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Jaren Jackson Jr.’s flashes from last season

Jaren Jackson Jr. went through the struggles of every young player returning from a long injury process last season, but the flashes he showed are important to highlight as he enters a pivotal year.

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

It’s fair to reflect on Jaren Jackson Jr.’s performance from last year and look at it through the flashes. That’s the way I look at it at least.

After all, he was out of intense basketball for 9 months, including missed time in training camp and preseason. He had to go through the rehab process in the middle of a pandemic, which came with strict protocols and unprecedented circumstances. And when he finally returned to action, he had to catch up to speed in the middle of a playoff race.

Struggles were predictable. Mistakes that often reflect timing, game flow, and rust were bound to happen, especially for someone getting back into the swing of things after missing 9 months of game action.

Some people liked to judge the whole scope of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s performance from last year, leading to a bit of divisiveness on his evaluation and long-term outlook. However, given these circumstances previously outlined, I’d rather look at the flashes from this season. I tend to look at those spots, because he showcased his potential, on-court value, and a bit of growth through his play last season.

The unicorn traits within Jaren Jackson Jr.’s game still exist, and he showed them in his condensed season this past year.

Starting with his most critiqued weakness, rebounding has been a sore spot in Jackson’s game. This past year, there were a noticeable improvement from him in this regard.

From a numbers standpoint, he upped his rebounding average from 4.6 to 5.6 — though in a very limited sample size — and his per-possession rebounding reached double digits (11.5 per 100 possessions) for the first time in his career. He also saw leaps in his rebounding percentages as well:

  • Total Rebounding Percentage: 8.5 to 12.7%
  • Offensive Rebounding Percentage: 3.6 to 6.9%
  • Defensive Rebounding Percentage: 13.2 to 18.7%

Granted Jackson didn’t show signs of becoming an elite rebounder, still ranking under the 50th percentile in these rebounding metrics per Cleaning the Glass. Nonetheless, it’s nice to see some strides in his game, especially from someone who was away from the physicality of the game for a long period of time.

The most noticeable area of improvement comes on the offensive glass. While Jackson got physical down low at times to retrieve these, he displayed a better nose for the ball to net the extra possession.

Let’s take a look at the physicality aspect of rebounding — the area that makes players like Zach Randolph and Jonas Valanciunas so beloved, though on varying levels. Rebounding often gets misconstructed as “tough or soft,” and physicality does measure in to it, but the impact of timing and positioning often can often unnoticed. Jackson did a pretty good job of finding his way into solid rebounding positioning last season.

Jackson showed growth in his timing and positioning, but it was nice to see him use his body more to get physical down low to battle for rebounds.

One of the rebounding areas that caught my eye was Jackson’s willingness to crash the glass on the perimeter. A part of his woeful rebounding numbers result from his positioning — roaming the perimeter more on offense, and taking on more stretch 4’s/big wings defensively. So watching him make an effort to crash the glass from the perimeter to create extra opportunities was a joy to see.

It’s going to be important for Jackson to continue to crash the glass from the perimeter, and merge that with smart, physical bodying inside. Last season, the Grizzlies were uniquely awesome at “Kobe assists” — a miss that leads to a bucket. So filling that void from Jonas Valanciunas by crashing the glass from anywhere on the floor will be important for the Grizzlies offense.

More notably, there was this particular sequence towards the end of the regular season where Jackson crashed the glass to keep a possession alive and ultimately ice the game. A miscue on the offensive boards here could’ve had a big domino effect, as this game in particular had pretty big play-in implications.

Major growth moment there.

Those are the kinds of sequences you like to see from Jaren Jackson Jr. if he’s going to be operating as the 5.

Jackson’s rebounding development will be paramount for what the Grizzlies are trying to accomplish. He won’t be called upon to be an elite rebounder like Randolph and Valanciunas, but floating in this 6-7 average neighborhood would be quite solid. The Grizzlies got enough good positional rebounders in Kyle Anderson, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, and Xavier Tillman — as well as another bridge center in Steven Adams — to make up for it. However, to truly operate at peak performance with Jackson at the 5, they can’t get killed on the glass. He’ll have to be a bigger factor on the glass

We have to see it in a larger sample, but Jackson took a good step in becoming a better rebounder.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s upside is tied to his potential as this versatile big man that can stretch the floor, play off the dribble, and switch defensively. These are the collective traits that could help him evolve into a bonafide mismatch on either side of the ball.

Jackson’s 3-point percentages dipped quite a bit from his sophomore year, 39.4% to 28.3%. It’s primarily associated with the small samples — a bad shooting night in an 11-game stretch hits different — and with just overall rust in regaining his footing in live-action play. I’d bank on him returning to that 36-40% range he trended in during his first two seasons. Despite the drop-off, he still demonstrated good relocation skills on his in-rhythm 3’s, like what we saw in year 2.

With his shooting prowess, Jackson demands attention out on the perimeter. And when he’s matched up at the 5 he has the ball-handling skills to pair with his range, making him a deadly match-up in those spots. While he’ll be able to generate separation with his ball-handling, he also possesses the mobility to attack closeouts for easier opportunities at rim. This skill will bode well for the Grizzlies with lineups with him at the 5, as he can capitalize on the spacing and on stretching opposing centers away from the basketball.

He demonstrated this same mismatch potential in the Utah series. What a test for him to tap into that as well, as he had decent amount of stretches running against Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and another defensive stalwart in Derrick Favors.

Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t a small big man. Weighing in at 240 pounds, he has the frame to get defenders off their feet when enough force is used, as demonstrated against Favors — a renowned bruising big man. Capitalizing on his size to gain separation on drives will be important as he continues to build on his game off the dribble.

One thing we’ve seen teams try to do against Utah is pry Rudy Gobert away from the basket, something the Clippers accomplished in their second-round victory. Having a 5 like Jackson should help deploy a similar strategy without sacrificing size on defense. Those minutes were promising in the playoffs, as the Grizzlies outscored the Jazz by 1.5 points per 100 possessions (130 total possessions) with Jackson at center, per Cleaning the Glass.

His growth as a center that can stretch the floor and protect the rim in high-leverage situations will be fun to monitor, and it’s one of the most crucial elements to the Grizzlies vision around Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.

As most Grizzlies big men operate in the direct hand off, he’ll be able to attack in these spots as well with his budding ball-handling abilities. Whenever teams try to cheat on the pitch, he can fake the pass and create a look for himself to attack or shoot. With just enough separation — both between him and the defender, and the defender and the basket — he can make defenses pay with his off-dribble mobility.

This dunk here encompasses the same principle of drawing the opposing center away from the basket. Just needed a separate spot here, because it’s against 3-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.

Defensively is where Jackson could be a legitimate game-changer.

Last postseason, the Jazz burned the Grizzlies’ drop coverage scheme. Since Jonas Valanciunas wasn’t really good at switching onto perimeter players, Utah walked into wide-open 3’s.

Insert Jaren Jackson Jr. in these spots.

His switch-ability at his size has been his potential calling card coming into the league, projecting to be a center that can protect the rim and defend out on the perimeter off switches. The Grizzlies need that prototype of 5’s in big games, as it limits the amount of open looks opposing teams may get from the perimeter, while also creating a formidable defense that alters shots closer to the basket.

Jackson’s ability to pick a guard up from the 3-point line and stick with him all the way to the basket is incredibly tantalizing. The impact of a big man wreaking that sort of havoc on the perimeter can’t be understated. With Jackson’s length and lateral movement, it’s hard for the ball-handler to create plays for himself or others off the dribble.

Sequences like these are where hearts start to race and your imagination on Jackson’s ceiling starts to go wild. This spot right here is typically hell for most big men — even some of the best ones. The patience Jackson demonstrates, when locked in, is nice for a young big man, and it’s just a glimpse of his upside on that end of the floor. Don’t expect him to look like a taller Gary Payton out on the perimeter off switches, but it does add another weapon in Jackson’s defensive arsenal.

Jaren Jackson Jr. has the framework to be a really good big man for a long time, but growing in these aspects of his game can make him a walking mismatch.

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

These 12 months are pivotal for Jaren Jackson Jr., his future, and the outlook for the Memphis Grizzlies from here on out.

Obviously the extension looms large, but most near-max extensions typically strike within the day of the deadline. Also, seeing draft classmates such as Deandre Ayton, Michael Porter Jr., Collin Sexton, and Mikal Bridges — all arguably in Jackson’s tier — not inked to extensions eases my mind on a deal getting done.

Whether he’s signs the extension now, or bets on himself in restricted free agency (see: John Collins), Jackson’s performance will shine the brightest for better or for worse this year.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the biggest factor in the team’s long-term trajectory. If he takes the expected leap to become a legit 2nd guy — or even a 1B — to Ja Morant, it elevates their ceiling. And that surely is possible. If the flashes don’t outshine his fouling or rebounding woes (understandably, the most critiqued aspects of his games), or if he can’t stay healthy (another very understandable concern) the questions of his ceiling — and the team’s ceiling — will loom large.

Despite these concerns though, and while some would rather harp on them, don’t overlook these flashes Jackson has shown leading up to this season. Look at these flashes closely when evaluating Jaren Jackson Jr.

The sustainability of these flashes, and how Jackson builds on them, may ultimately decide the brightness of the Memphis Grizzlies’ future and the heights they reach.

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