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Josh Jackson vs. Kyle Anderson: War of the Wings

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Detroit Pistons v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

OK Taylor Jenkins, choose your fighter.

In one corner, you have a point forward that is three point shot-averse, inherited from the previous regime. He is unique and possesses skills that can help others around him thrive...but his inability to be a perimeter scoring threat limits the ceiling of any offensive play or unit.

In the other corner stands the latest rehabilitation project that has found success with the Memphis Grizzlies. A former top-five draft pick, he has endless potential to be a strong two-way wing and has shown flashes of it perhaps becoming realized in Beale Street Blue. But 18 games played is a drop in the bucket - can he really be counted on to produce when the lights are on bright in the most unique playoff chase in NBA history?

We’re about to find out.

Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins has run deep in terms of his rotation all season long, at times regularly deploying 11 players per game. While depth will be valuable with the uncertainty awaiting Memphis and the other 21 squads heading to Walt Disney World, in-game minutes should be invested in the players most likely to help win basketball games. There are some names that will obviously be in that mix - Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke, Jonas Valanciunas, Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton, and Gorgui Dieng seem like locks to be fed plenty of postseason run. If Justise Winslow is available, same with him - he raises the ceiling of Memphis if healthy.

That’s nine players capable of helping the Grizzlies compete for the eight spot in the Western Conference Playoffs...but something is missing. Dieng and Clarke are true bigs (especially Dieng), capable of playing on the perimeter in spurts but limited in terms of ball handling and facilitation. Jones and Melton are very good guards that can play alongside Morant, Brooks, and (theoretically) Winslow but do not have the size to be true wings against most of the competition Memphis will line up against.

The Grizzlies need a big wing to complete the playoff rotation. They have two to choose from - the question becomes, who should get the nod assuming they don’t both play consistently? Assuming health and a “traditional” rotation (which would enable Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., especially, more run), it is Josh Jackson vs. Kyle Anderson.

May the best 10th man win.


NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

When measuring the worth of these two on the offensive end of the floor, it is important to note just how different Kyle and Josh are in one key area. Jackson is a willing three point shooter - he attempts 9.4 threes per 100 possessions, good for second on the roster for the Grizzlies despite a not-so-great percentage (31.9%). However Anderson is a miserable 25.8% from beyond the arc and even worse is the fact that he absolutely refuses to take three point shots. Kyle has 2.5 three point attempts per 100 possessions - only Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke attempt fewer threes, and Jonas (2.3) and Brandon (2.2) aren’t that far off. By the way, both Valanciunas (36.7%) and Clarke (40.4%) are much better from range than Kyle.

Images like the following have been too few and far between.

Even when a three is made, his release takes too long and far too often it seems as if Kyle is hesitant to launch from range.

So while Kyle has the advantage over Josh in several areas - assists per 100 possessions (5.4 to 4.1), two point field goal percentage (56% to 54.2%) for example - the gap between himself and Josh in those categories isn’t nearly as significant as the one between both players as scorers and threats from beyond the arc. This is surprising, especially when it comes to facilitation. Kyle’s strength offensively is the ability to facilitate as a point forward...but Jackson has shown (in a small sample size) that he can be comparable in that area, and given his athleticism can do it at a quicker pace.

That three point shot willingness, however, means a lot to Coach Jenkins. Considering that Jackson is a better shooter from three (limited sample size) than Jae Crowder, who let it fly more than any Grizzlies player (unfortunately - 29.3% for Memphis this season), it would stand to reason that Josh’s willingness to launch from range is by design. The threat of Jackson both shooting the three and slashing/attacking the rim quickly off the dribble creates so many more options opposing defenses have to account for. The man lovingly known as Slow-Mo doesn’t check those boxes the same was evident in Jenkins playing the Crowders of the world, despite not being a better player than Anderson.

Imagine this hypothetical. 10 seconds left in the third quarter - Memphis is up on the Los Angeles Lakers 84-82, and Ja Morant, alongside Dillon Brooks and Gorgui Dieng on the perimeter in a five out set, is playing off of a pick-and-roll with Brandon Clarke (whose athleticism has given the Lakers fits). They collapse on the ultra-efficient Clarke and the electrifying Morant, with a wing defender helping off a shooter in the corner. Ja, having the vision he does, recognizes the opening and dishes out to...

Would you rather it be Josh Jackson or Kyle Anderson?

There’s a correct answer. It isn’t Kyle.

WINNER: Josh Jackson


NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Jackson has always projected to be a defensive force in the NBA. It’s part of why he went #4 overall in the 2017 NBA Draft - his length, his athleticism, his ability to freely flow from position to all adds up to tantalizing potential.

But whether it is because of stunted development (thanks a lot, Phoenix) or his baggage off the court that carried him to the Memphis Hustle to start his career with the Grizzlies organization, it has never fully come to fruition. In his 18 games with Memphis, there have been flashes of the exciting possibilities that Josh can create as a defender. His 2.4 steals per 100 possessions beat out Kyle Anderson’s 1.9, and that athleticism that we’ve been talking about comes in handy when going up against a variety of perimeter options. The foot speed of Jackson is an advantage that Anderson can never compete with.

But Kyle’s 7’3” wingspan has the ability to right a lot of wrongs itself - something that Jackson’s 6’10” wingspan cannot match.

Anderson’s length cancels out being a step slow, and it also lends itself toward being even more versatile than Jackson defensively. Josh’s size makes him capable of defending mostly perimeter players - he would be in trouble against longer stretch fours and fives in switches because he would not be able to get a hand in the line of vision of those taller and longer opponents. Kyle Anderson can make life hard for anyone on the defensive end of the floor, and his ability to rebound the basketball (10.5 boards per 100 possessions compared to Jackson’s 7.6) only adds to his impact. He can crash the glass alongside bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr., whose weakness in that area (7.8 rebounds per 100 possessions for Jaren is...really bad) can be negated more with Kyle sharing the floor with him.



NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

These two players couldn’t have been brought in to the NBA more differently.

One, Kyle Anderson, fell to 30th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft and lucked in to spending the length of his rookie contract alongside Gregg Popovich as a cog in the San Antonio Spurs machine. Thanks to those four years, and his high basketball IQ overall, he has a better understanding of angles, spacing on passing lanes, and what opposing teams are trying to accomplish in any given offensive or defensive set. He never was expected to be a savior of a franchise, of a superstar contributor to a rebuild. He went to a winner, learned how to make winning basketball plays, and while he’s not a scorer or an athlete he boasts a bevy of basketball skill and knowledge that directly contribute to winning.

Josh Jackson, meanwhile, was taken by the Phoenix Suns at #4 overall and was expected to be much more than he was both on and off the floor. The issues Josh has had are well documented and they don’t need to be re-hashed here, especially considering that by all public accounts Jackson has been a professional throughout his stay in Memphis, be it with the Hustle or Grizzlies. But those “distractions”, alongside the dysfunctional organization that is the Phoenix Suns more often than not the last 10 or so years, have played a role in what Jackson is as an NBA player.

His talent is evident, and his ceiling is higher than Kyle’s. Yet it is Kyle who has played in 30 playoff games - 2nd on the Grizzlies active roster - while Josh has played in zero. It is Anderson who has seen his role grow and develop organically, while Jackson’s was forced at times in Phoenix all the way to the end of him being forced out to make money work in the trade with the Grizzlies.

Entering in to the most adverse situation any NBA season has ever endured in modern history, experience in these kinds of moments matters. Kyle has it. Josh doesn’t.

WINNER: Kyle Anderson


NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When discussing offense, the “ability” of Josh Jackson to chuck threes helped him earn the “W” over Kyle Anderson. When you have a superstar athlete like Ja Morant who can get to the rim almost at will at the age of 20, you want to give him as much space to operate as possible. Jackson can give that to Memphis more than Anderson can.

But what else Josh provides over Kyle is the ability to fluidly function in a high tempo offensive and defensive system. The Grizzlies are 7th in the NBA in pace according to - they want to get out and run, creating extra offensive possessions and forcing the opposing team to be uncomfortable in both full and half court situations. While Kyle can be malleable when it comes to styles, quick movement is...not his strong suit.

He is capable, but it takes more to break right for Anderson to be a transition force. Meanwhile, Josh Jackson has the natural ability to get out and run. Within the controlled chaos of the schemes of Taylor Jenkins, Josh can feed off of fellow athletes like Morant, Brandon Clarke, and De’Anthony Melton. Pushing tempo enables Memphis to make up for their lack of experience in set offenses and prolonged defensive possessions. It would make it tougher for the size of the Lakers to fully engulf the Grizzlies - space is the friend of the small when in a battle with someone that much larger.

Kyle has a much harder time creating that room to work with organically than Josh. Jackson more naturally aligns with Taylor Jenkins’ vision in that way, among others.

WINNER: Josh Jackson


NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Before we pick a “winner”, let’s acknowledge that it is possible both Anderson and Jackson play (Jenkins did play 11 man rotations per game in the regular season, remember) and perhaps even play together. Jackson and Anderson are versatile - that’s part of their allure. You could argue Josh could play any spot between the 2 and the 4, and Kyle could potentially play every position on the floor depending on matchups because of his skill set and length. A Justise Winslow/Dillon Brooks/Jackson/Anderson/Brandon Clarke lineup, for example, could switch literally everything and be a defensive nightmare for opponents (although scoring, rebounding, and rim protection could get messy).

But in 17 games together the two only played roughly 5.6 minutes per game, and it isn’t as if they set the world on fire when they were on the floor at the same time (a -.6 net rating in limited run). Some of that is alongside the likes of Anthony Tolliver and other players that won’t be in the running for consistent time at Disney, and without the presence of key contributors like Winslow/Jackson Jr./Clarke. Jenkins may decide to try running both out with a mix of those guys and others and see what comes of it, and of course injuries/players opting out and other issues may lead to that being tried anyway.

If all goes the way it is “supposed to”, however, and the Grizzlies attempt to play their best hand in Orlando in an effort to traditionally compete with their 10 best players, one of Josh or Kyle will be the odd man out. Anderson provides defensive versatility and offensive facilitation in more high pressure situations and a pedigree in basketball that Jackson cannot compete with. Meanwhile, Josh’s ceiling in the schemes of Taylor Jenkins is much higher than what Kyle brings to the table.

Neither player is here because they actively were targeted by this front office - Kyle is a holdover from the previous regime, Josh is a pleasant surprise that made trade money match (De’Anthony Melton was the prized piece of that exchange). Both men may be gone whenever the 2020-2021 season begins - Josh via free agency and Kyle perhaps via trade to a team where his abilities are better utilized.

In the here and now, which misfit should be given that first shot at being the 10th man? The one that allows for Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. to be the best versions of themselves - which has been the goal of this season all along. While Anderson may have more overall basketball skill, Jackson’s ability to be the “shooter”, potentially prolific scorer, and runner that Jenkins craves while not being too far removed as a creator for others and defender makes Josh the choice. Anderson fit the past of the Grizzlies. Jackson, while he may not be part of the future, fits their present more.


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