Former Gator Calathes reflects on long path to NBA
Published: Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 8:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014 at 8:24 p.m.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The first thing noticeably different about former Florida turned Memphis Grizzlies point guard Nick Calathes is his hair.
“A little lighter up top,” Calathes joked, pointing out his now visible scalp.
For Calathes, the circuitous route to the NBA included four-plus years playing abroad in two different countries. But as a 25-year-old NBA rookie, the 6-foot-6 former Gator has made the most of his opportunity. In a six-game stretch replacing injured starting Memphis point guard Mike Conley, Calathes averaged 16.1 points, 12.1 assists and 4.7 rebounds.
“In the beginning, I wasn't playing too much,” Calathes said. “But now I've gotten a great opportunity, starting to get more minutes and get in a better rhythm and obviously more confident.”
Calathes said he felt no nerves in living up to expectations replacing Conley, who led the Grizzlies deep into the NBA playoffs last season.
“I was ready,” Calathes said. “I was prepared. It wasn't my first professional basketball game, I've played overseas for four years. I was ready for the challenge, playing with the guys on my team. It's just easy to get them the ball and to make the game easier.”
It's no surprise Calathes has made an impact in the NBA through his passing and court vision. In his two years at Florida, Calathes set two single-season records for assists (221 in 2007-08 and 231 in 2008-09). But for as well as Calathes set up his teammates, the Gators as a team could not overcome the loss of three lottery picks across the frontline (Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer) following UF's back-to-back national title seasons.
Florida failed to make the NCAA Tournament both years Calathes was on campus, settling for NIT bids. Then, following his sophomore season, Calathes left UF to play professionally in Greece for a contract worth more than $1.1 million annually for three years.
“Obviously I wish we would have won more,” Calathes said. “That's the biggest thing. If you look back, we had a talented team — me, Chandler (Parsons) and Marreese Speights, we obviously should have went far and should have made the NCAA Tournament. As freshmen I think we didn't know how to take that next step. That was on us.
“Coach (Billy) Donovan, I thought, did a great job with us. We wanted to make the NCAA Tournament. He coached us probably the best he could do. We won some big games, but we lost some bad ones and that's what really hurt us.”
Parsons stayed all four years and helped lead Florida to the Elite Eight as a senior, becoming the first UF player to win SEC player of the year. Across the world, in Greece, Calathes said he was pulling for his close friends and former teammates.
“Alex Tyus, we all played great minutes being freshmen and those guys, each year, kept getting better and better,” Calathes said “I was hoping they took it home. I was hoping they would win a championship.”
Asked if he had any regrets watching them, Calathes said: “Obviously I wish I could have played in an NCAA Tournament, could have done those things, but I was happy with the decision I made. I don't regret that all. The two years at Florida were great, I couldn't probably ask for a better two years. I loved Coach Donovan and my teammates, but I thought it was time to play professional basketball and try something different. And like I said, I don't regret it at all and I think it worked out (well) both ways.”
Calathes said the four years playing in Greece and Russia “against grown men” helped him mature physically and mentally. After earning Eurocup MVP honors last season playing pro ball in Russia, Calathes took a pay cut to play for the Grizzlies. He's making the rookie league minimum of $490,180.
“I thought if I was going to try it, this was going to be the year,” Calathes said. “And I saw a great opportunity. I won the MVP on the Eurocup last year. I thought if I had a chance, this would be the time.”
In Memphis, Calathes has found a good supporting cast, and some stability. He's a father now, and the family is together in Memphis. Calathes and his fiancee, Tiffany Altman, had their first child together last year, a son named Luke. He turns 1 in three weeks, but the family chose to celebrate his birthday over the NBA All-Star break.
“It's the best thing that's ever happened to me,” Calathes said.
On the Memphis team, Calathes has a big brother in former Gator and 14-year NBA veteran Mike Miller, who signed with the Grizzlies this past offseason after winning two rings with the Miami Heat.
“He's been great with me,” Calathes said.
Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger compared Calathes with Greivis Vasquez, who began his NBA career with Memphis and is now playing point guard for the Toronto Raptors.
“They can throw some risky passes and their bravado is what makes them good,” Joerger said. “But given that, Nick had the opportunity to play through some mistakes and gain some confidence. Then he had the opportunity to get some minutes and his confidence has remained high, and now that he's coming off the bench I don't want him to play conservative. That's not who he is.”
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