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Jaren Jackson Jr. was realizing his unicorn potential

Jaren Jackson Jr. is built different.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I missed sports, but not the injury part of it.

Moments before the Woj bomb of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s season-ending knee injury, I was writing about how he was breaking out in the Orlando bubble. Then, boom. Out for the season.

The news of Jackson being out for the remainder of the bubble is demoralizing. The Grizzlies were already shorthanded, missing Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Their lead for the 8th seed shrinks by the day, as they haven’t corralled a win in the bubble to this point. And now, they’re missing their best all-around player.

Despite the horrible news, Jaren Jackson’s performance was one of the lone bright spots in the bubble. Over 3 games, he averaged 25.3 points on 48.3% shooting from the field and 35.7% (on 9.3 attempts) from downtown, 1.7 blocks, and 1.3 steals in 36.7 minutes per game. During that time, he got an extensive look at the 5 spot, shoring up extra minutes as Jonas Valanciunas’ backup. As a near 7-foot big, he was also hitting 3’s on the run, switching everything on defense, and taking opponents off the dribble. When your center is doing that stuff, holy smokes.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is a unicorn, and he showed everyone what he could become with his standout performance in the bubble.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 3-point shooting is special, and we got a glimpse of it in the bubble.

Most stretch bigs excel in stand-still 3’s or off trailing opportunities within the flow of the offense. Jackson is hitting them in a variety of ways. He lets it fly in catch-and-shoot situations, as a trailer in transition, or off isolation looks. That’s not normal for 7-foot big men.

In the bubble, the majority of 3’s came off the move, which is expected. GBB Senior Multimedia Writer Eric Nelson highlighted his 3-point shooting recently, and how the Grizzlies run actions for him to generate triple opportunities. In the bubble, he demonstrated it at a higher clip.

Ironically enough, in this play, he came away with the block on the other end — in case you wanted to marvel at his potential even more. The Grizzlies are a potent team in transition, solely because of Ja Morant. But when you factor in Jackson’s ability to knock down step-in 3’s in transition, that’s downright frightening.

The most fascinating aspect of this play is the gravity he draws and the opportunities it presents. Granted, he did let it fly, but with Hassan Whiteside attacking the closeout hard, he had a chance to drive to the basket. Any drive would’ve potentially opened up an easy oop to Brandon Clarke, or a drop to De’Anthony Melton cutting backdoor.

JJJ options on Whiteside

The most impressive stat in the bubble was his 3-point volume. The number (9.3) is inflated, especially since he fired off 15 3’s against Portland. Here are some notable names that shot 15+ 3’s in a single game this season:

  • James Harden
  • Damian Lillard
  • Paul George
  • Buddy Hield
  • Luka Doncic
  • Duncan Robinson
  • Trae Young

That’s elite shooting company. Jackson’s done that twice, and he’s not even a “perimeter player.”

When your big man launches from deep that frequently, it opens up the rest of the offense, as it draws the opposing team’s bigs out of the paint and out on the perimeter.

As the Grizzlies system evolves into Coach Jenkins’ vision, it’s going to be fascinating to see how they treat Jaren Jackson Jr. as a 3-point threat. If his volume jumps from 6 to 8, how does the rest of his game and the offense open up? Will he be this 6’11” Klay Thompson that primarily hits step-in, or catch-and-shoot, 3’s? Or will he evolve into this near 7-foot flamethrower that hits pull-up 3’s like a guard?

Nonetheless, it’ll be an amazing part of his game to watch blossom.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s development as a ball-handler is well-documented. Last year, he stressed about improving as a ball-handler over the offseason. And that seems to be an integral developmental point of the Grizzlies’ system, as Coach Jenkins hasn’t shied away from mentioning Jackson’s name in the same breathe as Giannis Antetokounmpo.

He’s provided flashes of his ball-handling throughout his career, but in the bubble, it quickly became a consistent tool in his bag.

Where Jackson’s ball-handling is a huge strength is when he’s matched up with opposing 5’s. Though his second poster garnered more attention, the combination of dribble moves hit here is mesmerizing. He uses the switch as an opportunity to catch Nurkic off guard and attack the process. Nurkic quickly recovered, but Jackson’s ball-handling and shiftiness helped him power through for the jam.

In Monday’s game against the Pelicans, Jackson took advantage of the Zion Williamson matchup. Williamson’s scoring efficiency and the ESPN highlights will suggest otherwise, but Jackson handled him quite well on both ends. In this particular sequence, he attacks with his left-hand — his prominent dribbling hand — then catches Williamson with a spin move before getting the easy hoop. You seriously don’t see this kind of fluidity from 20 year-old 7-footers:

He’s not even just doing this against slow-footed big men either; he even has shown the handle to take elite perimeter players off the dribble. Ben Simmons is no slouch defender, as he’s highly-regarded as a potential All-Defensive First Team player. Upon getting the ball, Jackson quickly gets to his dribble move, then uses his body to gain some separation for the bucket.

Jaren Jackson’s dribbling will open up a whole new world for both the team’s and his own offense. We’re already seeing how he’s using this as a scorer, attacking closeouts and drilling pullup 3’s. And there are even more layers to his game that could evolve because of his ball-handling. Does he become a more potent playmaker? Does he add more to his bag? The possibilities are endless.

It wouldn’t be shocking if his handle hits the level of another big like Bam Adebayo or Pascal Siakam, or even Antetokounmpo. When that happens, the sky is the limit.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s funny how some members of this Memphis fanbase have bashed Jaren Jackson Jr. for his fouling and rebounding woes. For starters, he’s not even 21 years old yet. Even though we’ve seen Hall-of-Fame big men experience similar struggles early in their careers.

While critics are focused on his struggles, they’re ignoring how he’s doing things that haven’t been done from the big man spot. He’s firing 3’s at a better clip than Buddy Hield, at a similar rate as JJ Redick, while making them more frequently than Khris Middleton. He’s doing all that offensively while blocking more shots than Bam Adebayo.

Literally the only other player in the league that’s doing what Jackson’s doing is Kristaps Porzingis, the original unicorn of the modern NBA.

And he’s barely scratching the surface of what he can become. As we saw in the Orlando bubble, he can become this transformative big man that can take opposing bigs off the dribble on the perimeter and smaller ones on the block, pull up from 3 in transition in “Splash Brother” form, and serve as a switch-able wrecking ball defensively. On top of that, we saw him morph into this player that can become a go-to scorer for this team going forward, as he tallied three straight 20+ point games. Let’s be in awe of that, especially when the Grizzlies have lacked an off-ball scoring punch from the perimeter since they traded away Rudy Gay in 2013.

The talk, since he entered the league, was about how Jaren Jackson Jr. can become a unicorn big man long down the road. In his short time in the Orlando bubble, Jackson showed that he’s already one of the NBA’s unicorns, and he’s also just getting started.

Stats found on basketball-reference’s Stathead and clips found on

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