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Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Injury Shakes the Grizzlies and the West’s Playoff Race

After losing three games in a row and its star big man for the rest of the season, Memphis is suddenly at risk of losing the no. 8 seed and the momentum in its rebuild

AP Images/Ringer illustration

A sprained left knee kept Jaren Jackson Jr. out of the Grizzlies’ final nine games before the suspension of the 2019-20 NBA season, helping grease a post–All-Star break slide for one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. But the four-month hiatus gave the second-year big man a chance to get healthy, and he opened the Orlando restart on fire, averaging 25.3 points per game on 48.1 percent shooting, including a 35.7 percent mark from 3-point range on 9.3 attempts per game. That’s a long-distance volume much more commonly associated with quick-trigger backcourt gunners than with 6-foot-11, 242-pound skyscrapers.

As rough as the restart’s been for the Grizzlies thus far—three games, three losses, all to teams chasing them for the final playoff spot in the West—Memphis fans have at least been able to enjoy watching Jackson Jr. ball out. Now, though, that’s out the window, too: Memphis announced Tuesday night that the sophomore star will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee—the same one he sprained back in February—during Monday’s loss to the Pelicans.

It’s unclear exactly when Jackson Jr. sustained the injury; the Grizzlies’ statement noted only that he “experienced an unstable landing after making contact with an opposing player while contesting a shot.” One moment that might fit the bill: Just after the start of the third quarter, Jackson tried unsuccessfully to block a driving layup attempt by Zion Williamson, then landed awkwardly on Zion’s foot, and reached for his lower left leg:

A host of questions remain in the aftermath of the announcement: how severe the tear is, how long Jackson will be sidelined, and what sort of impact surgery or rehabilitation might have on the development of a 20-year-old who took a quantum leap toward status as a significant frontcourt scorer in his second season, and who seemed to have come even further in that process during his performances in the bubble. In the short term, though, Jackson’s injury promises to introduce even more uncertainty into the increasingly frantic race for the no. 8 seed out West.

Head coach Taylor Jenkins needed every bucket Jackson could provide to try to get the Grizzlies’ offense on track: Rookie of the Year–in-waiting Ja Morant’s shooting touch is still thawing out after four months on ice (2-for-10 from the field in the second half against New Orleans, just 36.1 percent overall in the bubble), hoped-for complementary playmaker Justise Winslow is out for the entire restart with a hip injury, and second-unit anchor Tyus Jones is still sidelined by right knee soreness. Through three games in Orlando, Memphis has scored 107.1 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the court, and a horrific 94.3 points per 100 with him off of it, according to NBA Advanced Stats, miles below what the most feckless attacks in the league muster.

At a time when hardly anybody in Beale Street blue can seem to shoot straight, Memphis just lost not only its top scorer, but also its most frequent and dangerous 3-point marksman. As the kind of high-volume scorer who draws opposing bigs out of the paint and demands they stay connected to him on the perimeter, Jackson creates the sort of extra space that can open up driving lanes for Morant and easy opportunities for teammates like Brandon Clarke. Without the threat of Jackson stroking a triple off of a kickout pass, help defenders can more confidently pack the paint, putting an already struggling Grizzlies offense on the verge of gridlock, and in need of another way to win.

Might that mean more minutes for healthy-again swingman Grayson Allen (8-for-13 from distance in the bubble) to get more shooting on the floor? Perhaps a dust-off for veteran big Gorgui Dieng, who shot 38.3 percent from 3-point land in Minnesota before coming over at the trade deadline, and could offer a two-way upgrade over Anthony Tolliver in the frontcourt? An increased commitment to pushing the pace, especially when speed demons Clarke (who’ll likely step into Jackson’s spot in the starting five) and De’Anthony Melton are on the floor? To get out and run, though, you need to get stops; this is where we note that Jackson leads the bubble Grizz in blocks and steals per game, and that Memphis has hemorrhaged baskets with him off the court, conceding 21.2 more points per 100 in non-JJJ minutes. Which, again, is what they’re all going to be from here on out.

There’s no good time to lose a player as important on both ends of the floor as Jackson is for the Grizzlies, but this comes at an especially brutal moment for Memphis. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in fine form and Jusuf Nurkic looking fantastic in his return from a broken leg, the Trail Blazers look as dangerous as they have all season. Ditto for the Spurs, who’ve found new life in multiguard alignments arrayed around sudden-small-ball-4 DeMar DeRozan, and the Suns, undefeated in Orlando after a thrilling Tuesday win over the Clippers, with Devin Booker looking like a superstar and all the pieces clicking into place around him. Even New Orleans, seemingly left for dead after Zion’s injury and a disastrous blowout loss to the Clips, “feels alive again” after taking out Memphis on Monday.

Four of the five teams chasing the Grizzlies (sorry, Sacramento) seem like legitimate threats not only to force a play-in for the final Western playoff spot, but to topple the grimacing Grizz twice and steal the no. 8 spot. Missing the playoffs wouldn’t erase all that’s been thrilling about this season—Morant’s derring-do, Jackson’s development into a giant Klay Thompson, the emergence of Clarke and Melton, the perennially overlooked excellence and importance of Jonas Valanciunas—and it wouldn’t change the fact that the rebuilding project in Memphis is well ahead of schedule. Even so, this is not what the Grizzlies hoped for when they headed to Orlando—a foundational piece facing a lengthy layoff and an increasing chance that what’s been such a delightfully surprising season might end on a decidedly sour note.