Jaren Jackson Jr. didn't play last season.
Well, at least it felt that way.
He appeared in just 11 regular-season games last year following
his longer-than-expected recovery from a torn meniscus suffered
during the 2020 Bubble. Not only was there a natural adjustment
period to be had physically, Jackson was thrown into the middle of
a playoff push, further complicating matters. The Memphis Grizzlies
would eventually beat the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State
Warriors in consecutive play-in games to earn the eighth seed.
Their reward: taking on the top-seeded Utah Jazz.
There were flashes from the Lanky Fella, but he was ultimately
playing catch-up from his late-season debut. Asking a big to find
or regain chemistry with players he hadn't gotten real reps with in
the middle of a playoff push, then throwing him into the fire
against the Jazz – which means dealing with Rudy Gobert on one end
and schematic wizardry on the other – is a combination that
predictably led to failure.
The Grizzlies are in an interesting spot, having made the
playoffs and opting to shuffle the deck a bit around their core.
They have their Guy in Ja Morant and plenty of youth with room for
growth. But in order for them to make that next step, they won't
just need a resurgence from Jackson – they'll likely need a leap.
Ideally, that leap leads to him filling more minutes at center.
Jackson got draft buzz – top-three draft buzz, for that matter –
due to his "Unicorn" potential. That phrase
is generally overused in prospect discourse; all big people who can
shoot and dribble without tripping over themselves are not unicorns
(hi, Myles Turner), but it was (and is) hard not to be excited
There are big men who can shoot, and then there are the
Karl-Anthony Towns and Jackson type of big men who can
shoot. That means with volume, from multiple
platforms, and with accuracy. After a modest rookie campaign as a
three-point shooter (35.9% on 2.4 attempts), Jackson more than
doubled his volume (2.4 to 6.5) while improving his stroke
Again, these weren't just spot-up looks. He operated as the
trailer in transition, got busy on pick-and-pops, occasionally came
off screens, and flashed the ability to get it off the bounce.
Jackson shot poorly last season, but that shot versatility remains.
It's wild watching a guy his size be able to set his feet as
quickly as he does.
The threat of the shot is what opens up everything else for
Jackson. You can't afford to sell out completely, because he has
the ball skills necessary to get to the rim. He has a couple of
gnarly posters on his resume already, but craft is the way he likes
to win. The way he alters his stride length and timing is almost
wing-like, which is a scary proposition for a 6-foot-11 man.
Even during last season's stretch, Jackson was able to get to
the line more (3.8 attempts) and maintain his at-rim efficiency
from the year prior (70.8% inside of three feet). There will be
missed shots in the video below, but the process should be the
focus here. Look at the way Jackson generates looks for
Jackson presents a unique challenge for defenses when he's
upright. He is too stretch-y for fleet-of-foot bigs to deal with,
and combines that with the ball skills and quickness necessary to
beat those behemoths off the bounce.
You can't afford to stash a wing on him to take away the stretch
element of his game; he's good about using his frame to keep those
wings away, then using his combination of touch and length to
sprinkle in shots over their headtops.
While he can make hay at the 4 – he's had to alongside Jonas
Valanciunas, and the combination of Steven Adams and Xavier Tillman
will likely necessitate some forward minutes next year – his
offensive advantages are maximized at the 5. He's too slithery, and
shoots the ball too well for traditional bigs to handle.
Basic spread pick-and-rolls/pops, or popping as part of Double
Drag or HORNS double looks become more stress-inducing. When the
Grizzlies go to HORNS Flare, a common set in which one of the
players at the elbow flies off a flare screen set from the second
player, Jackson can be used as the man coming off the
That's Tyus Jones running point on that possession, and Kristaps
Porzingis – another uNiCoRn who's best used at the 5 – defending
Jackson. Well, "defending" him. The Mavericks are in drop, which
allows Jackson to glide into an open triple.
Imagine Ja Morant in place of Jones there, and the decisions
that would force a dropping center to cycle through. Drop too far
in anticipation of a Morant drive, and Jackson pops free. Track
Jackson too aggressively and you'll either give Morant a lane, or
you'll open up a pump-and-drive opportunity for Jackson. Get caught
in No Man's Land, and you're susceptible to giving up any of those
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Frontcourt-rotation caveat aside, there are some issues within
Jackson's control that prevent him from being a full-time 5 – or at
least playing it more often.
There's some physical stuff at play. Listed at 242 pounds,
Jackson may not technically be light, but he's certainly built that
way. As such, heftier centers are able to move him on the block.
Powerful wing drivers are able to dislodge him in his backpedal
when playing drop coverage. Length only means so much when players
are able to get into, and ultimately disrupt, your core.
On a related note: Jackson fouls a lot.
A large chunk of that boils down to his strength limitations. He
struggles to maintain verticality when absorbing a
blow, and jostling underneath the rim for rebounds is a problem for
him. Add in the fact that he was getting used to NBA
basketball again following his recovery, and it's easy to see why
he averaged nearly eight fouls per 100 possessions last season.
He also has typical Young-Big-Man stuff working against
him. He's handsy when defending drives, and picks up too many
swipe-at-the-ball-after-giving-up-a-rebound fouls for my liking.
He's fearless as a shot challenger, the hallmark of every great
shot-blocker, but he's still working on his discernment.
Pump fakes still get him in the air a good bit, and there are
some wild chasedown attempts in his film. I mean, some
not-even-on-2K type stuff.
The tools are still there for Jackson to be a very good
defender. He has the mobility necessary to switch in a pinch. If
nothing else, he's a candidate for to-the-level screen coverage as
well as drop, giving him a decent amount of scheme versatility.
As he gets stronger, the hope is that he'll be able to absord
contact better, thus challenging rim attempts without fouling as
much. Boxing out won't be such a chore: less arm-grabbing, fewer
instances of being bumped out of rebounding positioning.
Seriously, a dude with his length and athleticism should not
have a career defensive rebound rate of 14.4%, otherwise known as
the ninth-highest total of Russell Westbrook's career.
(There's some obvious strategic context to be added, but you get
my point. Chris Paul's at 12.9% for his career for crying out loud.
At a certain point...)
To survive at the 5, you're going to need to challenge shots
effectively. You're going to have to end possessions effectively.
You can't do either of those things if you're on the bench with
The Grizzlies need him to be able to shoulder those minutes when
presented, especially if they're closing minutes. Jackson's ability
to space the floor travels – he's that good of a shooter – but it's
more devastating when matched up against opposing 5s. Pulling them
away from the paint will make life easier on Morant, and Jackson is
a nightmare in his own right.
Jackson being able to play 5 more often won't just maximize the
on-court product, it'll unlock team-building avenues for the
Grizzlies. Valanciunas and now Adams are quality bigs in their own
right, but their value to the roster is in part due to Jackson's
limitations. Needing a brute to cover for his deficiencies further
hinders the spacing of a team that led the NBA in floaters by a
Getting the best version of Jackson will help bring out the best
in Morant. Bringing out the best in Morant will bring out the best
in everyone else. And with so many good basketball players (hey,
you should draft those if you can) on the Grizzlies' roster, that
could spell trouble for the West moving forward.