In a rookie season full of peaks and valleys, Jaren Jackson Jr. has plenty to take in.
Whether it be from mentors like Kevin Garnett and Mike Conley, his coaches, or his support group led by his parents, all around him is a whirlwind of information and opportunity. For a young man who had trouble at times staying of the floor for Michigan State this time last season (for reasons not entirely of his own making), it must be overwhelming at times. At 19 years old, the fact is that the prospects of the Memphis Grizzlies for roughly the next decade are directly connected to his ability to grow, and develop, and learn.
With Marc Gasol moving on from Memphis, and the continuation of the transition away from one era to the next that comes with that move, there will only continue to be moving parts and pieces in the months ahead. Mike Conley will almost certainly once again be on the trading block this summer. Every player acquired via trade before the deadline has some sort of option or restriction that could mean they’re not on the team come opening night 2019, much less 2020 or beyond. Ivan Rabb, Jevon Carter, and Dillon Brooks could depart the summer after this one, depending on the plans for Memphis. Come 2021, the only players that will be under contract as of today are Kyle Anderson and Jaren.
Again, no pressure.
As Jackson Jr. takes the floor tonight among the other Rising Stars of the NBA, he will see players whose experiences in the Association vary wildly from his own. He will see players on teams that are rising in their own right (De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III of the Sacramento Kings, Jarrett Allen and Rodions Kurucs of the Brooklyn Nets), players on title contenders (Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors), and players on especially young teams in the midst of a full rebuild (Trae Young and John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks, Kevin Knox of the New York Knicks, Deandre Ayton of the Phoenix Suns). None of them are in the situation he is, though - a team in NBA purgatory, with a mix of veterans and younger players that are trying to win as much as possible so they don’t have their 1st round pick to build around him with.
Rarely are things ideal...that’s a life lesson even more than an NBA one.
The reality is, while Jaren has settled in nicely to Memphis after the initial reports he wasn’t interested in playing for the Grizzlies, there is much to be unsettled about around him. The coaching staff is below average at best, a disaster at worst. The front office has committed far too many sins in the draft process over the years to build a roster in a small market from the ground up. The owner is rarely, if at all, publicly present and because of the vacuum left behind by all these undeniable truths, there is little leadership and no culture present.
So why be optimistic about the future?
Because Jaren Jackson Jr. can fill that void...if he is willing.
Perhaps it is in the youthful exuberance on the bench when something goes well for the veterans on the floor, or the “litness” that Jaren carries himself with as he plays and interacts with the media. Maybe it’s simply in the apparently limitless ceiling to the potential he brings as a basketball player, a new-age Kevin Garnett with a splash of Chris Bosh that can impact a game at nearly every level. Jaren’s rookie win shares per 48 minutes to this point are better than the rookie season of Garnett. His net rating is higher than that of Bosh. He is converting three pointers at higher clips while posting a usage rate 6.6% higher than that of Garnett and 7.3% higher than Bosh in their rookie campaigns. There’s no need to say any longer “this will be Jaren’s team”.
After the events of the past few weeks, this is Jaren’s team now.
And with that will come growing pains, like the missed free throw with the game on the line this past Tuesday against the San Antonio Spurs. His greatest issue this season - foul trouble - plagued him on this night as well. Yet even with a limited influence in his 23 minutes on the floor, there he was, in a situation he will almost certainly find himself in again someday soon. Down two, limited time remaining, need both shots to continue the game. His team, with Mike Conley out and Marc Gasol rocking the red of the Raptors, looked to him to make the difference.
He wasn’t able to.
Jaren was hard on himself - understandably so. But these moments where Jackson Jr. comes up short of the mantle he is taking on will pay off ten fold in the weeks, months, and years to come. For every slip up, every stumble, there must be a stabilizing step forward. A difficult moment well worth remembering...a lesson that only failure can teach.
You need the fall to learn how to get up.
As Jaren moves forward in to this brave new world where he is no longer just a rookie, but a leader of men and force for culture growth and change, he must embrace the opportunity in front of him. His season is becoming an on the job training in leadership, in establishment of a mentality that will define the Grizzlies for years to come. In pursuing a goal (conveying the 1st round pick to Boston this year) and giving your all in that cause, inspiring those around you to do the same at the highest levels of basketball. At 19 years old, he must carry more of the burden - as much as coaching and his environment will allow - and play an even more direct role in the successes, or failures, ahead.
If they can reach their desired destination for this season and send the pick to Boston, the rebuild around Jaren Jackson Jr. can fully begin. The clock toward contention with Jaren leading the way can start. If not? The race to convey gets extended, and Memphis will have to find outside the box ways to place pieces around their budding superstar. Regardless, for Jackson Jr. this new normal will stay. His face will be on the posters, and the billboards, and the franchise as a whole.
And with it will come a further education for the future of the Memphis Grizzlies, who is also now fully their present.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com, contract information provided by Spotrac.