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Jaren Jackson Jr. May Be the Future of NBA Defense … If He Can Stay on the Court

The Grizzlies big man has blocked more shots than anyone this season, from angles that most rim protectors couldn’t imagine. But his sky-high foul rate could limit how often he’s available to deter the Warriors and other playoff offenses.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jaren Jackson Jr. watched the most dramatic moment of the Grizzlies’ season from the sideline. Almost seven minutes before Ja Morant elevated for a layup that claimed Game 5—and all the momentum of the first-round series against Minnesota—Jackson committed his sixth foul on a play so foolish that he responded by tearing at his own hair. Then he pleaded. And he vented. He wandered the court, looking for an audience, until Desmond Bane steered him back toward the bench to save Jackson and the Grizzlies from any further punishment.

What was most notable about Jackson’s performance in the first round of the playoffs was how little he was able to participate. Overzealous rotations, lazy box-outs, and headlong charges entangled the 22-year-old forward, forcing him off the floor and out of sorts. Jackson has been foul-prone throughout his young NBA career, but outdid himself by committing a paradoxical 7.6 fouls per 36 minutes in the opening round. That has to change. Memphis may have been able to skirt by Minnesota with Jackson topping 25 minutes just twice in six games, but Golden State, as it showed on Sunday, isn’t nearly so forgiving.

“He’s gotta find a way,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said last week. “I’m a big believer in what he can do for us.”

Sunday’s series opener against the Warriors offered a sampling of Jackson in full effect: a disruptive defender and a walking mismatch, with a playoff career-high 33 points to show for it. This matchup suits him. Any game plan Jenkins and his staff could draw up to keep the Warriors’ offense from reaching its full, terrifying potential would have to revolve around Jackson—a big who handled every kind of matchup, guarded every which way, and still wound up leading the league in blocks. “At the end of the day, I’m playing the game to not foul, but make it as hard as I can,” Jackson told me earlier this season. “And if I block it, then cool.” By that metric, he’s had a pretty cool season.

Not only did Jackson lead the league in total blocks and block percentage, but he also had more games with at least one block, two blocks, three blocks, four blocks, and five blocks than any other player. Even while sitting out long stretches and pivotal moments due to foul trouble in these playoffs, Jackson has still managed to block more shots—by far—than anyone else in the field.

Jackson can fly in from all angles, turning away the kinds of attempts that had previously felt safe. Pull-up 3s. Fast-break layups. Drives past Jackson at the top of the floor, free and clear until they suddenly weren’t. Golden State’s winding, interconnected offense poses an incredible challenge to opposing big men, but Jackson is more dynamic in coverage than virtually any other player his size. He isn’t a rim protector. He’s the future of NBA defense—if only he could manage to stay on the floor.

As the NBA game has stretched out and sped up, bigs have been forced to provide help from uncomfortable positions against a widening range of defensive assignments. There’s a reason Rudy Gobert, who averaged 2.1 blocks per game in the regular season, managed just half that in a first-round loss to the Mavericks. Good playoff teams will dislodge a traditional shot blocker, forcing them into compromises. But the next frontier for bigs isn’t just surviving, one-on-one, after getting switched onto a smaller guard. It’s getting taken out of a play through a switch or some other action, and then finding a way back in.

Jackson has a knack for locating the side door. Just when he seems to be screened off or dragged away, he slings back into the action to meet modern offenses where they live. “I get on-ball blocks,” he said. “I get chase-downs. Even though I’m [usually] up to the level [of the screen], I still get in my drop sometimes, but I’m able to move.” As a result, Memphis never has to commit to playing any one way. “Going in night to night,” Jenkins says, “we know that we can have our starting coverages, we can have one or two adjustments that he can thrive in, and that a lot of our guys can thrive in.” Jackson can play up or play back, switch or stay home. He can work with Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman, or—most crucially against the Warriors—none of the above. Jackson is a completely free-form defender, a living, breathing rebuttal to the idea that a team has to play a conservative style to keep opponents out of the paint.

The reason NBA teams continue to run drop coverage is because it theoretically reduces the pick-and-roll to its most predictable angles. It keeps the biggest defender on the floor squarely between the ball and the basket, even as it surrenders so much else. It’s not an accident that most of the league’s most prolific shot blockers are disciples of the drop; the system itself is built to funnel shots straight into their waiting arms. Jackson, as you can see here, is one of the league’s great exceptions:

Data courtesy of Second Spectrum and Basketball-Reference

Every dot on this chart represents one of the NBA’s elite defensive bigs, most of whom—including Gobert, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo—are clustered together in a kind of positional standard. The lonely dot off to the left is Miami’s Bam Adebayo, who switches often and, as a result, doesn’t wind up swatting away that many shots. At the very top of the chart, you’ll find Jackson in red: dropping some but noticeably less than most of his peers, while managing to block more shots than any of them. (His only stylistic neighbor: Boston’s Robert Williams III, co-anchor of the league’s most stifling defense.)

The fact that Jackson doesn’t quite fit the template for an elite big-man defender might help explain why, despite a stellar defensive season, he wasn’t even voted as one of the three finalists for Defensive Player of the Year. Yet his systemic independence is the only reason the Grizzlies have any real shot in a series against the Warriors. The only way to keep up with the interweaving movement of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Jordan Poole is to put defenders on the floor who are just as fluid.

“You just never know,” Jenkins says, “what the game is gonna dictate.”

The only reason Memphis has the option to switch on defense in this series as much as it might need to is because Jackson can hold his own against pretty much anyone. “His defensive presence is big time for us,” Morant says. “We’re a totally different team with him out there on the floor.” If Jackson needs to dance with Curry or Poole out on the perimeter, he will. If he needs to chase Thompson around an endless procession of screens, he can do that, too. There are plenty of bigs with perimeter skill sets these days, but few who can actually lock and trail the way guards do. Jackson says that with the help of the Grizzlies’ coaching staff, he picked it up in about a day. The first step is knowing an opponent well enough to know what’s coming. Everything else is just footwork.

“You have to get on the outside hip of the player, and you have to make sure that if you’re chasing over a screen, that you stay attached,” Jackson says. “If you’re gonna go under, you stay attached and then you dart under at the last second to make the screener think that you’re gonna go over—so he doesn’t clip you.” Opponents have grown a bit shy when Jackson is following behind them or lurking nearby, even when they’ve pulled him all the way out to the arc. What shots he can’t prevent outright he might just reject. The only bigs who blocked more 3-pointers than Jackson this season were Green, who’s out-and-out the best defensive player in the league, and Toronto’s Chris Boucher, a lanky master of the art.

Really, though, it all comes back to that first step. The best way for Jackson to make an impact on this series is to stay out of foul trouble, and the best way for him to stay out of foul trouble is to recognize patterns in Golden State’s offense as they’re still developing. Jackson’s problem is when he’s late: late to close out, late to rotate, late to actualize the play he sees in his head. So he studies to make himself faster. If you watch a few clips of Curry jetting around after he gives up the ball, you can get a basic idea of where he might go. If you watch a ton of those clips, you can really get a sense of who Curry is and what he’s trying to accomplish.

“You’ve gotta watch as much film as you can,” Jackson said. “You’ve gotta know every play they’re gonna run and who shoots the most—when and where they shoot, and why. You’ve gotta know all those things. You’ve gotta just keep watching until you can’t watch it anymore. Then eventually, when you’re in the game, it’ll get easier.”

Coming into this matchup, Jackson had played against Curry only seven times in his career. If this series goes the distance, he would double his hands-on experience with one of the most dangerous scorers in the sport. Every minute is an education. Surviving games against the Warriors means taking the runs as they come, and then putting them away. It means getting back to how the Grizzlies won 56 games this season and outlasted the Timberwolves in the first round: by dominating the possession game, and beating everyone on the margins.

“The real grit-and-grind shit,” Dillon Brooks says.

When Jackson is on the floor for protection, his teammates can jump passing lanes and deny shooters. Clarke and Adams can crash the offensive glass with a built-in safety net, empowered by the fact that Jackson will chase down potential fast breaks. No other player in the league blocked more shots in transition this season, according to Second Spectrum, or really came anywhere close. On some possessions, Jackson sprinted back after spacing the floor, swiveling in front of guards at a dead sprint to provide the first line of defense. On others, a fellow Grizzly got in front of the ball, and bought Jackson just enough time to fly in from above.

“You let the first guard kind of wall up,” he said. “Make ’em think that it’s over.” In a way, it already is. “You’ve just gotta make sure you get your footsteps right,” Jackson said. “To jump, basically, like you’re gonna touch the top of the backboard.”

The next hurdle for Jackson is to recognize that, sometimes, the best play on the ball is to simply let it pass. Even the most spectacular block might not be worth the risk of running an opponent over or landing on top of them, resulting in fouls. Those errors of ambition can be costly, given that Jackson is also prone to foul when jostling for loose balls or positioning on the blocks. “You’ve just gotta put your arms away,” he said of those moments. “People are gonna score sometimes, and you’ve just gotta get over it.” This is the struggle within Jackson, and within every great defender: the competitor who wants to win every play, and the pragmatist angling for something more. You can’t lead the league in blocks without some debt to the former. But Jackson didn’t set out to do that anyway; his only real ambition for this season, he says, was to play.

“That was the only goal I had,” Jackson said. “Just to play more games this year.”

A torn meniscus cost Jackson almost the entire 2020-21 season. The injury occurred way back in the NBA bubble, when Jackson made a defensive rotation against the Pelicans that was so routine he doesn’t even fully remember the play. “I just walled up on Zion [Williamson] and came down weird,” he said. “I finished the game, so it’s hard to tell.” It’s indistinguishable from any of the similar plays Jackson made before or after it, marked only by the fact that it ended his season. The next day, the Grizzlies issued a release: “In Monday’s game against the Pelicans, Jaren Jackson Jr. experienced an unstable landing after making contact with an opposing player while contesting a shot.”

I wondered if there was any part of Jackson, after he finally returned to the floor, that hesitated before challenging a shot again. If, when he left the ground to contest any of the 194 shots he’s blocked this season, there was any part of him still stuck in that moment, caught up in how unremarkable it was. If there was any apprehension whatsoever.

Oh god no,” he said. “Hell no.”

The best defenders in the world make their mark by finding their way to a space beyond doubt—by playing free. They leap. They gamble. Sometimes, they get into foul trouble. There is a time and a need for restraint, but no one meets a dunker at the rim through caution. The more critical instinct is the one that tells Jackson to keep jumping.