Whether it’s in movies or comic books, I’ve always found it darkly amusing how almost every single superhero has some variation of a tragic backstory. From a storytelling perspective though, it makes sense. Bruce Wayne doesn’t become Batman if a mugger doesn’t murder his parents in an alley. Peter Parker doesn’t become Spider-Man if Uncle Ben doesn’t die.
Although we wish it wasn’t the case, comfort doesn’t breed heroism. Suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character. Sometimes you have to lose something precious in order to become everything that you are supposed to be.
That is the type of opportunity (on a much less serious scale than the theoretical death of loved ones) that Jaren Jackson Jr. and the Memphis Grizzlies now have in the extended absence of Ja Morant. And so far, he in particular is absolutely making the most of it. In the Grizzlies’ two games without Ja so far, Jaren has averaged 21 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.8 blocks, and 2.5 threes as the Grizzlies have won both games. The Grizzlies may be without the face of the franchise, but in the meantime Jaren seems to be set on reminding people that he was once considered to be the future face of the franchise.
Throughout much of this year, Jaren has definitely demonstrated some tantalizing flashes, but he’s been frustratingly inconsistent.
Before the season started, I wrote that I didn’t think there was any reason why he shouldn’t average 20 points per game; he had, after all, averaged 17 points just 2 years ago when he played next to a ball-dominant center in Valanciunas. He’s obviously now 2 years older coming off the first fully healthy offseason of his career in which he could focus entirely on skill-development and doesn’t have Valanciunas taking away touches from him. With all of that in mind, taking some kind of an offensive leap seemed to be a healthy expectation for him this year.
However, while his offensive play has clearly been trending in a positive direction, it is positive in the sense that it’s trending toward where it was 2 years ago, rather than to a new level of improvement. Even with his recently improved play, he’s still just averaging 15.0 points while shooting 40% from the field (down from 47% two years ago) and 33% from three (39% two years ago).
While his overall lack of progress is somewhat frustrating from a general standpoint, I think there are two reasonable explanations for it.
First, Jaren is still physically developing, and there have been many moments where he has played like someone who’s still growing into his body. This has been most apparent with his offensive game inside the paint, as he is shooting a career-worst 46% on two-point shots and has occasionally demonstrated what almost appears to be a lack of coordination.
That is of course not to say that he is uncoordinated — he regularly showcased advanced footwork in his rookie year especially, and he is no Kwame Brown. Still, he has fallen down a lot this year. I mostly attribute it to literal growing pains, and he’s already starting to look more comfortable, as his inside game has looked more forceful and polished recently.
I also think it’s been fairly apparent at times that Taylor Jenkins just doesn’t quite know how to use him. That’s not necessarily a knock against Jenkins; Jaren has one of the most unique skill-sets for a 7-footer that the NBA has ever seen. But it’s still often been disappointing when Jaren has been used as nothing more than a spot-up shooter, even though he’s already one of the most prolific shooters at his size in league history. Again, he was a superb low-post scorer as a rookie. Maintaining a balanced diet of both touches on the perimeter and in the paint is important for him, because it ensures that he remains consistently productive even when his threes aren’t falling.
And it has been a recent greater emphasis on Jaren’s offensive diversity that has allowed him to start demonstrating more offensive consistency. Fellow GBB’er and overall swell dude Shawn Coleman made some keen observations in a tweet yesterday on what has changed for Jaren recently (this doesn’t include the Raptors game):
Jaren Jackson Jr first 10 games:— Shawn Coleman (@StatsSAC) November 30, 2021
36 FG%/ 37.5 2P %/ 34.6 3P%
18 Pts per 36, 55% of shots were 3s
Last 10 games:
43 FG%/ 52 2P %/ 30 3P %
22 pts per 36, only 40% of shots from 3
Jaren is going inside more, and is becoming more consistent (15+ pts in 5 of last 7 games) https://t.co/SY5ebatrW7
As the season goes along, Jaren Jackson Jr. is going to continue to figure his game out, and he will have many more superb games like he had against the Raptors last night. Despite his offensive inconsistency, he has already demonstrated encouraging improvement as a rebounder (career-high 5.7 rebounds) and as a defender (he is sometimes single-handedly keeping the defensively-maligned Grizzlies afloat on that end of the court). He’s even staying out of foul trouble...more often, as he’s averaging a career-low 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes.
Ironically enough, he has in many ways been the player that he was supposed to be coming out of the 2018 draft—a potentially game-changing defender who will have offensive struggles.
Yet the Memphis Grizzlies will need more from him offensively to continue to win while Ja Morant is injured. He can’t afford to be merely everything that he was supposed to be. They need him to be everything he can be—a physically-imposing big man who can thrive as both a perimeter shooter and low-post surgeon. That’s exactly what he was against the Toronto Raptors last night, as he totaled 25 points, 6 rebounds, 4 threes, and 5 blocks.
As the Grizzlies continue to face an uncertain extended stretch without their best player in franchise history, Jaren Jackson Jr. will continue to be pushed out of his comfort zone in greater ways. But that reality now provides him with the opportunity to fully realize his offensive game and become the player that he’s meant to be.