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The twin telepathy of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke

Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke have built great synergy over the past 3 seasons, and it’s materializing into dominant production on both sides of the ball.

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

In the preseason, Brandon Clarke referred to Jaren Jackson Jr. as “twin.” If you don’t follow either player on social media, you know this title tracks with how frequently they hang out and work out together off the court.

On the court, that connection maintains. The Memphis Grizzlies are demolishing opponents when Jackson and Clarke share the floor together, as they outscore opponents by a blistering 16 points per 100 possessions in 537 possessions per Cleaning the Glass. When you break it down by both sides of the ball, lineups with those two rank in the 90th percentile in Offensive Rating (116.4) and in the 98th percentile in Defensive Rating (100.4).

I guess that “twin telepathy” has translated onto the court as well.

“It’s natural. Nothing is forced,” Jackson said. “In the off-season, we work on our game and spend a lot of time with each other. With that, on the floor, the chemistry is just a lot easier. Natural stuff going on.”

Good things happen when those two share the floor. Their versatility as individual players gives the Grizzlies a multitude of lineup combinations to deploy while maintaining steady production. They can go with 2 guards, as they did in crunch time against the Golden State Warriors, by rolling with Ja Morant and Tyus Jones. They can go big and add Killian Tillie to the lineup. They play well with Desmond Bane and/or Dillon Brooks alongside them to kick-start 2nd quarters with a run. John Konchar and De’Anthony Melton give them more defensive agents of chaos who also contribute to the “rebound-by-committee” philosophy, while also spacing the floor.

The superb two-way play of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke is a common denominator in these lineups.

“Those guys are very versatile. I love the activity that they play with and they have good athleticism defensively,” Head Coach Taylor Jenkins said of those two. “I really like what they’re doing defensively in a lot of different coverages that we have. That’s big production when we combine the starters bench and having those guys find some chemistry is big for us.”

The production that follows with these two players is their “unique” skillsets, as assistant coach Darko Rajakovic describes.

“Brandon Clarke is a very unique player in the league, you don’t have that many players with the athletic ability and quickness with pick-and-rolls and floaters,” Rajakovic said. “Jaren Jackson Jr. is unique in what he does. He’s a great driver, his presence at the rim is amazing.”

Where the Grizzlies succeed though is how these two unique skillsets mesh together on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Jackson is one of the most fascinating big men in the league. He has the handle and wiggle to take guys off the dribble. It isn’t quite to the level of 7-footer’s like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kevin Durant, but his handle is good enough to generate substantial downhill momentum. Though his 3-point shot (30.9%) isn’t where it was prior to his knee injury (35.9% rookie season, and 39.4% sophomore season), he has the track record and the shooting volume to have the respect from the defense, leading to open driving lanes.

Clarke, on the other hand, does most of his damage inside. He’s an elite roller out of screen-and-roll actions, generating 1.47 points per pick-and-roll possession — 5th among players that have been in 25 or more PNR possessions, and have played 20 or more games. His bounce also leads to his signature floater, as well as easy dunks off lobs or drives, as he ranks in 97th percentile in field goal percentage at the rim (76%) and in the 95th percentile in field goal percentage in the “short mid” range (57%), per Cleaning the Glass.

When you put these two offensive traits in downhill actions, the defense enters a “pick your poison” situation.

Do you want to let Jaren Jackson let it fly or attack from the perimeter? Or do you want Brandon Clarke exploding to the rim?

Either way, the Grizzlies are finding offense.

Defenses get fixated on actions going downhill with a point guard and Brandon Clarke. Rightfully so, either Ja Morant or Tyus Jones are potent in these spots because of their “short mid” range scoring and their playmaking. Then, defenses want to play Clarke’s roll as well. In turn, Jackson is put in an advantageous situation. He can go for the open 3, or he can take attack the closeout to create off the dribble for a layup or an extra pass.

And with Jackson’s offensive versatility, he could be put in either spot as a roller or a popper.

“He can make the floater, he can catch a lob, he can pick-and-pop 3, and if you close out of control, he can put the ball on the floor and go by you. I feel like it’s tough,” Ja Morant said.

If the defense chooses to be more focused on the perimeter attack, specifically Jackson’s shooting gravity, then they’re giving Brandon Clarke even more space to roll and get a launchpad towards the basket — leaving the defense with two options.

“When he’s in the pick-and-roll, it’s tough,” Morant said of Clarke. “You have to pick what you want to give up for him. He’s so tough with the floater. If it’s a short roll, and you’re too far back, he can knock down the floater. If you’re up too high, he can get behind you.”

Dunk or floater, either way, it’s usually been a bucket for Clarke this season.

“It’s curtains at that point,” Morant said. “I don’t think too many people can jump with him.”

One thing that’s been cool to see with these two on the court together is how these two skillsets mesh together to generate offense. The Grizzlies run a lot of actions from the high posts, putting their big men in situations to bring their defender up and open up space down by the basket. With Jackson and Clarke in particular, they run cross-screen actions that utilize their best strengths. It gets Jackson creating off the dribble, while Clarke rolling towards the basket.

Then, the twin telepathy hits.

The numerous attacking points that are created with these two on the court generates a dangerous advantage for the Grizzlies. The head of the snake comes from getting downhill, and once the defense makes a play on which point they want to stop, the ball-handler has them at their mercy. A big part of that comes off Jackson and Clarke’s offensive strengths, and the defense’s respect for them.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

While the offensive production with these two on the court has been nice, their defense is what’s most potent. Both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are multi-dimensional defenders. They can both defend in space and guard perimeter players off switches, allowing the Grizzlies to deploy an aggressive swarming defense with the focus around generating turnovers.

They are both also efficient rim protectors. Jackson is one of the league’s elite shot-blockers, as he’s 2nd in the league in block percentage (6.9%) and 4th in blocks per game (2.1). In addition, shooters are shooting 13.6% worse from within 10 feet with him as the primary defender. Clarke is a fast-twitch shot-blocker off the bench as well, as he ranks in the 100th percentile among forwards in block percentage (2.7%), per Cleaning the Glass. Opponents are also shooting 7.6% worse from within 10 feet with him as the nearby defender.

So when you get these two killer rim protectors, it’s blouses for the opposition. A lot of times, they’ll both crash towards the driver and go up to protect the basket. When that happens, there’s virtually no chance the shot goes in, due to the size and verticality going up for the contest.

Defensive versatility is important — as either stakes rise, teams go smaller, or both. Jackson and Clarke together don’t lack in frontcourt size, and their defensive interchangeability allows the Grizzlies to thrive on that side of the ball.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

As we wrap up, I want to quote these excerpts from The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarkscolumn after the Grizzlies drafted Brandon Clarke in 2019:

Clarke and Jackson are a match made in basketball heaven. Defenses will have to pick their poison. Jackson (who shot 35.9 percent from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game as a rookie) can stretch them out to the 3-point line, and Clarke (who shot 70.5 percent from 2-point range on 9.7 attempts per game last season) will be able to dunk on almost anyone. Clarke’s numbers around the rim are no fluke. He’s a savvy player who combines jaw-dropping athleticism with a great touch on floaters and hook shots.

A frontcourt of Jackson and Clarke could be even better on defense than they are on offense. They are both elite shot blockers with the quickness to switch screens and stay in front of much smaller players on the perimeter, as well as the basketball IQ to cover for each other as help-side defenders in the rare times when they are beaten off the dribble.

After a lost 2020-21 season for these two, we’re starting to see them bounce back and grow as individual players, and this vision for them as a duo is being formed into existence this season. Their versatility is an agent in that through the different looks they create offensively, and the ones they erase defensively. That’s a testament to the growing camaraderie and connectivity of this Grizzlies team, and these two specifically, over the past 3 seasons.

“I just feel like we have a really good connection on the floor, off of the floor too,” Clarke said. “It’s really showing up because it’s something that we’ve worked on. We’ve grown during games, now it’s showing.”

As the Grizzlies surge up the NBA hierarchy, we’ll see where the Grizzlies deploy this duo. I don’t see them moving away from the usual starting lineup with Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, (healthy) Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Steven Adams, since the lineups statistically rock as well. However, if the plan is to transition Jackson into becoming the full-time starting center, Brandon Clarke should get the first crack at being his co-pilot in the frontcourt.

Well, a first crack that isn’t the 8th game in 12 nights.

With the runs these lineups get on during games, and the moments and fashion they’ve been closing contests, it could be a formula the Grizzlies lean on down the road for sustainable contention.

When asked about how the off-court synergy has translated on the court, Jaren Jackson Jr. said a lot of “realness” goes on to build that chemistry. As the sample starts to grow, and these lineups with these two young big men blitz their opponents, we’re starting to see the realness of this duo — and the realness of the possibility that Jackson and Clarke could be the 5 and 4 of the Grizzlies’ future.

Stats of 1/17/22 before Grizz/Bulls game, found on basketball-reference and NBA.com

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