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Was Jaren Jackson Jr. really the right choice?

An analytical breakdown of his rookie season

NBA: NBA Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Site Manager’s Note: Greg Lubiani is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University - Commerce, but more importantly is a Memphian through and through and loves the Grizzlies. He joins our staff to take deep statistical and analytical dives in to the bears of Beale Street. Follow him on Twitter @doctor_stat

Did the Memphis Grizzlies get it right when they selected Jaren Jackson Jr. with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft?

It’s a fair and important question to ask now that his rookie season is over. Grizz fans know better than perhaps anyone what damage can be done to a franchise when they miss on a lottery pick. Just try uttering the words “Hasheem Thabeet” around a Memphis basketball fan if you doubt me.

“He’s tall and long, and you can’t coach that.”

“The shot blocking ability is already there, with an emerging offensive game.”

“There will be an adjustment to the NBA game, but his potential ceiling is high.”

A dynamic play-making point guard was drafted right after him...does all of this sound familiar?

Fortunately for the Grizzlies, that’s about where the similarities stop. Jackson showed immediately that he wouldn’t be a bust, earning All-Rookie First Team honors while giving hope to a fan base in need of it. Just because he’s not a bust, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that he was the best selection in the draft. After all, Hakeem Olajuwon is one of the greatest players of all time. That doesn’t mean Houston made the right choice in drafting him over Michael Jordan.

Jackson averaged 13.8 points across 58 games last season, starting in 56 of them. Only five rookies this past year had higher scoring averages. Three of those players (DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, and Luka Doncic) were selected before Memphis chose Jackson with the fourth overall pick. The other two are point guards (Trae Young and Collin Sexton) who were selected shortly after with the fifth and eighth picks. Jackson, however, had a 59.1% true shooting percentage while accounting for only 22.8% of the team’s plays while on the court (usage rate).

2019 NBA Awards Show Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

The true shooting percentage, as opposed to the traditional field goal percentage, gives additional weight to three-pointers and free throws, attempting to more accurately capture the scoring proficiency of players in relation to the number of shots taken. Jackson’s true shooting percentage not only bested those of the five rookies with higher scoring averages, but was the highest among all lottery picks from the 2018 draft class. Digging deeper, it’s easy to see why he was so efficient. Jackson made 76.6% of his free-throw attempts while primarily avoiding mid-range jumpers, opting instead for those close to the basket or three-pointers.

While 24.1% of his shots were from behind the arc, he converted them at a rate of 35.9%, behind only Collin Sexton (8th overall selection, 40.2%) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th overall selection, 36.7%). Of those long range shots, Jackson was assisted on a staggering 94.1% of them. In other words, Jackson’s teammates trusted him on offense and he delivered. As he continues to progress and take on a larger role in the system, it’s safe to assume that his scoring average will increase.

Defensively, he was very effective in his first season. He averaged 1.4 blocks, best among lottery picks and trailing only Mitchell Robinson (36th overall selection, 2.4) across all first year players. Despite being a big man, he also managed to finish in the top ten rookies in steals with almost one per game. His defensive box score +/- (DBPM), meant to illustrate the box score effect a player would have on a team of average players from his defensive contributions, was the same as new NBA champion and league darling Pascal Siakam at 1.4 and just shy of current Grizzly and noted defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala’s 1.7.

Where are the areas for improvement? That starts with his rebounding. Jackson managed only 4.7 rebounds per game, hardly eye-popping for a PF/C. Of those, only 1.3 of them were offensive rebounds. To be fair, part of that is due to his three-point shooting. There is certainly room for improvement, though, as he also only averaged 3.4 rebounds on defense.

Looking closer, he had a total rebounding percentage of 10.1%, with a split of 5.3% on offense and 15.0% on defense. This takes into account available rebounds while he was on the court. That puts him in the range of current frontcourt players Jayson Tatum (10.4%) and Marvin Williams (10.3%). His offensive rebounding rate fares a little better, comparable to Siakam (5.4%) and Al-Farouq Aminu (5.3%). If he can make modest gains in his rebounding rates, which is certainly reasonable to expect, his impact on the game could rise exponentially.

2019 NBA Draft Photo by Elizabeth Shrier/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, Jackson’s usage rate was fifth on the team. With a successful rookie season and only one of those other four players still on the roster, fans can expect that usage rate to increase substantially. To make good use of it, he will need to increase his confidence within the offense under a new coaching staff. While he was very efficient, his offensive box score +/- (OBPM) was -1.3, nearly canceling out his positive impact on the defensive front. This is not unusual for rookie big men. For example, look at Chris Bosh. His impact on defense was 1.7 as a rookie, but was more than cancelled out by his -2.0 effect on the offense. DeAndre Ayton, the first pick in last year’s draft by comparison, had a total net impact of -5.2. Marvin Bagley, the other big man selected in front of Jackson, had a total net impact of -1.8. Indeed, Doncic was the only other lottery pick from last year with a net positive impact (4.1).

So, did the Memphis Grizzlies get it right with Jaren Jackson Jr.? After one season, the answer is undoubtedly yes. A strong argument can be made that only Luka Doncic showed more promise as a rookie this past season. However, he wasn’t an option for Memphis since he was drafted third overall. Jackson has provided hope to Grizzly fans, and for good reason. Watching him perform, he flashed brilliance and potential that makes league executives drool. He was efficient as a scorer, showcased the ability to stretch the floor, and provided immediate results on defense. While it’s still early, Jaren Jackson Jr. is on track to become a force in the league for years to come.

**Stats were obtained through basketball-reference.com

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