As site manager Joe Mullinax declared last week, patience must be a virtue when evaluating the young Memphis Grizzlies. When your two franchise faces are both just 20-years-old, you must expect there to be severe growing pains and frustrating play. The emphasis should not necessarily be on wins and losses, but rather on growth and development.
However, there should be a healthy level of criticism when the Grizzlies coaching staff is not utilizing one of those franchise faces to properly develop them in the first place. Or to describe it better, they are not utilizing him enough.
Plain and simple, Jaren Jackson Jr. needs the ball more.
Even though it’s just six games into the season, it’s worth reflecting whether expectations were too high for Jackson coming into this year. After all, he’s still a rookie in all but title since he still hasn’t played a full season’s worth of NBA games in his career. It would be foolish to believe that Jackson would have already significantly improved his fouling tendencies with that in mind.
It also shouldn’t be all that concerning that Jackson’s numbers are more or less identical to his numbers from last year, with the exception of significant drop-off in his shooting percentages (51% from the field to 44%, and 36% from three to 26%). Again, it’s just been six games, and his shooting will progress to the mean.
But while no change or even a slight decrease in production shouldn’t be particularly concerning for Jackson in year two when it’s this early in the season, there still should be some level of concern for the reason why that’s the case.
Obviously, his fouling issues are certainly a significant part of that, which has been well-documented to this point. Even if you don’t think it could be a significant long-term issue for him (which I do), it is definitely prohibiting him from being as impactful as he can be right now.
Yet part of Jackson’s issues exist on the court as well in the fact he simply isn’t receiving the touches that he needs.
Over the course of the entire offseason, the narrative that the Grizzlies would go as Jaren Jackson and Ja Morant go flourished. In the absence of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Jackson would now be the face of the franchise and the key cog through which the offense ran. Injury may have robbed us of seeing him in a more featured role offensively during the second half of last year, but we were definitely going to get to see that this year.
But Taylor Jenkins has more or less used Jackson to the same degree that Bickerstaff did last year, which is all the more head-scratching since this iteration of the Grizzlies’ has less overall talent than last year’s team did and Jackson had an entire offseason to be groomed as a leading man.
His usage is almost identical this year so far (22.9%) as compared to last year (22.8%), which is third in the starting lineup behind Morant (29.8%) and Jonas Valanciunas (24.5%). His PER (13.4, a dip from 16.4 last year), which is often correlated to usage, is sixth on the team.
Of players who have played at least 50 minutes with Jackson so far, he is 4th in FGA per 100 possessions (14.9) behind Morant, Valanciunas and Dillon Brooks, and he has generally looked passive with the exception of the Bulls game and the first quarter of the Nets game. If you expand that group to players on the roster as a whole who have played at least 80 minutes this year, he is fifth behind...*checks notes*...Grayson Allen.
So if it looks like Jaren Jackson is taking a backseat on offense, that’s because he absolutely is.
Not even fouling can truly account for the disparity. As impossible as it might seem, Dillon Brooks has an almost identical foul rate to Jackson and still is averaging more shot attempts per game.
In fairness, the motto for Taylor Jenkins’ pace-and-space offense is to “let the bleep bleep fly”. He has certainly empowered every player on the Grizzlies’ roster to have the freedom to launch threes with reckless abandon and create plays for themselves and others, exemplified by the fact that the Grizzlies are third in the league in pace (107.6) and are attempting more threes than they ever have in franchise history (31.2, which is hilariously still just 21st in the NBA).
However, although equal opportunity is a sound philosophy in church league, there’s no reason why the Grizzlies’ best player shouldn’t have the ball in his hands more than he currently does. You can still empower your role players in a pace-and-space system while recognizing that the tip of the spear is Jaren Jackson Jr.
Because Dillon Brooks, as solid as he has been this year, consistently taking more shots than Jaren in a game is the equivalent of Wally Szczerbiak taking more shots than Kevin Garnett on the early 2000s Timberwolves. It just shouldn’t happen.
Again, it is still early in the season, and the issue will hopefully correct itself as Jackson matures and continues to develop. But the Grizzlies need to be aggressive in addressing it: Ja Morant and Tyus Jones need to look for him earlier in the shot clock and more aggressively pursue the mismatches that he creates. Taylor Jenkins needs to make the offense running through Jackson a point of emphasis in his offensive game plan. And perhaps most importantly, Jackson just needs to be more assertive in demanding the ball, whether that means calling for it in isolation from the perimeter or the low block.
Playing through Ja and Jaren has to be more than just lip service if the Grizzlies are to properly develop them over the next year. Jenkins and his staff have done a fine job in allowing Ja Morant to flourish so far.
But it’s time to put the ball back in the court of the Memphis Grizzlies’ best player and face of the franchise.