When the pandemic first reared its head, my wife and I were in Tampa staying with my parents. The country shut down and it became obvious that our stay in Florida was going to be extended — three months in fact.
Once Tiger King and The Last Dance had ceased to entertain us, people nationwide were searching all avenues to fill the time and stay sane. In our quest, we found ourselves searching the aisles of Walmart for something I only ever saw my parents buy as a child — we were looking for a puzzle.
I settled on a 1,000 piece Lion King puzzle for the sake of nostalgia. It started like all puzzles do, finding the corner pieces because everything is built from the corners. You piece together the edges, and fill in the spaces until the ultimate mission is complete — days, even weeks later. After a week or so, lots of hours and some help from those around, here was our finished product:
Zach Kleiman is in the process of putting together his first NBA puzzle. He’s off to a great start, having already found the two “corner”-stone pieces to build the rest of the puzzle from in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Equipped with a superstar All NBA point guard and a potential star big, Kleiman now has the task of building with some key edge pieces and then filling in the rest of the roster to reach the final product of an NBA Championship.
Those “other” pieces are important to get right, but not as crucial as the pairing of your cornerstones. Kobe and Shaq, Kobe and Pau, Michael and Pippen, Steph and Klay, LeBron and DWade. Can your two stars coexist at high level on the floor. Kobe and Shaq and MJ and Pippen clearly did not coexist well off the floor, but the product they produced on the floor was beautiful.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. co-exist great off the floor. There is no question their chemistry as two young stars outside of the game of basketball is not a concern. However, their chemistry on the floor is a work in progress.
Their lack of on-court chemistry is not their fault nor something that can’t be fixed. In fact, it is a work in progress. These two are entering their third season together and it was shockingly unbelievable the amount of time they have played together:
2019-20: 177:51 minutes, 10th most minutes with a teammate for Morant (-0.6)
2020-21: 189:38 minutes, 10th most minutes with a teammate for Morant (-5.6)
2021-22 (through Wednesday 12-22): 376:16, 3rd most minutes with a teammate for Morant (+3.0)
They simply have not had a chance to play enough together to build that on court chemistry necessary for high levels of success. In fact, thus far this season, even with Ja missing 12 games, the duo has already played 20 more minutes together than in the previous two seasons combined.
Together they have played 82 games, the equivalent of one regular season.
Ja w/ Jaren: 19.1 pts 7.1 ast 4.3 reb on 47% shooting and -99
Jaren w/ Ja: 15.8 pts 5 reb 1.2 ast on 44% shooting and -122
With the right pieces around these two, the raw stats are good, but clearly the Grizzlies have not been at their best with the two of them together up until this point. Now check each other their numbers without the other:
Ja w/o Jaren: 68 games 19.1 pts 7.4 ast 4.0 reb on 46% shooting and +109
Jaren w/o Ja: 17 games 21.2 pts 4.6 reb 1.2 ast on 49% shooting and +71
It is rather eye-opening reading the differences. Statistically Morant is the same player with or without Jaren. It is Jaren that has a massive uptick offensively without Ja. There is a simple, yet uniquely complicated, explanation for all of it.
Without Ja, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the featured player and is allowed to be the Giannis-esque alpha scorer.
You saw it in the 12 games sans-Morant this season. Jaren found himself driving and finishing at a high rate rather than floating around the perimeter waiting to launch a three. Without Ja, Jaren only averaged 5 catch and shoot attempts per game. This season with Morant on the floor he is 6.5 catch and shoot attempts per game. With a 34.5% shooting percentage in those 6.5 attempts, it is clearly not the best shot for the team.
The offense with and without Ja are fundamentally different as well. In the 12 game stint, 8 players combined for 4.6 post ups per game. Monday night against OKC, a team with limited size, one player posted 3 times.
At one point in the NBA season Ja was leading the entire NBA, not just guards, but everyone in the association in points in the paint at 16 per. Currently he is 5th in the league with 13.9. With Ja, Jaren has averaged 5.8 points in the paint.
What made this team so successful this season without Morant and what led to a surge from Jaren was his team leading 9.6 points in the paint in those 12 games. What makes both of these players successful is the same area on the court. What makes them both dangerous is their shooting behind the arc and ability to drive into the paint — for the sake of spacing, Jaren typically floats the perimeter to give Ja the space to get to where he is elite.
So how can the Grizzlies mesh these two stars together offensively? Outside of running sets for Jaren to get going inside, there is a solution that Coach Jenkins has shown a willingness to try at times.
Staggering the minutes of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. so that one of the two stars is on the floor at all times seems to be the most logical thing to do. Sub out Jaren and Bane early and allow the two of them to cook with Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson.
Allow Ja, Dillon Brooks and Steven Adams to be a group that is glued together with Melton and Anderson minutes as well. Defense is always on the floor as well as offense. Running Jaren as the second unit 5 gives him the space in the paint to go to work while have an elite shooter on the outside to kick it out to.
This would require Jenkins to shorten his rotation, which during the regular season is not useful as you can develop players like Ziaire Williams or get solid minutes to provide rest by players like John Konchar.
Another aspect would be reflected within usage % and shot distribution. Jaren should be featured as the number two guy he is and needs to be. Not the 4th guy that has been the trend early this season. During that Ja-less stretch his usage rate was at 27.2% which was 6% higher than his season average prior.
Feature Jaren. Stagger the minutes. Let them both bloom.