As a means to help us understand things better as human beings, we often compare. That person you just walked by getting to your seats at FedExForum, for example, looks like this celebrity or like that girl or guy you knew back in college. You know the one, with the curly hair and the blue eyes. Or perhaps a meal in Memphis that you eat reminds you of the fried chicken you ate on that vacation on the Gulf Coast or in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Sometimes it takes you back to a time where you were feeling happy, or free. Other times it can take a turn down memory lane toward a broken heart or a dream that didn’t come true.
Perhaps an unanswered prayer - for better or worse. Or a recollection of a simpler time when you could simply just...be.
In sports, we do this all the time with the athletes we admire. We try to figure out just who they remind us of. Julius Randle! That’s Zach Randolph 2.0! Nikola Jokic? He’s a rich man’s Marc Gasol! Zion Williamson? He’s what would happen if Shaquille O’Neal and Giannis Antetokounmpo had a baby! On and on, around and around, accurate or inaccurate, for fans of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Association at large we see the NBA through a prism of comparison. Players are replications and evolutions of bygone eras.
Then, every so often, there are players that escape this reality. Competitors whose games are so unique that even the most tuned-in NBA analyst cannot come up with a reasonable comp. One of the best current examples of this is Russell Westbrook, the 6’3” “point guard” who is currently 6th in the NBA in rebounds per game. Not among guards - in the entire league! Ahead of the aforementioned Giannis and Nikola! He’s 20th in total rebound percentage per basketball-reference.com - the only guard or wing on the top-20 list - while leading the NBA in assist percentage (3.3% better than 2nd place Trae Young). If he did not score another point or secure another rebound/assist this season while playing in games for the Washington Wizards, he’d still average a triple-double. And he is now the all-time leader in the NBA in triple-doubles earned.
There are no other Russell Westbrooks. He is truly incomparable. And if current trends hold, the two young cornerstones of the Memphis Grizzlies - Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. - will eventually follow his lead in that way.
Westbrook and Morant are a natural comparison point, given how they’re both explosively athletic, elite facilitators of offense, and are not see as strong shooters from beyond the arc. When viewing both players through the lens of their 2nd NBA seasons, this is somewhat accurate. In the case of Russ, he shot 22.1% from three all the way back in 2009-2010, but shooting the three was not the priority (1.3 attempts per game) of Westbrook given who he was playing next to (James Harden, Kevin Durant). It’s also important context that the NBA three point shooting revolution was not fully engaged at this point - OKC, a 50-win team this season, only shot 15 threes per game! He was a fantastic offensive creator (38.6% was good for 7th in the NBA) and his speed and tenacity attacking the rim was on display as he attempted over one third (37.4%) of his shots at the rim within 0-3 feet.
Ja, meanwhile, is currently 15th in the NBA in assist percentage (33.5%) in his second campaign, which is slightly worse than what he posted last season (35.2%, 11th in the NBA). But it’s important to remember that Ja hasn’t had arguably the best two-way player on the team alongside him healthy for much of the season, while Russ played alongside Kevin Durant (82 games) and James Harden (76 games) much of the time. Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson have been great for the Grizzlies this season - but they’re not Durant and Harden. Ja’s numbers are arguably more impressive considering the roster around him. Morant is also a better three point shooter (almost 31% on the season on over 3 attempts) and while he shoots 33.9% of his overall attempts at the basket Ja’s .249 three point rate is almost triple what Russ’ was at this stage of their careers. Morant is also a more efficient scorer in his 2nd year than Westbrook - he’s shooting 50% on two point buckets this season, whereas Russ’ sophomore season featured a 43.8% conversion rate on twos.
So while it’s fun to say that Russell Westbrook and Ja Morant have similar games - and in ways they do - Ja is a different kind of contributor at this stage of his career. Take Westbrook’s calling card - the triple-double - for example. Ja Morant recorded a 27 point scored triple-double in Washington last season against the Wizards (before Russ got there) and was 20 years and 183 days old when he did it. There are only three players in the history of the NBA that did that type of a triple-double at a younger age - Shareef Abdur-Rahim with the Vancouver Grizzlies back in 1997, and then Luka Doncic and LeBron James (multiple times). None of those players are Russell Westbrook.
LeBron. Luka. Russ. Jimmy Butler. Derrick Rose. John Wall. You get to a point where when you see enough of that many players in one person, you say he’s not the next of any of them.
The same can be said of Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja’s fellow 21-year old running mate and young leader of the Grizzlies franchise. Jaren’s capacity to both block shots and shoot threes at a high volume has been well documented - only the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis defend around the rim and shoot the three the same way that Jaren does at this stage of things in the NBA. But even within that baseline of similarities, there are differences. First, the numbers tell us that KAT was a superior player in his 2nd season to what Jaren was (using his second season statistically since he has missed so much time this season) and what Porzingis was. KAT was a much better scorer of the basketball, rebounder, and facilitator of offense - again, just better. But in those areas Jackson Jr. was comparable to Porzingis, and in the “unicorn” area of a “big” that was both a shot blocker and three point shot threat alongside conversion rate Jaren was better than both (all stats per Stathead).
- Jaren Jackson Jr.’s 2nd season (2019-2020, age 20)- .489 three point rate, 39.4% three point shooting on 6.5 attempts per game (10.6 per 100 possessions), 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions, 5% block rate
- Kristaps Porzingis’ 2nd season (2016-2017, age 21)- .319 three point rate, 35.7% three point shooting on 4.8 attempts per game (7.3 per 100 possessions), 3.0 blocks per 100 possessions, 4.9% block rate
- Karl-Anthony Towns’ 2nd season (2016-2017, age 21)- .186 three point rate, 36.7% three point shooting on 3.4 attempts per game (4.6 per 100 possessions), 1.7 blocks per 100 possessions, 2.9% block rate
Again, Towns was a greater player at this stage of all three careers and overall as well. But given how much better he was as a rebounder (19.4% total rebound percentage compared to Porzingis’ 11.8% and Jackson Jr.’s 8.5%) and assist man (13.2% assist rate compared to Porzingis at 7.3% and Jackson Jr. at 7.2%) comparing him to Jaren and Kristaps probably isn’t fair. KAT is a force all his own, but more similar to previous great bigs in terms of his strengths than Jaren. Porzingis also is a big who is capable of commanding the glass more than Jackson Jr. at this stage of their respective developments.
But whether it’s because of their frame (KAT) or recent injury recovery differences (Porzingis), neither moves with the ball in their hands off the dribble the way that Jaren does. In transition, or in the half court, Jackson Jr. has shown the capacity to attack the basket with a maturing handle that, as it evolves, will add a layer to his game that simply hasn’t been shown from a player that is a “big” very often - if at all.
The same can be said of his defensive versatility - what makes him such a two-way threat in terms of potential. He certainly still fouls too often, and that limits his ceiling. But his youth and the games lost to injury mean that Jaren is still processing and progressing, and his 6’11” body being able to move this way makes him malleable on the front court and within defensive schemes both as a rim protector and a pick and roll defender.
Still working himself into game-form, Jaren Jackson Jr. continues to deliver flashes. This steal is here showcases his upside as a switchable big that can defend in space. He told media he needs to work on his all-around defense and continue to lock in on that end of the floor pic.twitter.com/5jBL2No0HC— Parker Fleming (@PAKA_FLOCKA) May 7, 2021
Jaren can do things on both ends of the floor that can’t be done by a Porzingis, or a Towns. He looks more like a Rashard Lewis at times, as our Parker Fleming has recently stated, or like a larger Kawhi Leonard as NBA great Kevin Garnett has stated in the past. But as was stated with Morant - when you have to come up with so many names, so many styles of play...at what point do you simply say “he’s one of one”? His game has bits and pieces of multiple players befitting a young man who says he is a student of the game, watching film of bigs like Tim Duncan and David Robinson as well as wings like Bradley Beal and Kevin Durant. But between his handle, his high three point rate, his defensive movement and propensity to block shots and steal possessions (his 2.1% steal rate and 6.1% block rate would both be career highs in the small sample size of just over 200 minutes played) while also show growth as a rebounder (12.6% rebound rate is a career high as well)...he may well be the first Jaren Jackson Jr.
Just like his friend, the first Ja Morant.
The eye test lines up with what the numbers tell us. Ja Morant’s audacious style of play both literally and figuratively flies in the face of convention. He is capable of adapting and adjusting to what his team needs on any given night, be it as a facilitator or a scorer. He almost nightly tries to destroy a rim (and at times an opponent) via a dunk dripping with violence. He has flaws defensively and needs to develop there, but between his leadership and his usage compared to who he has played with he more than makes up for those current issues.
Jaren, meanwhile, is apparently still growing as much physically as he is as a person and basketball player. He is stronger, taller, more explosive coming out of his injury - a testament to the patience displayed by the front office. He’s still so young. To rush his recovery from his meniscus injury would have risked the potential that Jaren possesses. Would it have resulted in a few more victories this season? Perhaps. But this Grizzlies front office has had its eyes on what is to come all season long, not what currently is. They did not want any knee issues to linger for Jaren. They want him healthy for a full offseason to come, to add tools to a basketball skill set that perhaps no player before has been able to add to a body like his.
They do it in different ways - Ja with his dominant physical and mental presence, Jaren with the seemingly limitless possibilities of what he can do on both ends of the floor. That is fitting - for although they share their unique place among their peers in terms of production, physical ability, and style of play, they also share a common pursuit - leadership of the next (and hopefully greatest) era of Memphis Grizzlies basketball. An era that, depending on how the next week plays out, could be taking a dramatic step towards beginning.
An era that is both still yet to come and is still somehow, through will, skill, and organization strength, could very much possibly almost be here. You could say it may wind up being incomparable.
Just like those that will help it come in to being.