with a youth league that he helped start in West Philadelphia, and played at the intramural level at Penn. The Arlington, Tx. native is the only active NBA head coach to have never played varsity-level collegiate basketball.
After graduating from Wharton in 2007, Jenkins became an intern for the San Antonio Spurs’ basketball operations department. From there, he progressed to both the assistant coach and head coach level with the Austin Toros, the Spurs’ G-League affiliate. Jenkins spent five years with the Toros before being hired as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer with the Atlanta Hawks.
Under both Jenkins and Budenholzer, the Hawks reached the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. When Budenholzer parted ways with the Hawks in 2018, Jenkins followed him to the Milwaukee Bucks, where they helped the team achieve the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
In June of 2019, Jenkins finally received his big break, when he was hired to become the head coach of the then-retooling Memphis Grizzlies.
His first season with the team was marked by COVID-19 hitting midway through, causing the season to be continued in an Orlando bubble, in which 22 teams competed for playoff berths at Walt Disney World. In the bubble, Jenkins’ Grizzlies thrived, but were knocked out in the play-in round by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Coming into the 2020-21 season, expectations were high for the Grizzlies, as star point guard Ja Morant was destined to build off of his stellar rookie year. Those hopes were met to some degree, with Jenkins’ team finding themselves in the same spot that they were in the previous season.
Starting the play-in tournament as the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference, Memphis needed to win two consecutive games over both the No. 10 seed and the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 seed matchup in order to be awarded a playoff berth.
On Wednesday, they faced the No. 10 seed San Antonio Spurs. After getting out to an early 38-19 lead, they quickly began to regress, having their lead narrowed to just seven at halftime. Despite some late runs by the Spurs, the Grizzlies held on, winning by a score of 100-96.
That same night, the Golden State Warriors dropped a close matchup to the Los Angeles Lakers, setting the Warriors up for an elimination game with the Grizzlies.
Jenkins’ Grizzlies started off strong, going on an 18-6 run to open the game. From there, the game went back and forth the whole way, with the Warriors continually playing catch-up and the Grizzlies responding by barely maintaining their control.
The Warriors had a chance to win it, but Draymond Green missed a last-second floater to send the game into overtime. In the extra period, Memphis relied on the player who’d led them the whole way, Ja Morant, and finished off Golden State for a 117-112 win. Morant finished with 35 points, six rebounds, and six assists in a superstar performance.
“What a moment in time for the Grizzlies. Took a lot out of us all season long. It’s just a proud moment," Jenkins said. “We gave it all we had to move on and I know we have more left. What a heck of a game. It took overtime against a heck of a ballclub. There were so many things that don't show up in the boxscore. We have to keep building, keep fighting.”
For Jenkins, the win is quite the feat, as the Grizzlies consist of a roster with little star power outside of Morant, with up-and-comers and veterans alike, such as Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas, filling out the rotation.
In the first round, Memphis will face the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz in what will be Jenkins’ toughest challenge as head coach yet.