There has probably been no player in the NBA this year whose playing career has been more inconvenienced than Josh Jackson. In fact, Murphy’s Law, a supposed law of nature that says anything that can go wrong will go wrong, should probably be renamed to “Josh’s Law”.
After the Memphis Grizzlies traded for him last June, he of course spent 26 games with the Memphis Hustle this season for reasons that are still generally unknown to the general public. If he was more than good enough to be in the NBA (which he is), then why was he playing in the G-League? And if the Grizzlies kept him there because they were trying to give him discipline because of his previous mistakes and overall attitude, then I must have missed the memo where the G-League also serves as a rehabilitation center.
But I digress.
Regardless of the Grizzlies’ reasons for keeping Jackson in the G-League for as long as they did, he did finally receive an opportunity to contribute at the NBA level — and that’s exactly what he did. After the Grizzlies called him up in late January, Jackson played in 18 games and showcased the tantalizing versatility that once made him the 4th pick in the 2017 draft. He averaged a superb 19.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes, and he also led the team in scoring (17.0) during the month of March (Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke were both out with injury, but he still stepped up in their absence).
And how does Josh Jackson get rewarded for his efforts through adversity? By a pandemic that suspends the league as well as his impressive progress toward earning a new contract. of course!
Again, Josh’s Law.
What makes the suspension of the NBA season so unfortunate for Josh Jackson is that while he was playing so well, he still had so much to prove. After all 18 games is not a solid sample size, at least not one that can really dictate the trajectory of a player’s career - especially one that has had concerns about their character and work ethic like Jackson. He will almost certainly get at least a one-year deal from an NBA team this offseason, but the jury is still out on whether he can become a consistently meaningful contributor in the league.
However, his success in different areas of his game indicates that there are plenty of reasons to believe that he can become one — and that he will be one for the Grizzlies once they resume the season in Orlando.
Coming out of Kansas, one of Josh Jackson’s greatest perceived strengths was the defensive impact that his combination of size (6’8” with 6’10” wingspan) and athleticism was supposed to have. But that impact was largely non-existent in his two years with the Phoenix Suns. Now to be fair, I could probably count the number of quality defenders the Suns have had over the last decade on one hand, but he definitely didn’t improve their defense. Of the 24 players who who suited up for the Suns in 2018-19, he was 16th in defensive box plus/minus (-1.2) — behind such imposing defenders like Dragan Bender and Tyler Johnson.
Yet Jackson finally started to reclaim his pre-draft reputation on the defensive side of the ball in his 18 games of action with the Memphis Grizzlies. Of the 21 players who have suited up for the Grizzlies this year, he ranks 5th in defensive box plus/minus (1.2), and he held his matchups to a lower FG% (43.2) than Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks, and De’Anthony Melton.
The eye test tells a very positive tale as well. He was regularly able to use his length and lateral quickness to both disrupt ball-handlers and wreak havoc off the ball.
To be sure, Jackson always had the ability to be a good defender with the physical advantages that he possesses. But whether because of a lack of discipline on his own part or just a generally losing culture in Phoenix, he simply didn’t showcase the level of effort needed to reach his upside on that end of the court.
So when his talent and effort meet each other halfway, like in the final minute of the Grizzlies’ last game against the Sacramento Kings, it’s truly a wonderful sight to see.
Consistent effort on the defensive end is crucial for Josh Jackson to be a consistent contributor in the NBA. And his time in Memphis has been very encouraging in that regard.
Offensively, Josh Jackson showed that he is still somewhat raw, even as he showed flashes of his potential to become a volume three-level scorer. He posted career highs in FG% (44) and eFG% (51) and proved to be a volume shooter that defenses must respect, such as when he made four threes against the Atlanta Hawks in March. He only shot 32% from three, but the fact that he took 4 attempts per game demonstrated that he had gravity against opposing defenses (Luka Doncic, who shot 32% from three, and Jae Crowder, who shot 29%, are examples of players that aren’t necessarily great three-point shooters by percentage, but they still force defenses to react because of their willingness to shoot them).
However, while Jackson is still somewhat raw, he managed to turn what was one of his most glaring weaknesses into a bonafide strength during his action with the Grizzlies this year.
Of players that took at least the amount of shots that Jackson did at the rim during the 2018-19 season (4.0), he ranked 210th in the league in FG% on those shots and 17th on the Suns as he shot only 53%, which seemed inexplicable considering his size and athleticism. But during his time with the Grizzlies, he shot 78% at the rim, which would have ranked him 15th among wing players if he had qualified and was second on the Grizzlies for players who had played at least his number of games behind only Brandon Clarke.
That level of success around the basket probably isn’t sustainable for Jackson over the course of an entire season, but it’s encouraging nonetheless because it reveals a tangible improvement in his offensive game.
When the Memphis Grizzlies traded for Josh Jackson back last June, there was little idea as to what to expect from such a uniquely talented, yet troubled, individual. There were even several points over the course of this season where there were questions as to whether he would ever suit up as a member of the Grizzlies at all.
But in the limited time that he had with the Grizzlies, before the unfortunate suspension of the season, he truly made the most of his opportunity and flashed improvement in key areas of his game. He made himself crucial to the Grizzlies’ mostly successful efforts to stay afloat in the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
And hopefully, he will continue to be an impactful member of the Grizzlies rotation in Orlando and possibly after this season.
Stats found via Basketball Reference and NBA.com.