(Site Manager’s note - I am excited to welcome GBB’s newest contributor Patrick Graziosi, formerly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, to our community! Follow him on Twitter @PatrickGraziosi)
The start to Jaren Jackson Jr.’s NBA career has given Memphis Grizzlies fans some much needed optimism for the future.
The rangy 6-foot-11 forward was a summer league standout and filled the stat sheet during preseason play. Yes, it’s early – the regular season starts tonight. But the Grizzlies are an organization that has not had a rookie top five lottery pick on its opening night roster since 2009 – when Hasheem Thabeet was taken with the second overall selection in the NBA Draft.
Obviously, Thabeet’s NBA career flamed out quickly, but the 7-foot-3 center never displayed the flashes of versatility that the 19-year-old Jackson has exhibited so far. Those flashes have Grizzlies fans excited, and rightfully so.
But pump the brakes for just a minute.
In a perfect Grizzlies world – three years from now – the Michigan State product will possess the ability to guard four positions, shoot at a league average clip from three-point range, excel in pick-and-roll action, be an adequate rebounder and get multiple deflections on defense – including plenty of blocks and steals. That kind of productivity would cement Jackson as a prototypical pace-and-space big man in the modern NBA.
Right now, Jackson simply has to learn. And he has to learn quite a bit.
Sure, his father Jaren Jackson Sr. has 12 years of NBA wisdom to impart, but there is a huge difference between hearing how to play in the pros and actually putting that knowledge into action against the best athletes in the world on a game-to-game basis.
On top of playing NBA basketball, Jackson has to adapt to being a professional athlete as the second youngest player in the league, behind Los Angeles Lakers guard and fellow 2018 draftee, Isaac Bonga. He must become acclimated to a new city as a teenage millionaire, play with battle tested veterans stuck in win-now mode and figure out how to handle the rigors of an 82-game regular season.
Jackson will need to learn how to do those things quickly if he wants to contribute as a key cog for a franchise that expects to make the playoffs in a perennially tough Western Conference.
To put Jackson’s upcoming season in perspective – since the NBA implemented the age 19 cutoff for potential draftees in 2007 – there have been eight one-and-done top five draft picks that have participated on playoff teams in their rookie seasons; Derrick Rose, James Harden, Evan Turner, Enes Kanter, Jabari Parker, Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum.
Here is the cumulative rookie stat line for those players:
62 games played, 23.9 minutes per games, 9.8 points per game, 2.3 assists per game, 3.9 rebounds per game and a 13.5 PER. Those numbers come close to the equaling the 2017-18 production for New York Knicks swingman Mario Hezonja and Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder.
Exciting, isn’t it?
The interesting thing about those aforementioned rookies is the style of basketball they play. Other than Enes Kanter and Jabari Parker, the rest are guards and swingmen who were asked to create offense more than Jackson will this upcoming season.
Jackson finds himself in a much different situation as a developing big man for a team that was a playoff mainstay for seven straight seasons before missing the postseason after an injury plagued 2017-18 season, in which pivotal point guard Mike Conley played in only 12 games because of a lingering Achilles issue.
The Grizzlies don’t need Jackson to carry the load like Derrick Rose and Jayson Tatum did at times for their respective teams. He will be asked to give the team a spark off the bench and provide a different look than the organization is accustomed to at the forward and center position. Other than Brandan Wright and Stromile Swift, Memphis has not had a big that can play above the rim like Jackson – and the rookie has even more skills in his toolbox.
It’s understandable that Grizzlies faithful are excited to have Jackson in the fold. Memphis has had a tough time identifying and developing young talent over the last 10 years. No disrespect to Tony “Murder T. Wrote” Wroten and Greivis Vasquez, but fans have been looking for a young savior to carry the torch after Conley and center Marc Gasol ride off into the sunset – and while Wayne Selden Jr. and Dillon Brooks are solid rotational pieces, they don’t pack the punch and potential star power that Jackson possesses.
But for Jackson to reach that star potential, it’s going to take time and patience from the Grizzlies and their fanbase.
Remember, it took Conley a few years before he became comfortable running a competent NBA offense for a competitive team. Before he got to that point, the city of Memphis was looking to run him out of town. In 2009, some fans were disappointed when a potential Conley trade with the Milwaukee Bucks for guard Ramon Sessions and forward Joe Alexander reportedly fell through.
Luckily for Jackson, the infrastructure within the Grizzlies organization is much improved compared to where it was during Conley’s early years. Memphis will give Jackson time to grow and a veteran-laden roster with a winning mentality will help nurture the rookie along the way.
So, how should fans gauge Jackson’s success during his rookie season?
Statistics won’t tell the entire story – fellow Grizzly MarShon Brooks found this out the hard way after compiling solid numbers during his first year with the then New Jersey Nets before bouncing around the basketball map when he was typecast as a one-dimensional scorer. Solidifying weaknesses will be the measuring stick for Jackson.
In college, Jackson was inconsistent with his physicality and effort. In the NBA, he will need to do a better job of boxing out instead of trying to rebound over the top of the opposition with sheer athleticism. He must stay disciplined on defense and stop biting on shot fakes, which regularly placed him in foul trouble at Michigan State.
Jackson can learn a lot from Marc Gasol, who has historically played tall on the defensive end while also holding his own on switches.
On offense, Jackson must show improvement as a passer, especially in an offense that will rely on ball movement to free up shooters. When facing pressure from players that match his size and athleticism, he will need to recognize where to deliver the ball to keep the offense flowing. This is key to his development on the perimeter.
If Jackson can improve on those weaknesses, his season should be considered a success. Anything else will be a bonus, including refining the slow and low release point on his jump shot, which may take an offseason or two.
How will fans react if the lottery pick struggles to contribute immediately?
Time will tell.