What was once a dream for the 2019-2020 Memphis Grizzlies—becoming the second youngest team in NBA history to make the playoffs—is now likely all but dead with the news of Jaren Jackson Jr. being out for the season with a torn meniscus.
And there’s no need for any delusions of underdog triumph without him; the Grizzlies have been outscored by 30 points per 100 possessions when Jaren Jackson Jr. was on the bench during their three bubble games. Outside of Grayson Allen, he has been the team’s only reliable perimeter option as he has made 35% of his nearly 9 attempts from beyond the arc. Outside of Ja Morant, he has been the team’s only reliable option in attacking the rim. To be sure, they can’t survive without him against this level of competition, nor should they be expected to do so.
The dream, as wonderful as it was, has now become a nightmare. The return of basketball in the midst of an awful pandemic was supposed to be a distraction from how pointlessly cruel our world can be, but for Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies, it has only served as a reminder of how ridiculously fragile everything in life is, even something as mundane as a professional basketball season.
But even as the Grizzlies’ nightmare scenario for the Orlando seeding games comes to life, there is still an optimistic reality to be found in the midst of their tragic fragility: there’s always next season. Because even as the lights on this unexpected thrill-ride of a season prematurely dim, there’s the hope that next season and the seasons that come after that will be even brighter than ever. They will rise from this nightmarish end of a dream season, and Jaren Jackson Jr. along with the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies will return stronger, faster, and better in every way.
For Jaren Jackson Jr. in particular, the greatest player in NBA history has set a highly encouraging precedent for a player in his situation. Michael Jordan suffered a significant injury during his second season in the league as his team managed to barely limp into the playoffs to be swept by Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Yet Jordan’s setback only prepared him to take the reigns as the league’s undisputed best player, as he averaged a career high 37.1 points per game in year three. Of course, Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t Michael Jordan, and he will almost certainly not lead the NBA in scoring in his third year in the league. But I do expect him to come back stronger, faster, and more skilled than ever before for the 2020-21 season.
At just 20 years old, Jaren Jackson Jr. regularly makes off-the-dribble and step-back three-pointers as a nearly seven-foot big man, and you can count the amount of players throughout all of NBA history who check those boxes on one hand. If he hadn’t gotten injured, he would have become the first player in NBA history to record 200 or more three-pointers and 150 blocks before turning 21-years-old according to Grizzlies PR. As he clearly showed in his three games in Orlando, he has clearly developed into an advanced ball-handler which only makes him a better finisher at the rim than he already was.
Tell me: what will Jaren Jackson Jr. not be able to do by the time that he’s 25-years-old? How will he not end up becoming one of the NBA’s premier big men when he already has one of the most fantastic and unique skill-sets in the league for a big man? Injury, which has admittedly been a key factor in his early career, is the only roadblock to keep him from becoming everything that he was ever billed to be coming out of Michigan State and more.
And make no mistake: nothing is ever truly certain in the NBA, and you don’t have to look any further than Derrick Rose and the Oklahoma City Thunder over the last decade to know that any combination of injuries and bad luck can keep a special player or group of players from becoming all that they were supposed to be. As morbid as it is to think about, that could end up being the case for this young core of the Memphis Grizzlies or for Jaren Jackson Jr. in particular.
But I have a feeling that the story concerning this iteration of the Memphis Grizzlies is going to end differently than the tragic stories of the past. I believe that the Grizzlies’ current nightmares will soon become the dreams that Memphians envisioned when the core group of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke came together in June 2019. And regardless of how this bizarre season finally ends, I believe that it will ultimately be nothing more than an afterthought to what Jaren Jackson Jr, and the rest of the Memphis Grizzlies will accomplish in time.