The Memphis Grizzlies clawed their way to a 45-37 record and the 7th seed in the Western Conference. Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and a returning Tyreke Evans obviously led the way, but Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks showed everyone what the future could become. Brooks improved immensely as a scorer, 3-point shooter and playmaker — averaging 13 points on 40 percent shooting from deep and 4 assists. Meanwhile, Jaren Jackson Jr. was a surprising immediate contributor and held down the starting power forward position, averaging 10 points, 7 rebounds and 1.5 blocks.
Hey, it could happen.
Jaren Jackson Jr. certainly wasn’t the most glamorous prospect in the top-7. He didn't hold the star power that Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young possess. His per game traditional numbers weren’t on par with DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley. His hype train wasn’t nearly as fast and loud as Mo Bamba’s. Some people in Memphis didn’t think he was as safe as Wendell Carter. His foul numbers scared many people, including myself.
When the Memphis Grizzlies made Jaren Jackson Jr. their pick, the feeling around the draft party at the FedEx Forum was...indifferent. There was a quick cheer, but I couldn’t tell if it was of approval, or if people were just glad the wait was over. There was some jeering as well for the reasons mentioned above. Many people questioned why Robert Pera says they’re going to win 50 games, yet pick a “project” like Jackson.
However, don’t let the local noise distract you. Jaren Jackson could very well be the best player from this draft class in 3-4 years.
Jackson is highly regarded as a 3-and-D big man — a rare commodity in today’s basketball world. Though his minutes hindered him from putting up big-time numbers, he was still wildly productive. His traditional stats aren’t that eye-popping (10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 39.6% from deep). However, when you translate that to per 40 minutes and per 100 possessions ... WOW!
Per 40 minutes: 20 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.5 blocks, 2 made 3’s, and 2 assists.
Per 100 possessions: 29.3 points, 15.6 rebounds, 8.1 blocks, 3 assists, 2.9 made 3’s, 1.6 steals.
Since 2012, only 6 “one-and-done” big men averaged at least 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 6 blocks per 100 possessions: Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Myles Turner, Mohamed Bamba, and...Jaren Jackson Jr.
That’s some great company.
It’s Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs. The Memphis Grizzlies are down 0-2 to the Houston Rockets. The trio of Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela are demolishing the Grizzlies with their lethal pick-and-roll play. It’s the fourth quarter of the game, and the Grizzlies are down 10 with 8 minutes left in the game. Marc Gasol has become a causality of the Rockets’ fast, “pick-and-roll centric” offense — where great big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert have fallen as well.
After Chris Paul and Clint Capela connect on an alley oop, JB Bickerstaff calls a timeout. The Grizzlies come back on the court... but where’s Marc Gasol? On the bench. Who’s playing center? 19-year old Jaren Jackson Jr.
The most intriguing aspect of Jackson’s game is easily his defensive versatility. He was one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball, as he averaged a whopping 3 blocks a game in only 21.8 minutes per game. He’s not your average shot-blocking prospect though — you know, the one that makes you think of Hasheem Thabeet.
He uses his massive wingspan to smother ball-handlers and to block players when they’re attacking the paint. Because of his mobility, he can switch onto perimeter players in the pick-and-roll and actually stay in front of them.
Needless to say he’s absolutely perfect as a modern-day center. He possesses the same skills as elite defensive big men like Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, Al Horford and Clint Capela. This skill-set is vital for success as a big, which was extremely evident in this year’s playoffs. If you’re over 6’10” and aren’t mobile enough to switch in the pick-and-roll, good luck finding playing time. Luckily for Jackson, he has a good head start.
Yes, his defense is enticing, but his offensive versatility is just as fascinating. The name of the game nowadays is “pace and space,” and Jaren Jackson is a hand-in-glove fit for it.
While he still needs work on his inside game, he’s a potential lob threat and a floor-runner — which is intriguing for someone that could play the 5. In addition, he has a nice outside game, possessing a smooth touch from deep. Though his release is kind of funky, he’s efficient, and the ball goes in the hoop. What more can you ask?
If Jackson’s offensive game translates to the next level, and his defense stays consistent, the Memphis Grizzlies might have a unicorn on their hands.
First defensive play out of the time out, James Harden has the ball, and Capela is looking to set him another screen. Jaren Jackson Jr. switches onto Harden, as the savvy ball-handler has him right where he wants him. He tries to shake him and drive to the basket for the lay-in (or foul, knowing James Harden). SMACK! The rookie blocks him off the glass, which ignites a transition 3 from Dillon Brooks. Next offensive play down, Conley connects with Jackson a pick-and-pop. BANGO! The rookie drains the triple.
The Grindhouse is going nuts. The Grizzlies complete the comeback and take Game 3. In the process, Jaren Jackson Jr. gives everyone a glimpse of the future — a new form of “Grit ‘n’ Grid” basketball.
When Chris Wallace and JB Bickerstaff preached “grit ‘n’ grind” at last Friday’s press conference, it was easy to moan and groan about it.
It doesn’t work in today’s NBA.
The front office doesn’t know what they’re doing.
However, who says the Grizzlies are going back to the “grit ‘n’ grind” everyone knows? It doesn’t necessarily mean getting a bunch of players that can’t shoot. Or playing big when the league is going small. Or dragging the opposing team in the mud, and winning games by scoring in the low 90’s.
It simply means finding players that are tenacious on defense. It means not laying down when your team is getting smacked by 60 to a fellow lottery team. It’s not a style of play, it’s an identity.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. on the squad, the Grizzlies have a chance to bridge the old “grit ‘n’ grind” to a new version of it. Just imagine a faster, more free-flowing offense partnered with a tenacious “grit ‘n’ grind” defense. Or a “grit ‘n’ grind” system that can unleash a small-ball lineup and switch on every screen.
All of that is possible because of Jackson’s versatility as a modern NBA center.
The Grizzlies haven’t had a big man like him. Have you ever seen either Gasol brother switch on guards and cause them problems? Or Zach Randolph blocking a shot on one end and running down the floor to finish above the rim on the other? In the GNG era, which big men were capable of playing both the 4 and 5 effectively? Have the Grizzlies had a big man — besides Marc Gasol — be a lethal, and willing, shooter from outside?
Jackson’s skillset gives the Grizzlies a route to the modern NBA, a replacement for Marc Gasol, a potential unicorn, and a possible cornerstone for the future of the GNG basketball.
Yes, be skeptical about the Grizzlies’ willingness to retreat back to GNG. Be cautious about Jackson and his timeline as a prospect. Be concerned about his foul issues or his evolving offensive game.
However, don’t ignore Jackson’s upside as a prospect. Keep in mind that he has the potential to join the NBA’s next wave of elite versatile bigs. Be excited that the Grizzlies have a player with his pedigree and upside for the first time in almost A DECADE. Adopt the mentality that “grit ‘n’ grind” isn’t a style of play but a mindset, while also thinking about how it could evolve into something great.
The Jaren Jackson pick wasn’t sexy — which obviously screams MEMPHIS — but it potentially build a glorious bridge to a new era of “Grit ‘n’ Grind” basketball.