Jaren Jackson Jr. or “Trip J” for you Soundcloud users, is a budding star in the National Basketball Association.
The term unicorn has become such an overused and certainly, misused term in the sport of basketball, but if one young player were to rightly fill the role - its Jaren Jackson Jr. One of the definitions of a unicorn is “ a rare find,” and JJJ is a rare find indeed.
The real quandary for this Memphis Grizzlies team and its future is whether or not Jaren can be the full time 5. Through two seasons, while being one of the youngest players in the league and still growing, Jaren has struggled with foul trouble and rebounding; two things your starting center cannot struggle with on a contending team.
Look at the starting centers for the recent past champions: Javale McGee, Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney, Zaza Pachulia, Tristan Thompson.
All these players were called upon to control the boards and play solid defense. The difference between them and JJJ? Jaren Jackson Jr. is the second best player and scorer on his team. Not one of these players were even a top three player and probably not even a top five offensive option.
His development this season will have a major impact on roster decisions moving forward as the front office looks to build a contender around he and Ja Morant.
2019-20 Season Overview
For a second straight season Jaren Jackson Jr. was unable to play at least 60 games due to battling injuries. Even still, there was measurable growth in all aspects of his game from his rookie to sophomore season.
According to sports reference, in 57 games played Jaren averaged (compared to rookie season): 17.4 points (+3.6), 4.6 rebounds (-.1), 1.6 blocks (+.2), 1.4 assists (+.3) on 47%/39%/75% shooting splits (-3.7%/+3.5%/-1.1%).
Looking at the raw numbers does not exactly agree with the argument that he measurably improved as there are noticeable decreases in those stats. But as with all stats, context matters.
For instance, Jaren’s rebounding decreased from his freshman season. Zoom in on two contextual pieces:
1. Jaren played a full season next to Jonas Valanciunas, a very good rebounder.
2. Jaren’s defensive rebounds per game actually increased from the previous season, while his offensive rebounding numbers took a dip. Those numbers dipped simply because Jaren took 4.1 more threes per game than his debut season.
His decrease in field goal percentage at first is mirky, but when it is counteracted by almost the exact increase from deep on that +4.1 attempts, you live with it. Jaren is certainly capable of a 50/40/80 shooting split for several seasons in his career.
When Jaren finally returns to playing form, he will certainly slide right into his starting role alongside Jonas Valanciunas.
The real question comes down to, were he to not have fouled out, what is his role in crunch time? The second most productive lineup according to Cleaning the Glass, featured Jaren at the 5 alongside Morant, De’Anthony Melton, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke. This makes a lot of sense on both sides of the ball as you have four plus defenders surround Ja, and 4 players to spread the floor as well.
But it all hinges on matchups and Jaren’s ability to defend without fouling — and yes those are intertwined. If Jaren proves early he can defend the likes of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and any of the bigger fives without fouling and not getting killed on the glass, then closing games with Jaren at the five only makes sense.
The other aspect of his role is the offensive load he must shoulder. He is without a doubt the second most talented player on this team and can get a bucket in a variety of ways. We have seen him shoot off the dribble, drive past slower defenders, display majestic footwork on the block and be a spot up sniper. The Grizzlies need him to be the primary scorer to Ja’s primary playmaking this season if Memphis wants to push for the playoffs like they say.
Season Best Case Scenario
The best case for Jaren’s junior campaign revolves around a healthy return to play. The shortened schedule on top of time missed to injury will hamper his ability to have a true junior jump developmentally, but he can still have a scaled down leap.
This jump takes place if Jaren can become at least a 20 point per night scorer while grabbing 7 rebounds and fouling 3 times or less. Jaren’s growth changes the ceiling for the Memphis Grizzlies directly and will be evident in these three key stats. No seven footer should grab less than 4 defensive rebounds per night and most teams can not afford a star player getting in foul trouble on a night basis.
The best case is that Jaren stays healthy once he returns and morphs into the undeniable star, we all know he should become.
Season Worst Case Scenario
You never want to mention injury with any player, but thus far they have been a battle for the young forward. The worst worst case would be some type of injury that keeps him off the floor for the third straight season.
The next step down would be Jaren never really getting in rhythm upon his return from injury. The Grizzlies as a team will be in some type of groove when Jaren is ready to return and getting into game shape will take some time. This team will obviously go through those grown pains with him, but in this worst case scenario, the JJJ plane never quite takes lift off due to the late start in the season — regressing in defending without fouling, rebounding and shooting efficiency.
Due to the wisdom and patience of the Grizzlies front office, when Jaren Jackson Jr. does return, he will be fully healthy. A fully healthy JJJ should terrify the entire NBA as he continues to grow towards his prime.
It is completely fair to expect Jaren to mature on the defensive end and rebound at a higher rate while taking on more of scoring load. Also keep an eye on an uptick in Jaren’s assist numbers as Coach Taylor Jenkins’ system emphasizes ball movement. JJJ’s shooting efficiency should also increase as the team looks more and more to finish in the paint and create open shots from range.
Jaren will take that next step the season towards the perennial All Star he will be. While it may be a few years still down the road, right before our eyes we will see it.