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The Rookie Curve: Jaren Jackson Jr. Can Bring the Grizzlies Back to the Future

Memphis is desperately looking to return to the postseason on the backs of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The team’s top rookie could be the key to ensuring that it does.

Jaren Jackson Jr. wearing a Grizzlies jersey with his palms pressed against the camera Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The summer is a time to dream big about newly drafted rookies. But paths to stardom in the NBA are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2018 draft’s top talents and how the reality of their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

Jaren Jackson Jr. could have big shoes to fill as a rookie. The Memphis Grizzlies want to get back to the postseason after their seven-season playoff streak was broken by a 22-win campaign last season, but the team doesn’t have much elite talent around Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr.. They need Jackson to replace the production they used to get at power forward from Zach Randolph, who left the Grizzlies in free agency last season (and is more than twice as old as Jackson). The 18-year-old is a different type of big man than what Memphis is used to, but his skill set is exactly what the team needs on both sides of the ball.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Jackson were to have a bigger role as an NBA rookie than he did as a freshman at Michigan State. Foul trouble, and head coach Tom Izzo’s reluctance to trust younger players, limited him to 21.8 minutes per game. He averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes of playing time, the highest rate of the five centers taken in the lottery. When he was on the court, Jackson was used primarily as a spot-up shooter; he was only fifth on the team in field goal attempts (6.6 per game). The Spartans built their offense around Miles Bridges, who would become the no. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft, and Nick Ward, a post scorer who shot 64.8 percent from the field.

One of the things that makes Jackson such an intriguing prospect is his ability to help a team without having plays run for him. He’s a legitimate unicorn who combines elite quickness and shot-blocking ability with a consistent 3-point shot (39.6 percent from 3 on 2.7 attempts per game). Jackson had a higher block rate last season (14.3 percent) than Mohamed Bamba (13.1 percent). He doesn’t have Bamba’s freakish length, but he’s still big enough (6-foot-11 and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) to play center in the NBA. More importantly, he’s quicker on his feet.

Jackson’s skills immediately translated in eight games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. He was second in blocks per game (3.5) among all summer league players, and he shot 14-of-28 (50 percent) from behind the NBA 3-point line. Jackson has a quicker release on his jumper than most big men, so defenders can’t give him any breathing room on the perimeter. He also had more freedom than in Izzo’s restrictive half-court offense, and he wasn’t shy about launching shots.

Like a lot of young big men given a bigger opportunity in that setting, Jackson struggled with efficiency, averaging 12.8 points per game on 41.3 percent shooting. He can score with his back to the basket, as well as face up and put the ball on the floor, but he’s a long way from putting it all together. He’s much better when he can play off guards who create shots for him. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Jackson was in the 86th percentile of scorers in summer league as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.

The Grizzlies won’t need their rookie big man to be the player he was in Vegas. They will run everything through Gasol and Conley, and head coach J.B. Bickerstaff will likely stagger his stars’ minutes so that one of the two is always in. Jackson is a smart player who can play in the pick-and-roll with Conley and in high-low sets with Gasol. Their experience will make him a better player, and his transition to the NBA should be easier because he won’t be playing with many others youngsters in Memphis. Almost everyone in the team’s rotation is an established veteran. Kyle Anderson, whom the franchise signed to a four-year, $37 million contract this offseason, is one of its youngest players at 24.

There won’t be a rush to get Jackson into the starting lineup. The Grizzlies already have a starting-caliber power forward in JaMychal Green, whom they signed to a two-year, $17 million contract last offseason. The 27-year-old averaged 10.3 points on 45.7 percent shooting and 8.4 rebounds per game last season. The issue Bickerstaff will have with starting Green is that he doesn’t space the floor well. Green is only an average 3-point shooter (33.9 percent from 3 on 2.3 attempts per game), and Memphis needs all the perimeter threats it can get. The Grizzlies were 24th in the NBA last season in 3-point attempts (26.2) and 25th in 3-point percentage (35.2 percent).

Jackson is the rare rookie who already has the game to make a playoff contender better. He would be a perfect fit next to playmaking big men like Gasol and Anderson. The two veterans can handle and pass the ball and make most of the decisions on offense, allowing Jackson to spot up at the 3-point line and benefit from their ability to pass him open. He would also add much-needed athleticism to their front line on defense. Neither Gasol nor Anderson moves well. The former is a 33-year-old who broke his foot two seasons ago. The latter is called Slo Mo for a reason.

Jackson is incredibly quick for a guy his size. He played power forward at Michigan State and spent a lot of time guarding smaller players on the perimeter. Jackson had no issues defending guards at the 3-point line and then getting back to the paint to protect the rim. According to the tracking numbers at Hoop Lens, the Spartans went from allowing 0.91 points per possession with Jackson to 0.98 without him, and he was in the 96th percentile of defenders nationwide on isolation plays. He’s the rare young big man who is consistently engaged defensively. Jackson will occasionally get himself in trouble by trying to do too much, but that’s an easier problem to address than trying to ramp up the activity level of an uninterested defender like Marvin Bagley III.

Maybe the most impressive part of Jackson’s freshman season at Michigan State is just how young he was. He won’t turn 19 for another two weeks. He’s 16 months younger than Bamba and 14 months younger than Deandre Ayton. He’s six months younger than Bagley, and Bagley reclassified last summer to skip what would have been his senior season of high school. Jackson is only one month older than Romeo Langford, a top prospect in the 2019 draft. He’s a prodigy who has spent his entire career playing against older players, even though one year of physical development can make a huge difference for teenage big men.

Jackson spent his high school career in the shadow of guys like Ayton and Bamba, but he could turn the tables on them in the NBA. He has a real chance to be the best big man in the draft. He’s a historically unique prospect: a center who can anchor a defense, guard players at all five positions, and be a volume 3-point shooter. No NBA player has ever had a season in which they averaged the same number of 3-point attempts (2.7) and blocks (3.0) per game as Jackson did as an 18-year-old NCAA freshman playing only half the game.

There is also room for him to grow as a shot creator. There are some encouraging stats when you dig deeper into his college performance. He was in the 98th percentile of post scorers and the 67th percentile of roll men nationwide, despite sharing the floor with a platoon of nonshooting big men. There were times when he got from the 3-point line to the rim in two dribbles and dunked. Jackson could be almost unguardable when he was going up against slower centers who have to sell out to stop him from getting open looks at the 3-point line.

It won’t happen overnight. Gasol’s presence means the Grizzlies can manage Jackson’s transition to center without putting too much pressure on his body. Jackson and Gasol aren’t as good as Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but they could have a similar mentor-apprentice relationship. In Memphis’s best-case scenario, Jackson’s development would allow Gasol to transition into a smaller role as he moves deeper into his 30s. Jackson could extend Gasol’s and Conley’s careers and keep Memphis relevant as it once again tries to move out of the Grit ’N’ Grind era. It’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18-year-old. Jackson has the talent to handle it.