Every draft class regardless of sport has players that have fans ponder “What If?” What if they’d stayed healthy? What if they had truly maximized their potential and didn’t get lost in the shuffle due to *insert reason here*. At the moment, for the 2018 NBA Draft, one of those players is Jaren Jackson Jr. With two All-NBA caliber players selected in the picks immediately before and after in Luka Doncic and Trae Young, and 2018 #1 pick DeAndre Ayton thriving throughout the Suns NBA Finals run - fans and media alike have begun to ask questions - both fair and unfair of the 2018 4th overall pick.
Jaren Jackson Jr. was a topic of conversation for a majority of last season as Grizzlies fans awaited the return of their highly touted unicorn - but as the time table changed and his return was continuously delayed - tempers flared and opinions began to sour. These opinions were only amplified as Jackson Jr.’s play didn’t quite match the expectations laid by his NBA bubble performance prior to tearing his meniscus.
He’s heard the noise.
He saw the tweets.
He saw the “proposed trades” and peeped those worried about the Grizzlies potentially offering him a max deal similar to those some of his peers have received.
After a season focusing on COVID protocols, razor curls, and lateral lunges Jaren Jackson Jr. can finally focus on what he loves the most: basketball.
The 2020-21 season wasn’t one that Jackson Jr. or Grizzlies fans would have hoped for, with Jackson Jr. returning amidst a playoff run - appearing in only 16 games between the regular and postseason. As most rational people would expect, the return was not always pretty as a player who missed nearly a calendar year of basketball, growing two inches in his absence, struggled adjusting to his new post-surgery body at NBA playoff intensity. In Jackson Jr.’s brief stint on the floor last season, he showed flashes of the “unicorn” potential everyone from the Grizzlies front office to Grizzlies fans believes he can be when healthy. His rebounding numbers improved in limited action while showcasing the capability to play center for Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins when called upon.
Now, with an offseason of strictly basketball under his belt, and the promise of “putting it all together” as the offseason mantra, the 2021-22 season has a chance to be the breakout season for Jackson that his classmates enjoyed last season.
I’m far from the only one with that opinion, as NBA GM’s polled selected Jaren Jackson Jr. as the player with the highest probability of having a breakout season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. was No. 1 breakout candidate for league GMs in this survey https://t.co/vEiUDYtZFM— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) October 5, 2021
Discussing Jaren Jackson Jr. with those within NBA circles, they too see the vision of Jaren Jackson Jr. and all he could be for the Memphis Grizzlies. Quoting one former player, “19-8. 19 points and 8 rebounds out of Jaren Jackson Jr. this season and the Grizzlies will be tough to beat.”
To localize the commentary even more, Jackson’s importance is constantly vocalized by those within the Grizzlies locker room - especially by point guard Ja Morant.
"As long as he [Jaren Jackson Jr.] stays healthy, we are a very dangerous team." - @JaMorant— Meghan Triplett (@Meghan_Triplett) October 12, 2021
Jaren Jackson Jr. had 20pts and 8 rebounds tonight.
With the playoffs as the new standard for Taylor Jenkins’ young Grizzlies squad, Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to have to live up to these lofty expectations.
In order to turn those expectations into reality, Jackson Jr. must put it all together. The duo of Morant and Jackson Jr. can potentially take the Grizzlies to heights never seen in the FedExForum but first things first Jackson Jr. has to stay healthy.
Through three seasons, Jackson Jr. has yet to play 60 games in a season. As great as Jackson Jr. and his potential are he must showcase the most important ability - availability. Jackson Jr. touched on this in his media day availability stating that although his absence last season was a disappointment to fans “my body needed that rest,” which as young players have begun to play basketball year round due to early starts in the AAU circuit this is more than believable.
With a recharged battery, the young Grizzlies forward can build upon a previously established base from the last time he was healthy.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is the personification of the modern day big and everything NBA GMs look for when building a roster in 2021. Jackson Jr. has more than proven the ability to put the ball on the floor as a 7 foot ball handler - increasing the playmaking of any lineup he’s in. He is more than capable of stretching the floor as a prototypical “stretch five” - shooting near 40% from beyond the arc with volume during his last healthy season - adding an extra degree of spacing that simply wasn’t present for the Grizzlies last season. With the return of Jackson, Ja Morant also adds an extra tool to his toolbox regaining the ability to operate in pick and roll and pick and pop situations with his favorite partner.
This relationship works both ways as Morant elevated his stardom during Jackson’s absence. Defenses will have to gravitate to Morant to respect his driving ability thus Jackson Jr. will be the beneficiary of numerous dimes from Morant and open looks from beyond the arc.
Defensively, the Grizzlies regain a versatile defender that allows for more complexity to their defensive coverages. A 7 foot forward/center that can slide out to the perimeter unafraid to guard some of the NBA’s best such as Steph Curry? Yes, please.
Jaren Jackson Jr aka The Octopus, et ses bras interminables...— Guillaume (@GuillaumeBInfos) May 17, 2021
...vs la qualité de dribble d'élite de Stephen Curry sur une ISO "mismatch".
"Je prends ça, merci" pic.twitter.com/FlrO0i7YFJ
As his potential looms large over his production, Jackson Jr. still has room for improvement. Progress was made upon his return last season as Jackson Jr. increased his rebounding numbers. This will continue to be a point of emphasis for Jackson Jr. but as long as Steven Adams is a member of the Grizzlies front court the rebounding numbers will always skew towards Adams as they did Valanciunas before him. That being said, the closer to the aforementioned 8 rebounds the better.
Another point of emphasis will be the foul issues that have plagued the early stages of his career. This stems back to the the availability point, even when he isn’t hurt he struggles with availability due to averaging close to four fouls a game. This is an issue one would expect to subside entering year four - as is the case for most young bigs. Jackson Jr. has had an offseason to fully adjust to his body that has increased in height and size which should allow him to build upon a 2021 season that showed a player that was more comfortable with his rotations, albeit amidst a defense that was having to adjust on the fly to his insertion into the back of the Grizzlies defense.
The last point of emphasis that will be instrumental in Jackson Jr.’s and the Grizzlies success is diversifying his usage. In 2021, the Grizzlies pigeon-holed Jackson Jr. into a role of a spot up shooter that, for the most part camped in the corner while others on the court orchestrated the offense. This led to less than efficient numbers for Jackson Jr. and minimized his potential impact offensively. Taylor Jenkins will need to reimplement aspects of the Grizzlies offense that saw Jackson Jr. used not only as a perimeter jump shooter but someone who can orchestrate the offense, used as the pick and roll screener or ball handler, and can occasionally bang down low in the paint. The Grizzlies are a better team than when we last saw Jackson Jr. at his best - maximize your second best player and the Grizzlies can surpass all expectations during a season in which there are plenty.
The end of the 2021 season happened. It is what it is. The film of a player fresh off of knee surgery attempting to adapt during a playoff push should not define him. The tape is there but, honestly, burn it. From the ashes shall rise a unicorn, Memphis’ unicorn, with a more mature team than when he was last fully healthy. Morant and Jackson Jr. will dictate how far the Grizzlies go this season - but if Jackson Jr. can match the hype, something he is more than capable of doing - watch out.