There’s a reason that Memphis Grizzlies fans and players rejoiced so mightily when it was announced that Jaren Jackson Jr. would to the floor Wednesday night in Los Angeles against the Clippers.
No, it isn’t because they thought that Jaren’s minutes off the bench would mean the Grizzlies were sure to win the game. That, of course, did not happen. And no, it’s not because Jackson Jr. is some superstar level player who surely will guarantee Memphis a hot streak that will secure the #6 seed in the weeks ahead. The unicorn of the Grizzlies, for all his strengths, also has flaws - flaws that were back on display in L.A. (hello foul trouble, we did not missed you) he will hopefully show growth with in the weeks to come. He will surely have his own rust to knock off over the next several outings as he gets his game legs back under him.
It is because with Jaren Jackson Jr., it feels like anything is possible for Memphis. And damn it, that is exciting and worthy of celebration. Even in the wake of a tough loss.
This is a Memphis Grizzlies franchise that has somehow posted a winning record without him. They’re a team that has overachieved not through a Herculean act of the basketball gods from superstar Ja Morant, but through the actions of a collective. It is a group of oversights and undersolds that has bought in to a culture that the two young cornerstones of the franchise - Morant and Jackson Jr. - have played a large role in establishing. Their head coach Taylor Jenkins has this group believing in a “standard” that is larger than themselves, and is capable of leading them to individual success through a common purpose. They are outperforming most, if not all, expectations - outplaying more talented and more experienced teams on their way to a realistic play-in (and potential fully safe playoff) push.
And this was all happening without, until last night, arguably their best two-way player. Who is also 21 years old.
That reality - a player in Jaren Jackson Jr. who is both younger in terms of age and older in terms of years in the NBA than you realize - makes dreams of what is to come for this Grizzlies organization more dynamic. The nearly seven foot three point sniper with a dash of elite defensive potential and a bit of a handle that makes him a match-up nightmare allows for a greater appreciation for what exactly Taylor Jenkins, his staff, and his players have done to this point. In the NBA’s Orlando Bubble Jaren displayed flashes of elite scoring and dribble penetration for his size before his knee injury. Without him, it was widely assumed the team would take a step back.
Except, of course, the opposite has happened. And what could now be with him returning has Grizzlies fans rightly shooting for the stars.
Adding a 39.4% three point shooter on six and a half attempts a game to an offense already scalding hot (until the Clippers game, that is) will do that for you. Imagining the possibilities of year two involving a big with the skill set of a wing in the two-man game with your young, audaciously talented point guard takes you to a higher plane of basketball fantasy. Whether he plays the traditional “4” or “5” positions, how he can help the current defensive issues given his malleable skill set on that end of the floor provides Jenkins with yet another weapon to utilize as he tries to snap the strength of this team out of a current funk. He can switch, he can stick with wings and even guards for stretches, and his prospective (and so far not fully realized) defensive talent has been praised since his selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Memphis Grizzlies were never going to be able to acquire a player with the talent of Jaren Jackson Jr. at the trade deadline. He is their “midseason” acquisition.
And that is just in the present. What about the future?
That glorious future worthy of longing for? The one that 2020-2021 season record agnostics (like me) look to as building toward being the main focus of this campaign? It isn’t as far off as you think. For the time is coming when the Memphis Grizzlies will actually be expected to do what they are currently in the midst of accomplishing and then some. When that day arrives, and the front office fully joins fans in their desire for wins to pile up and for potential to become production, Jaren Jackson Jr. will be expected to be a star-level player on a consistent basis. And with his rookie contract coming to its conclusion, his first big NBA pay day is on the horizon. The moment of truth for him - to display that while he is still far from a finished product, his game is worthy of investing in - is nearly upon us.
It will be on him to prove that the money being spent is an investment in what is almost surely to come, barring injury - not what has been. That his leadership he displayed while out will continue to be on display, and continue to grow.
Last night was a refresher on those capabilities. In his first game of play in almost nine months, across 18 minutes, Jaren logged 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 blocks. He threw down two dunks making it quite clear the Grizzlies performance staff has done a great job making sure he is indeed healthy. Perhaps most importantly, the team once again reiterated just how happy they were that he was back. And while the coaching staff will (correctly) go slow as they reacclimate Jaren to the rotation and in terms of role and minutes played, he will surely retake his spot as a starter eventually. When that happens they will finally be resuming a destiny deferred due to his meniscus tear in Orlando last summer.
The short-term, and long-term, prospects of the Memphis Grizzlies are intertwined with those of Jaren Jackson Jr. And as he checked in for the first time in so long for the bears of Beale Street in Los Angeles, his presence served as both reinforcements for the upcoming sprint to the postseason and a reminder of the marathon that the Grizzlies franchise continues to prioritize as it is run. It’s a race to learn how to win. Claiming victory in that long view means that as the likes of Jackson Jr. and Morant mature in to not just Memphis leading men but NBA ones, they are ready for the moments that will need to be theirs for this lofty promise to become reality. And those consequential points in this not-so-new era are coming sooner rather than later.
Playoff births eventually should become playoff wins. Playoff wins then must become series victories. Series victories hopefully lead to the finals of conferences and the Association at large. These are the stakes - our aspirations for what this group of young players will become.
With Jaren Jackson Jr. back in the fold, the possibilities are once again endless.