The Grizzlies were up six against the Blazers on October 27. Then Jaren Jackson Jr. picked up a loose ball foul while trying to box out and another on a moving screen within the span of 15 seconds. Jackson was pulled and things immediately got out of hand for Memphis. Portland went on a 17-5 run and never looked back. Jackson sat out the rest of the game and the Blazers won by 20.
That’s not the only time that has happened this season. Ja Morant has played like a superstar, averaging 28.7 points on 52.1 percent shooting and 7.7 assists per game, but the Grizzlies have been living and dying based on whether Jackson is in. They go from a net rating of plus-7 in 164 minutes with him to minus-19.7 in 129 minutes without him.
The explanation is fairly simple. Jackson, who is shooting 27.3 percent from 3 on 7.3 attempts per game, is their only frontcourt player who can space the floor. The other four in their rotation—Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and Xavier Tillman Sr.—are all good players in their own right. But none is much of a threat from beyond the 3-point line. The opposing defense can pack the paint, dare them to shoot, and throw bodies at Morant. That’s the only way to slow down arguably the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands. Playing with Jackson gives Morant more room to attack the basket and easier passes to make. Per NBA Advanced Stats, his true shooting percentage jumps by 6.8 points and his ratio of assists to turnovers is almost twice as high.
Jackson is having this effect despite not playing particularly well himself. He’s averaging only 12.7 points per game because he’s shooting 34.4 percent from 2-point range, putting him 133rd out of the 136 players who have attempted at least five such tries per game this season. He’s also constantly in foul trouble and barely playing more than half the game (27.3 minutes). Memphis has to find a better answer behind Jackson and also rely on that answer less.
It has been a difficult 15 months for Jackson, who tore his meniscus in the bubble last August. The Grizzlies were very cautious with his return last season, bringing him back with only 16 games left before the playoffs. Jackson never got comfortable after such a lengthy layoff and looked like a shell of himself. It was a lost year of development for the 22-year-old.
None of that prevented Memphis from opening up the checkbook and signing him to a four-year, $105 million contract in the offseason. The team already knows what it has in Morant. Jackson is a question mark.
There are a couple key points of development to watch.
The first is his ability to create his own shot. Jackson isn’t just a shooter. He can put the ball on the floor and shoot over smaller defenders. It doesn’t look all that impressive when he does it, but the fact that he can do it at all is significant:
Jackson doesn’t have a great handle or first step, but he doesn’t need them. Most big men who play on the perimeter just need to shoot well enough to force defenders to step up and give them driving lanes to the rim. Jackson gets those lanes all the time because he’s such a great shooter.
Memphis is giving him more offensive freedom this season. That was the subtle benefit of the offseason trade that swapped Jonas Valanciunas, who averaged 17.1 points per game last season, for Steven Adams, who averaged 7.6. Valanciunas is a brute-force scorer who demands the ball and mashes his way to the basket. Adams is a good passer who can make plays from the high post and stay out of the way. Valanciunas and Jackson never clicked together. In each of the past three seasons, the Grizzlies had a negative net rating with both on the floor. Playing with Adams better resembles Jackson’s more successful, rookie-year partnership with Marc Gasol.
Letting Jackson create will be a learning process. The good news is that he’s unlikely to keep playing this poorly. His 2-point shooting will eventually regress closer to his career averages (54 percent). He’s mostly able to create open shots, he’s just not finishing them. The key for him will be learning to slow down and not rush the shot once the opportunity is there, and to do a better job of absorbing contact. That comes back to timing, experience, and adding strength:
The other thing that would help is knowing when to pass the ball. Jackson, who has career averages of 1.2 assists and 1.7 turnovers per game, will never be a great playmaker. But he’s a smart player who has shown flashes of that ability. He had four assists in 18 minutes against Portland:
All Jackson had to do in this situation was take what the defense gave him. It’s difficult to match up with a player with his size (6-foot-11 and 242 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan) and shooting ability. He has a quick release, a high release point, and the ability to shoot from anywhere. That foundation should make adding things to his game as he gets older easier than it would be for most players.
Improving as a defender will be harder. Jackson was a great defensive prospect in college, but it hasn’t translated to the NBA. Furthermore, his collegiate propensity to hack has followed him to the pros. He averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes in college and has career averages of 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes in the NBA. Some are a natural result of getting outmuscled in the paint. But there are a lot of silly ones that he picks up from being too aggressive on both ends of the floor.
The reason that is so important is because Memphis just saw the limits of what a traditional big man can do in the playoffs. Valanciunas couldn’t move his feet well enough last season to defend the pick-and-roll in space. Utah spread the floor with four shooters and attacked him mercilessly in their first-round matchup. Adams had the same problem in his last few seasons in Oklahoma City. The Grizzlies have to be able to play smaller with Jackson at the 5 in the playoffs. He doesn’t need to be great defensively. He just has to hold his own.
That’s why the Grizzlies’ 120-114 October 23 win over the Clippers might have been their most encouraging of the season. Los Angeles made a surprise run to the Western Conference finals without Kawhi Leonard partly by downsizing with Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum at the 5. Jackson spent a lot of the game matched up with Morris. He was able to take him off the dribble and stay with him on defense:
Lineups with Jackson at the 5 have been effective in a limited sample (plus-9 in 57 minutes) this season. Finding the right combinations of players is tricky for Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins because he has a deep team with many players to keep happy. The return of Dillon Brooks, who has been out with a broken hand, will help. Not only is he a good defender with the size (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds) to plug leaks all over the floor, but he will also move De’Anthony Melton, another excellent defender, back to the second unit. The best frontcourt partner for Jackson might be Clarke, a hyper-athletic forward who can defend out to the 3-point line and play with the physicality inside that Jackson sometimes lacks. They have a net rating of plus-43.3 in 26 minutes together.
But most of the necessary improvements will come down to Jackson. The things that he needs to work on—timing on drives, making the right passing reads, staying out of foul trouble, anchoring the defense, and getting stronger—are all things that young big men typically struggle with. And Jackson is still very young despite being in his fourth season in the NBA. He turned 22 in September. He’s less than two years older than rookie Evan Mobley and almost a year younger than DeAndre Ayton. No one knows how long it will take him to figure it out, or if he ever will. There isn’t that much the Grizzlies can do to help. They have cleared the runway for him. It’s on him to actually take off.
The best version of Jackson could elevate Memphis from a middle-of-the-pack team in the West to a contender. Morant can’t do it all by himself. The history of point guards in the playoffs is proof. James Harden never played with an All-Star frontcourt player in Houston and neither has Damian Lillard. Steph Curry wouldn’t have won a title without Draymond Green.
The frustrating part for Morant is that big men usually develop slower than guards. The two young cornerstones in Memphis are the perfect example. There’s no way a 6-foot-3 guard like Morant would have been drafted in the top five if he had as basic an offensive game as Jackson. But a 6-foot-11 player will go that high just on potential. Morant came into the NBA far closer to a finished product. Jackson could keep developing well into his 20s.
It’s unclear how good Jackson can become because we’ve never seen a player quite like him. His father (Jaren Jackson Sr.) was a shooting specialist who played 12 seasons in the NBA and won a title with the Spurs. Shooting is the toughest thing to teach a young player. It’s probably not a coincidence that two of the greatest shooters of all time (Curry and Klay Thompson) are second-generation NBA players who grew up around the game. Curry and Jackson have an even bigger advantage because they are second-generation shooters. It’s the family business. Imagine if Kyle Korver had an athletic 6-foot-11 son.
Big men who play like guards are the future of the game. Jackson has a chance to be one of those kinds of players. Whether or not he becomes one remains to be seen. Memphis will just have to wait to find out.