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The unique rise of Jaren Jackson Jr.

The Memphis Grizzlies drafted an anomaly.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The date was January 23rd, 2012.

With the score tied at 102 and a mere five seconds remaining, Greg Popovich drew up a play for the San Antonio Spurs to avoid a terrible loss to the hapless New Orleans Hornets on the road. And even though his best years were definitely behind him, there was little question as to where the ball was going.

As Tim Duncan caught the inbounds pass on the low block from Danny Green, Emeka Okafor stepped up to chest-guard him. But while Okafor had a fine NBA career, he could never be expected to stop Duncan—even in the year-15 “get off my lawn, I don’t have time for this crap” stage of his career. Like a terminator determining the proper execution of its target, Duncan momentarily glanced at Okafor’s feet. And then he made his move. A slight jab-step to his left that created space. One hard dribble and then two steps parallel to the basket to his right. He then shot the running hook for the win.

Swish.

The footwork was vintage Tim Duncan, a momentary snapshot of what the picture of excellence had been for big men in the NBA the previous 15 years. In many ways, Duncan was the true culmination of the great big men in NBA history to that point—players that were phenomenal rebounders and used a combination of their skill, footwork and size/physicality to dominate the paint on both ends of the court.

How much everything can change in just 7 years.

While Duncan is still unquestionably one of the greatest players in NBA history, his archetype of “big man” is now largely extinct in the league. The “unicorns” like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and even the Memphis Grizzlies’ own Jaren Jackson Jr. are now far more reflective of the modern NBA big than a Tim Duncan or Karl Malone.

For the uninitiated, a “unicorn” is a heavily overused and corny term for big men whose skill-sets echo that of a guard nearly as much as they do a of a traditional big. They can do a little bit of everything, including shooting, ball handling as well as scoring from the low post like more traditional bigs.

However, there is an entirely different class even among the unicorns. And Jaren Jackson Jr. very well may be the sole occupant of that class, a fact that has become exceedingly clear during his second season in the league. While Jackson’s ultimate upside is debatable (although most including myself believe that he is likely a generational talent in the making), he’s already making his case to be one of the most unique and undefinable players in NBA history.

Shooting

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After erupting for 43 points that were spearheaded by 26 points and 7 threes alone in the third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks this past Saturday, perhaps it would be wise to start with Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shooting.

Let’s get the obvious fact out of the way first: Jackson’s shooting is unorthodox and unnatural. He usually spreads his feet out extremely wide while seemingly shooting with both hands (just look at his hands in the image above). When I see him shoot the ball, I reflexively think that it’s going to miss so badly off back iron that the brick alone could serve as the foundation of a house. Yet with his incredibly quick release as well as superb natural touch, Jackson has undeniably become one of the league’s best shooting bigs.

And when you see him pulling up like Stephen Curry while standing at 6’11, that is no surprise in the slightest.

To be sure, there have been several NBA big men even before this past decade that were lauded for their shooting ability, such as future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and Andrea Bargani. But even compared to the bigs that are phenomenal shooters in the league today, Jaren Jackson’s combination of volume and accuracy from beyond the arc is almost unprecedented. Of 6’11 or taller players throughout all of NBA history that played at least the amount of minutes in an individual season that Jackson has at the time of this writing (716), Jackson this season ranks sixth all-time in three-point attempts per 36 minutes (8.1) and third in makes (3.3).

Now here’s where it gets really fun: Jackson has the highest field goal percentage (48%) and effective field goal percentage (56%) of anyone in the top 20 for three-point attempts on that list outside of Karl-Anthony Towns this season. He has also shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc (40%) than those 20 players besides Towns and Channing Frye in 2016-2017.

With all of this in mind, it’s clear that Jackson is nearly an unprecedented shooter for a player of his size. Barring something or the appearance of someone unforeseen, he and Towns will contend over the next decade to be the most prolific shooting big man of all time (and if you want to add Davis Bertans, who’s a true stretch four as compared to Jackson and Towns’ versatility as fours and fives, to that discussion, you certainly can).

Ball-handling and Rebounding

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason why these two attributes go hand-in hand for Jaren Jackson Jr., and we’ll get to that in a minute.

Ball-handling in particular is one of Jaren Jackson’s most special attributes and a significant aspect of what makes him one of the more unique big men in NBA history. Much like his shooting, Jackson’s ability to handle the basketball and penetrate is simply unnatural for a player of his size. He regularly uses an impressive combination of double-moves, quickness, and quality footwork to get to the rim from the perimeter, such as in the clips below:

While Jackson may never quite be the athlete that he is, his combination of size, quickness and ball-handling reflects that of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Again, Giannis is clearly the more explosive player, but the similarities are striking.

The analytics also back up the eye test on Jackson’s ability as a ball-handler. Of players that are 6’10 or taller, he ranks sixth in the NBA with 3.7 drives per game. Four of those six are either more traditional stretch fours (Danillo Gallinari and Lauri Markkanen) or primary playmakers (Ben Simmons and Giannis). The only true power forward/center that ranks ahead of Jackson is once again Karl-Anthony Towns, who averages 3.8 drives. Once Jackson drives, he also scores efficiently, shooting 49% from the field after driving to the basket.

Of course, when you consider Jaren Jackson’s incredibly unique combination of ball-handling and shooting, it raises an interesting question: Is his overall skill-set more reflective of that of a wing rather than an actual big man? Maybe he isn’t a unique unicorn among unicorn big men in the modern NBA; maybe he’s just more of an oversized wing.

His, ahem, unfortunate rebounding numbers to put it nicely would seem to indicate that. Like with his shooting, Jackson is having a historical season in regards to his rebounding, although it’s not for the right reasons. He is currently averaging 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. Among all players in NBA history that are at least his height and played at least 25 minutes per game, that ranks as the 17th worst rebounding season in NBA history.

As clearly as Jackson struggles to rebound the ball, it’s just as unclear as to why exactly he does struggle so much. After all, rebounding wasn’t particularly an issue for him at Michigan State since he averaged 10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes during his lone season there. I don’t think effort is so much an issue as it is just mere deference. He plays with two excellent rebounders for their position in Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder in the starting lineup, and he also spends significant time next to another solid rebounder in Brandon Clarke in the front-court. He will never be an elite rebounder, but I believe that as he increases his lower body strength and continues to learn how to properly position himself, his rebounding numbers will start to climb.

And to be fair, Jackson’s ability on the defensive end greatly helps mitigate his issues with rebounding the ball. Although he has experienced somewhat of a drop-off this season as compared to his fantastic rookie campaign, his defensive metrics are still very good. As an excellent rim protector that also can defend the perimeter at a very high level, he could very well still become a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

An Anomaly

NBA: Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

So what do you call a 6’11, 240 pound player that is one of the NBA’s most sublime shooters, a superb ball-handler, a fantastic defender and yet also an exceedingly poor rebounder? It’s a fascinating riddle, and even as we’ve now seen Jaren Jackson Jr. play an entire season’s worth of NBA basketball, we are still not particularly close to an answer.

And that is fine. Some riddles and questions are so compelling and captivating that they are more than worth the wait to finally have the answer. But maybe for now, the best way to describe Jaren Jackson Jr. is as an anomaly, a unicorn among unicorns that very well may be one of the most unprecedented and unique talents in NBA history.

Make no mistake: He will not be Giannis Antetokounmpo or Karl-Anthony Towns. He certainly won’t be an old-fashioned big man in the mold of Tim Duncan either.

In reality, Jaren Jackson Jr. represents the beginning of something that we’ve perhaps never really seen before, a delightfully exhilarating and fascinating blend of the modern big man with the prototypical, three-point-reliant wing scorers of the era. The beauty lies in the uncertainty of what his future in the NBA will exactly be.

But I for one am very excited to eventually find out what it will be with the Memphis Grizzlies.

Stats provided by basketball-reference.com

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