It’s time for a Sunday school lesson!
Even if you’ve never opened a Bible in your life, chances are that you’ve heard of Samson. Samson was possibly the strongest person to ever live, and there was no one like him in all of the earth. His incredible feats dwarf that of Achilles or Hercules: He apparently killed a thousand men with just the jawbone of a donkey. He also killed over 20,000 people by tearing down a building with his bare hands. He was the Hulk before Marvel if you will.
To be sure, there was no limit to the greatness that Samson could have achieved with his strength as Israel’s “enforcer”.
However, Samson had a tragic flaw that prevented him from becoming all he could have been. To be blunt, he liked women too much. And because he liked women too much, it led to his demise. As the kids say these days, it was a tough scene. You hate to see it.
And now nearly 4,000-ish years later, the Memphis Grizzlies have their own enforcer of sorts with unlimited potential in Jaren Jackson Jr. He unfortunately may not be able to slaughter an army with a jawbone, but he does present an alluring combination of elite talent on both ends of the court. Of course, that’s nothing that hasn’t already been said.
But Jaren Jackson also has a tragic flaw that can possibly keep him from becoming a perennial all-star. And it has been on full display during this preseason as he fouled out in his last two games — and did so in less than 25 minutes in both.
As I watched Jackson pick up his sixth foul closing out entirely too hard on Mike Muscala’s three-point shot on Wednesday, I was reminded of a column that I wrote about him shortly after the Memphis Grizzlies drafted him two summers ago. In that column, I noted how both Karl-Anthony Towns and Jackson didn’t play as much as you would have thought during their respective times in college.
One paragraph in particular jumps out:
Jackson’s fouling issues were prolific in college, and they have followed him to the NBA. Although he was clearly the most talented player on his Michigan State team, Jackson only played 21.8 minutes per game because he averaged 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes. His transition to the NBA has not led to any improvement in that area to this point as he averaged 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes last year and led the league in general with 3.8 fouls per game despite just playing 26.1 minutes per contest. In the Grizzlies’ two preseason games against actual NBA competition this year, he has averaged 6.9 fouls per 36 minutes.
Now that is a tough scene.
Of course, there is some encouragement to be found in the fact that Jackson’s fouling difficulties do not reflect that he is a poor defender by any stretch of the imagination. On the contrary, he is still as active as ever on that end and is regularly altering shots and disrupting drives in the paint. He has also averaged a healthy 1.5 blocks and 0.5 steals so far in the preseason.
Historically speaking, a high foul rate in college and early in NBA careers are also generally a positive indicator for a player’s defensive potential because it denotes a high level of aggressiveness. As I wrote in my piece from two summers ago, Shaquille O’Neal posted a similar foul rate during his freshman year at LSU to Jackson at Michigan State. Joel Embiid played nearly the same amount of college minutes as Jackson at Kansas and fouled at nearly an identical rate.
Jackson’s problem is not that he can’t stay in front of quicker players and has to foul them to compensate. Rather, he is a transcendent defensive talent that is simply far too aggressive, regularly swiping down with his hands rather than holding them high and relying on his impressive combination of length and lateral quickness to alter shots. To put it bluntly, he lacks the discipline to understand how good he is on that end of the court, and it reduces his effectiveness as a result.
And this is where the issues become a bit more concerning: While it’s completely normal for elite defensive bigs to struggle with fouling at the beginning of their careers, it’s something they typically figure out very quickly—which does not appear to be the case for Jackson.
The historical comparisons are not kind to Jackson in this regard.
O’Neal’s foul rate dropped from 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes his freshman season to 3.6 fouls per 40 during his sophomore season. He would then average a healthy 3.8 fouls per 36 minutes during his rookie season with the Orlando Magic and would hover around that number for the rest of his career.
Joel Embiid in particular posted nearly identical foul rates to Jackson both in his one year at Kansas as well as his “rookie” season. However, he immediately showed drastic improvement in that area in year two, averaging just 3.9 fouls per 36 minutes. Granted, Jackson still hasn’t even officially began his second year in the league, but the early returns in that area have not been promising to say the least.
If you want to go way back, Hakeem Olajuwon averaged 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes during his freshman year at the University of Houston. But he would make significant improvement during his sophomore season, and he would trend around 3.6 fouls per 36 minutes for his NBA career.
After some fairly extensive research, Jaren Jackson’s case almost appears to be unprecedented. Although high foul rates are often a positive indicator, many of the NBA’s great defensive big men never really struggled in that area at all (Tim Duncan, Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, etc.) And those who did so seem to have almost universally made significant strides very early on like O’Neal, Embiid, and even Olajuwon.
No one is expecting Jackson to completely erase his fouling tendencies and become the league’s best defender in year two. However, when he was historically bad in that area during his rookie season and hasn’t shown any sign of progression —although, again, it’s still preseason — at all, that’s when it becomes concerning.
To be sure, Jaren Jackson Jr. possesses a type of two-way potential that no other young player in the NBA possesses. His combination of footwork, ball-handling, and shooting nearly makes him a nightmare for other big men to defend. And he has all the talent in the world to eventually become the Defensive Player of the Year.
But all of that doesn’t matter if he can’t find a way to stay on the court.
And make no mistake about it: There’s only one person that can fix this issue for Jaren Jackson, and that’s himself. There’s no amount of scheme or coaching that is going to force Jackson to be disciplined and keep his hands high. J.B. Bickerstaff and the rest of his coaching staff made it a point of emphasis all year long for only little tangible results. At some point, he is going to have to be able to internally discipline himself in this area of his game.
If he is ultimately unsuccessful in doing so, he will be unable to reach his peak ceiling. After all, you have to be on the court for extended periods in the fourth quarter if you want to be one of the best players in the league.
And I do not want to have to be reminded of Samson whenever I think of Jaren Jackson Jr. a decade from now — always wondering about what he could have been.
I don’t think that will be the case. I believe that Jackson will figure it out and become the player that he is meant to be.
The future and long-term upside of the Memphis Grizzlies depend on it.