With all the potential changes that could be in store for the Grizzlies in the near future, there are plenty of emotions to be felt. Logically, many will be disappointed, even sad. Some certainly feel it is a necessity, while others will desire to keep the roster intact, especially Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Regardless of the feelings that may be in the present, there should be a sense of excitement as the franchise focuses on the future.
The main source of that excitement is Jaren Jackson Jr. From displaying his immense potential to delivering apparel creating catch phrases, Jackson Jr. is viewed as the cornerstone of the Grizzlies’ future. He has surprised many with a polished offensive game, while also validating the defensive reputation that he earned at Michigan State. Currently, of all rookies that have played 1,000 minutes, Jackson Jr. has the best defensive rating and most blocked shots. It is not far-fetched to say that Jaren Jackson Jr. could be the most talented rookie in franchise history.
The ceiling of that talent is extremely high. However, despite the plethora of positives in Jackson Jr.’s skill set, there are a few clear areas of growth as well. The most noticeable is his knack for committing fouls. Through 51 games, Jackson Jr. has committed 193 fouls. That is the highest number of fouls one player has committed through 51 games since the 1998-1999 season. For Jackson Jr. to continue his development, he must stay on the court consistently.
While the fouls may get more recognition, Jackson Jr’s rebounding production may be an even bigger source of concern. Currently, Jackson Jr. has grabbed 237 rebounds in 1317 minutes played. For NBA players that are 83 inches or taller that have played 1300 minutes in a season, Jackson Jr. has the second lowest rebound total in league history. This season, Jackson Jr. is only the third NBA player 83 inches or taller to register a block percentage higher than 5% and a total rebounding percentage less than 11%. Ironically, Brook Lopez’s 2018-2019 season meets both of the aforementioned criteria as well, as he has less rebounds than Jackson Jr.
Overall, these two observations of Jackson Jr. are not meant to dim his bright future. However, that does not make them insignificant. These numbers infer that while Jackson Jr.’s athleticism certainly is an advantage on both ends of the court, his discipline and physicality are works in progress. Many scouting reports suggested that Jackson Jr. was far from a finished product, and it would take time for him to become a complete player. If some veterans on the Grizzlies were to find new homes at the trade deadline, there will be ample minutes for Jackson Jr. to develop his discipline and rebounding.
Both the strengths and areas of growth in Jackson Jr.’s game has also created a focus of how a roster should be built around him. In particular, the Grizzlies now have an idea of what to look for in a future frontcourt starter aside Jackson Jr.
While Jackson Jr. may certainly make his rebounding ability respectable in time, it is reasonable that ability will never be a clear strength. As a result, the Grizzlies should prioritize finding an elite rebounder to partner with Jackson Jr. This will allow him to focus on maximizing his strengths, while the post pairing will naturally minimize his weaknesses.
With Jaren’s strengths in mind, the Grizzlies’ should also prioritize a future front court starter who can pass. Jackson Jr. has proven the ability to consistently score off the dribble and in the post, or pop out and bury a three. A post presence that can contribute to effective ball movement to set Jackson Jr. up with high percentage scoring opportunities would be a great addition to future Grizzlies’ offenses.
Finding a post player who can add value both rebounding and passing is certainly not an easy task. Fortunately, the Grizzlies may have someone on their current roster who meets this profile.
The answer to that post position next to Jaren could be Ivan Rabb. I mentioned a few weeks back that if some Grizzlies’ veterans were to be traded, younger players such as Jevon Carter and Rabb could get more playing time. Rabb’s playing time has been inadequate at best, but he certainly has flashed the ability to be effective in short spurts.
In particular, Rabb has shown flashes of being effective at both rebounding and passing. This season, for players 23 and under that have played at least 100 minutes, only 3 have averaged more than 13 rebounds and 2.5 assists per 36 minutes. Their names are Karl-Anthony Towns, Domantas Sabonis, and Ivan Rabb.
In the best Paul Heyman voice I can muster, I want to preface this stat finding with a SPOILER ALERT. I am not suggesting that Ivan Rabb will develop into Sabonis or Anthony-Towns. Rabb’s defensive liabilities and lack of athleticism have limited him to an end of the bench reserve so far in his career. It is likely his ceiling is as a key reserve as his career develops.
I am suggesting that Rabb provides an encouraging possibility. Not just one to be entertained with discussion, but to explore with action. If one were to compare Rabb with Sabonis at the age of 21, the numbers are somewhat similar. With the confidence of consistent playing time, Rabb seems capable of solidifying a spot for himself in the Grizzlies’ future.
Even if that spot is not next to Jackson Jr. as a consistent starter, Rabb should be given every opportunity to explore the pairing. Of all 2-man combinations that have played 30 minutes together this year for Memphis, Jackson Jr. and Rabb lead the Grizzlies with a net total rebounding percentage of +34%. When on the court together, the duo shows the ability to create an advantage for the Grizzlies on the boards.
While that small sample size is nothing to base future franchise decisions on, it provides logic to the idea of playing the pair together more. In time, it is very possible, even likely, that Rabb proves over extended with large amounts of minutes. And that is perfectly fine. The Grizzlies are gaining a more valid truth of what potential Rabb has. A roster built around Jackson Jr. will likely need a few sources of effective rebounding such as Rabb.
On and off the court, the Grizzlies have faced more negatives than positives as of late. This could become even more valid if some veterans are traded off. Any environment where there are clearly more questions than answers naturally leads to concern. However, it also creates opportunity.
That is exactly what the Grizzlies need as a team, and Jackson Jr. and Rabb need as players. The Grizzlies need to take the opportunity to know how players in the present may impact the franchise’s future. Rabb needs the opportunity to determine what level of player he can be. Jaren Jackson Jr. needs the opportunity to continue evolving into the transcendent superstar this franchise, fan base, and city needs.
While none of these opportunities may be fully determined this year, taking steps in the right direction is certainly a positive start to the long rebuild ahead. Every journey certainly does begin with a single step. For the Grizzlies, continuing to develop Jackson Jr. and Rabb would certainly be a confident one in the right direction.