On a personal level, I am a huge fan of mythology. Whether it be the more widely known Greek and Norse myths or lesser known characters from Celtic and Egyptian lore, I have always been fascinated by the characters and creatures that make these stories so magnificent. One of the most beloved mythical creatures in the history of the world is the unicorn, the beloved horned-horse who has represented purity and positivity for centuries.
One of the biggest characteristics of the unicorn, besides its magical properties, is the level of difficulty it is to come across one. These creatures are notoriously hard to find in the many stories in which they appear. For anyone that did encounter a unicorn, it was considered a very lucky development that would likely result in good fortune going forward.
For the reasons above, the word “unicorn” has also been used as a label to describe something or someone with rare and significantly advantageous gifts. When it comes to the NBA, this has been a popular label in recent years as the game itself has been played at a faster pace with a heavy emphasis on offense and shooting. Two names that have been frequently attached to this label are Kristaps Porzingis and Jaren Jackson Jr., two players who serve as critical cornerstones to the futures of their respective franchises in Dallas and Memphis.
The nickname was quickly applied to Porzingis when he entered the NBA back in 2016. Though others before him, including fellow German and all-time NBA great Dirk Norwitzki, possessed skill sets to fit the label, it was a poplar reference to Porzingis even before he began his career. The main reason was due to Porzingis standing 7’3” and offering expected yet significant skills for a big man while also possessing the unique ability to be an elite shooter from distance. In fact, over his first two seasons, Porzingis became the first player 6’11’ or taller in NBA history to record 150 or more blocks and 150 or more threes prior to turning 22 years old.
A few years later, Jaren Jackson Jr. became the second.
When Jackson Jr. entered the league, he was viewed as a player with immense potential, especially on the defensive end. However, a fairly consensus opinion was that it may take time for him to become a consistently significant offensive threat. However, Jackson Jr. quickly developed into a legitimate shooting threat from distance, and coupled with his natural defensive abilities, started to see the “unicorn” label applied to himself. Along with joining Porzingis as the only two players to reach the aforementioned statistical threshold, no player 6’11” or taller has reached Jackson Jr.’s mark of 6.5 3PA per game (min. 50 games played) at the age of 21 or younger like Jackson Jr. did last season. In other words, no big in NBA history has shown the frequency of shooting threes that Jackson Jr. has at his age.
Though Porzingis nor Jackson Jr. can be viewed as making historic initial impacts to begin their careers, their specific skill sets are obviously very rare in terms of their size and age. In fact, the similarities between the two young bigs extends far beyond their block and three point totals. Porzingis and Jackson Jr. produced very similar statistical outcomes during their first two years in the NBA:
As can be seen, the impact of these two young stars were highly comparable. Jackson Jr. showed a bit more effectiveness on offense, while Porzingis offered more production as a rebounder. Overall, the .104 and .101 WS/48 marks for Jackson Jr. and Porzingis, respectively, proves that both players offered nearly identical value through their first two seasons in the NBA in very similar ways. As trusted rim protectors and three-point shooters, both Porzingis and Jackson Jr. offered futures that were hard to quantify yet fantastic to project as they matured.
In his third season, Porzingis’s potential as a scorer was unleashed. He averaged four more shots and four more points per game compared to the previous year, and maintained his scoring rates and across the board production. The result was his first career All-Star appearance. Though through very different circumstances, Jackson Jr. was similarly unleashed when the 2019-2020 season was restarted in Orlando. While Jackson Jr. only played three games, his impact as a true offensive difference-maker was undeniable. Once again, the production from Porzingis and Jackson Jr. were almost parallel:
Obviously, comparing per-36 numbers over a sample size of 105 games to three games of nearly 108 minutes should be kept in mind. However, the intention of this comparison is to show that with Jackson Jr. now entering his third season, he has shown a bit of proof that he is capable of successfully taking a significant next step in helping to define his star-level ceiling. Like Porzingis, that likely seems to be as an elite shooting big and reliable offensive focal point. For a team like the Grizzlies that emphasizes shooting from as many positions as possible under Taylor Jenkins and needs significant shooting threats overall, this would be one of the most beneficial developments for the Grizzlies to continue their ascension to becoming a sustainable winner faster than most people think.
And as beneficial as this scenario would be for Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies going into the future, if Memphis were to consistently feature the bubble version of Jaren, they logically could become a legitimate playoff threat in the present.
Obviously, these similarities between Jackson Jr. and Porzingis is certainly quite encouraging. However, while both “unicorns” have tremendous abilities on the court, another concerning similarity is how trustworthy their availability will be to stay on the court. Right after his All-Star selection, Porzingis went down with a knee injury and missed the rest of the season. He will be entering his fourth straight year in which he will be missing time due to knee issues. Though Jackson Jr. may not have as much of an injury history, he has had significant stretches of missing games due to his own knee issues. Though both Porzingis and Jackson Jr. do not seem to have too much worry long term when it comes to health, they both will miss the start of the 2020-2021 season due to recovering from torn meniscuses.
Without a doubt, like Porzingis before him, Jackson Jr. has certainly shown flashes of his All-Star level ceiling, with the ability to eclipse even that forecast if his defense reaches its potential. If he can produce a level of consistent offensive output that is 80% or more of what he showed in the bubble, he arguably becomes one of the best young bigs in the NBA.
Jackson Jr. himself can be viewed as a bit of myth himself. With a skillset that has been rarely seen before, like many sources of myth in history, the future of Jackson Jr. could be projected as the same story being told in many different variations. Though it may be hard to quantify, there is plenty of quality regardless of its outcome going forward. However, the fact remains that Jackson Jr. clearly has more ways to add significant value than most players his size. For the the Grizzlies, having that type of talent would not only be a first in franchise history, it also would give them the best chance to be a true title contender.
Though unicorns were not a direct part of Greek mythology, a clip from one of the more well-known feature films on Greek mythology in recent memory presents a fun metaphor for the Grizzlies and Jaren Jackson Jr. Like Liam Neeson saying “Release the Kraken” as Zeus, Taylor Jenkins activating the “Unleash the Unicorn” mode in regards to Jaren Jackson Jr. would be a wonderful ability. Like we have seen him do against the Nets, the Bucks, and the Trail Blazers in the bubble, Jackson Jr. can take over a game and carry the Memphis offense at times. Though that should not be expected all the tiem, if Jackson Jr. can consistently deliver as a focal point to support Ja Morant, that is the next logical and needed step for the Grizzlies to elevate to the next tier of successful franchises in the NBA.
There is a reason the Mavericks invested in the talent of Porzingis to compliment Doncic in the present and future. For the Grizzlies in Morant, continuing to invest and feature a similar talent in Jackson Jr. is clearly an intelligent concept to lead the Grizzlies to eventually become a contender.