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Jaren Jackson Jr. - Still Memphis’ Unicorn

The struggle of 2021 will prove fruitful for 2022 for Jackson Jr.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game One Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Before we evaluate his 2021 season, let’s rewind. Let’s go to August 8, 2020 in the NBA Bubble to be exact.

The Memphis Grizzlies have lost three in a row, but there is a silver lining - Jaren Jackson Jr. is arguably having the best three game stretch of his career, as Grizzlies fans watch the future develop in front of their eyes. During this three-game stretch, Jaren Jackson Jr. averaged 25.3 points on 48/35.7/75 shooting splits with his improved jump shot.

Then after the Grizzlies August 8th loss to the New Orleans Pelicans, it was announced that Jackson Jr. had torn his meniscus and was going to be out for the remainder of the season. He underwent a successful surgery later that month and placed all eyes on his road to recovery.

While recovering from injury, Jackson Jr. was far from out of sight and out of mind as the third year forward kept plenty busy.

He dropped two songs on his birthday.

He got involved in local elections.

Oh and he grew two inches over the course of the offseason to be a “true 7-footer.”

Anticipation mounted from fans to get the franchise cornerstone back as the (original) target date for his return was set in January — this is where the disconnect began with fans and the reality of the situation. Fans became attached to the presumed date, when he — alongside Justise Winslow — were not on the court come February people assumed the worst. “The survey was botched,” and “There was a setback,” were popular talking points come February and March — turns out this was not the case.

As someone who tore their meniscus their freshman football season in college, I was one of the few contrarians that saw this as par for the course in injury recovery as I too was set on a similar frustrating recovery schedule. The positive — 5 years later, I haven’t had knee problems, since I followed the similar months long protocols of Jackson as it did what they were supposed to: prevent further injury.

Chicago Bulls v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Jaren Jackson Jr. may have been frustrated during this process, as he had a front row seat to the highs and lows of the Memphis Grizzlies season but he didn’t show it. Throughout the season, you could see — and sometimes hear — Jackson Jr. be a leader for the young Grizzlies team that he will a cornerstone for for years to come. As he let his eccentric fashion sense shine on the sidelines, Jackson Jr. was his team’s biggest cheerleader and spoke up when needed, as he awaited for his chance to physically contribute in the 2020-21 season.

Fast forward to April 21st, the day that everyone had been waiting for, a taller, more muscular iteration of Jaren Jackson Jr. was back and in the rotation vs. the Los Angeles Clippers. His return to the floor presented a myriad of results - as one would expect for a player attempting to find their legs after an 8-month absence.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game One Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Initially returning off the bench, the same foul issues that plagued his first two seasons were still prevalent throughout the 11 regular season games and the play-in/playoffs, as he hovered around his career average of 3.9 fouls per game. This propensity to foul is something that Jaren Jackson Jr. will need to look to curb as he enters his fourth season. Foul issues coupled with the times he would look lost defensively. As he adjusted to a new team that had been accustomed to playing without him, there were positives to take from his defensive performances this year.

As he grew more comfortable providing Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies flexibility as a stretch five, he would show flashes what he could be as the anchor of the defense at the center position. There were nights where he would jump off the screen defensively — whether it be flashing in passing lanes, stripping bigs working their way to the basket or accumulating blocks like his four block night vs. the New Orleans Pelicans. With eyes towards 2022, the idea of a Jaren Jackson Jr. that can comfortably play both forward and center, have the athleticism and defensive prowess to switch on to guards, while having the capability to be a rim protector is a terrifying one.

In his first two seasons, Jackson Jr. has often been criticized for “not rebounding.” While it has always been of my opinion that it is not as pressing of an issue as some try to make it, would you happen to know who was second on the team behind Jonas Valanciunas in rebounding in the NBA Playoffs?

Jaren Jackson Jr. with 5.6 rebounds per game.

Albeit with a small sample size, Jackson Jr. took a step in the right direction averaging 5.6 rebounds per game throughout the regular season and postseason — a full rebound more than his career average. There is obviously still room for growth for the 21 year-old big man, but the aggressiveness on the boards that he flashed at times throughout the postseason is a positive development moving towards next season.

Offensively, Jaren Jackson Jr. never really found his footing, but this could be partially due to how he was utilized once he returned. The 2020-21 season saw Jackson Jr. shoot 42% from the field while shooting 28% from deep — well below his career averages. While an adjustment period is expected, he never really got it going, but he wasn’t always put in positions to succeed either. When healthy, Jackson Jr.’s shooting prowess is a valuable tool that allows the Grizzlies to space the floor and allows Ja Morant and others to operate with the ball in their hands. The problem this year was that there would be long stretches where Jackson Jr. would be relegated to camping out in the corner or simply hanging out on the perimeter while the Grizzlies went through their offensive sets.

While this has some value, the Grizzlies offense was limited in comparison to what it could be when the second-best player is only chucking threes and uninvolved in the offense. Jackson Jr. was at his best this season when A) he was on the floor with his running mate Ja Morant B) as one would expect, they got him involved in the offense — whether it be cutting to the basket, back to the basket possessions, pick and roll/pop situations, etc. This led to his two best games of the season — the final game of the season and the April 23rd contest against Portland.

As he enters the 2022 season, hopefully his role in the offense will resemble closer to the latter than what we saw a majority of the season.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Now back to the present.

Off the floor, the Grizzlies have a decision to make as Jaren is eligible for a contract extension this offseason. That will handle itself as he is still a cornerstone of this next phase of the franchise alongside his point guard Ja Morant.

On the floor, a different story is presented that all comes from the final press conferences. “We’ll be back,” and “I’ll put it all together,” are the final words Jaren Jackson Jr. left Grizzlies fans with in his final press conferences after their first round exit. While they may not seem like much more than surface level answers to questions from an athlete, I think it speaks to much more to come from Jackson Jr.

It would’ve been completely understandable for him to check out this season due to all the unpredictability surrounding it from his injury and all the circumstances pertaining to COVID-19 but he didn’t. Instead he was front and center throughout his rehab-centered absences staying mentally locked in and accumulating the mental reps until he was physically ready to take the physical ones. He did the little things to be there for his teammates, showing leadership with a positive attitude and smile on his face the whole time. This is what prevented this from being a lost season for Jackson Jr., as he returned just in time to get the much needed playoff experience alongside his teammates.

Now — in this more accessible, vaccinated COVID world — a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. gets an entire offseason to get in the gym to build on the foundation that was established this time last year when he emerged as a sharp-shooting shining star in the NBA Bubble. That player, the one that is affectionately dubbed the “unicorn” is still there and gets to focus on basketball instead of treatment.

The Grizzlies succeeded without Jaren Jackson Jr. for a majority of the season, as he recovered but now as we look towards 2022. Jackson is back as Ja Morant’s running mate, as Dillon Brooks’ second line of defense, as Taylor Jenkins’ versatile weapon, and as another franchise player. After the season, the Grizzlies just had that put the league on notice — that should scare you as they strive for more than just a playoff appearance.

The 2020-21 season allowed the Grizzlies to grow around Jaren Jackson Jr., as questions loomed around him, and he became a “forgotten” and overlooked member of his draft class. In 2021-22, with a full offseason under his belt, it’ll be time to take the top off of his potential and #FreeJaren.

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