O.J. Mayo Struggling as a Sixth Man
First, it was 2006 draftee Rudy Gay who got a big-money contract from the Memphis Grizzlies.
Then cashing in was Mike Conley, taken in the 2007 draft.
Is 2008 draftee O.J. Mayo the next young Grizzlies player to be locked up to a lucrative long-term deal?
Well, each day it's looking to be more of a long shot.
The Grizzlies, if they don't end up trading Mayo, don't have to make an initial decision on the shooting guard until Oct. 31, 2011, and could let him become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2012. So far, there's been little to show this season that Mayo is as high-priority of a future Memphis piece as once thought.
After averaging 18.5 points as a rookie in 2008-09 and 17.5 last season, Mayo has seen his scoring average plummet to 12.2 this season. He's come off the bench the past nine games, averaging a measly 8.9 points.
Mayo, 23, won't say outright he wants a contract extension offer next summer much like a pair of up-and-coming Grizzlies have gotten in recent years. Gay, 24, received an offer in the summer of 2009 but ended up waiting, and signed a five-year, $82 million deal as a restricted free agent last summer. Conley, 23, signed a five-year, $40 million extension (with $5 million more available in possible incentives) just at the deadline a little over a month ago.
"It's pretty much a management decision,'' Mayo said in an interview with FanHouse. "I just got to go out there and play, and try to play well. ... I think most guys wouldn't mind getting locked up early, just something out of the way. But I guess you just have to see when next summer comes.''
But the guard did say something rather interesting about how coming off the bench now could affect any future contract. Mayo was asked if being a reserve hurts his value.
"I would say so,'' he said. "I would probably say so. What do you think?''
Well, it certainly isn't helping that Mayo has struggled off the bench. Since Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins moved rookie Xavier Henry into the lineup at shooting guard primarily to bring more scoring to Memphis' second unit, Mayo has shot just 36.3 percent, lowering his seasonal mark to 40.1.
"It's definitely an adjustment,'' Mayo said. "So I just got to kind of roll with the flow, and, when I'm out there, play hard. ... Right now, it is what it is. I've got to make the most of it.''
Mayo, who averaged 38.0 minutes in each of his first two seasons, is averaging 29.7 this season, including 23.3 in his nine games off the bench. He attributes his decline in scoring partly to his reduced time on the court. Still, he's averaging 14.8 points per 36 minutes played as opposed to 17.5 as a rookie and 16.6 last season.
"The minutes definitely went down. That could be part of the reason,'' Mayo said of his decreased scoring. "I never really was the first or second option in past years anyway. ... After my rookie year, I was never really the main focus on offense.''
After being second as a rookie and third last season, Mayo has dropped to being Memphis' fourth-leading scorer this season behind Gay (21.5), Zach Randolph (16.7) and Conley (15.8). He might soon be fifth since Marc Gasol (12.0) is now barely behind Mayo.
Mayo said Hollins had talked to him in training camp about the possibility of eventually moving him to the bench. When Mayo and Randolph both were late to a shootaround Nov. 20 before a game against Miami, both didn't start.
The Grizzlies upset the Heat 97-95 that night. Hollins then decided to stick with Mayo coming off the bench, saying Mayo's lateness was not a long-term reason.
"In training camp, when we had our meetings with the coaches, I had said in order for us to balance our lineup with what we had coming off the bench that we needed to put one of (the starters) on the bench,'' Hollins said. "And I felt like O.J. being the shooter that he would be able to score coming off the bench more consistently every night.''
The move looked good at the start as the Grizzlies won their first three and four of their first five, also including a 98-96 upset of the Lakers. Since then, though, they've lost four straight.
"He's only averaging nine points,'' said Hollins, getting a bit testy after Monday's 108-107 loss at Denver about a question regarding Mayo coming off the bench. "When we were winning, nobody was asking that question. Now, that we're losing everybody wants to ask that question. Ask me how Xavier is playing starting.
"I'm pleased with the overall move in general. I can't dictate how well somebody plays or doesn't play each night. That's up to them.''
Henry has averaged 6.9 points in his nine games as a starter to raise his seasonal mark to 6.2. He scored a career-high 17 against the Nuggets.
Mayo has had only one game off the bench of more than 13 points, that being 23 on Nov. 26 against Golden States. He's had five games in single digits, including some real clunkers lately. Mayo has averaged just 4.0 points on 5-of-18 shooting his past three games.
With that in mind, Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, who is friendly with Mayo, said he would be willing to dispense some advice. Like Mayo, Smith has the talent to start but has evolved into a sixth man. Although Smith's Denver tenure has been up and down, he was good enough in 2008-09 to finish second behind Dallas' Jason Terry in voting for the NBA's Sixth Man Award.
"Just tell him, 'Don't be discouraged,''' Smith said of the advice he would give Mayo. "This is probably the first time he's ever come off the bench in his whole career. So I'd tell him, 'Don't be discouraged. Don't look at it as a negative.' Just try to take the positive out of the situation. They got a lot of talent on that team. Put him on the bench (as) a sixth man to come in and get early points like I do for this team. A lot of people are trying to fill that role for other teams, and I think he can definitely be that person on that team.''
But for how long?
There seems to be no urgency for the Grizzlies to trade Mayo, who's making an economical $4.46 million this season on his rookie contract and is due $5.63 million next season. Mayo was asked about speculation he eventually could be dealt.
"I don't know,'' he said. "It's a business. Everyone here (could) get traded. So I guess you'd have to see.''
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies will wait and see if Mayo can break out of his doldrums. Obviously, if Mayo is to become yet another young Memphis player locked up with a long-term contract, he'll have to play much better than he is now.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson