In all the words that have ever been said about Jaren Jackson Jr. as a basketball player, what Taylor Jenkins said about him in March 2020 may be the most fascinating. “I’d like to think his impact could somewhat be at that level as a two-way player [like Giannis Antetokounmpo],” he said in an article for the Athletic. “He’s got the size, the physicality, the mobility, the athleticism. He’s got the ‘care factor.’ I’m going to learn more about his game.”
Now there’s a lot to unpack in this statement, but there’s a few things that immediately jump out to me.
First, Taylor Jenkins of all people is qualified to make this statement. He spent a year with Giannis when he was an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks during the 2018-19 season, which gave him the opportunity to appreciate the nuances of Giannis’ game in a way that you can’t from afar.
Also, he has come to earn a reputation as a level-headed, thoughtful presence in how he approaches the game; you won’t find him espousing “Fizdale-isms” such as calling Chandler Parsons the Grizzlies’ “LeBron James.” So when he invites a particular comparison between one player and another, you know he believes that it’s warranted—no matter how hyperbolic it may seem.
And to be fair, it very much does seem hyperbolic. Giannis, in case you forgot like Stephen A. Smith apparently did, has already cemented himself in the conversation to be the most accomplished 27-year-old in NBA history, with two MVP’s, a DPOY award, as well as a championship and Finals MVP for an extra dominant cherry on top. His 50-point explosion in a closeout Finals victory over the Suns this past summer was as incredible as any performance that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Yet that’s exactly whom comes to mind for Taylor Jenkins when he thinks of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s upside. He clearly believes in his superstar potential.
I just think the Grizzlies need to become a little more ambitious in how they try to tap into that potential, especially on the offensive end.
Now I’m going to go ahead and set the angry mob on me to start: Jaren’s offensive game has been extremely hit-or-miss this year (and no amount of angry tweets is going to change that!). It’s not necessarily that he’s been bad, because he hasn’t been. He just hasn’t taken the overall leap on that end of the court that many including myself thought that he would.
Before the season started, I said that I saw no reason why he shouldn’t average 20 points this year (more on this in a second). After he, he had averaged 17.4 points 2 years ago when he played next to a high-usage center in Jonas Valanciunas. He came into this season after the first fully healthy offseason of his career, and he was now playing with a low-usage center that would give him more offensive touches in Steven Adams; it made sense to expect a leap in his offensive production.
Instead, his scoring has dipped a tad at 16.4 points per game. His shooting percentages are at career-lows across the board. Site Manager Joe Mullinax once called him a “6’11 Klay Thompson” — and I don’t think he was necessarily wrong to do that two years ago— but he has now shot 30% from three across the last two seasons over his last 317 attempts, which is nearly the same amount he took when he shot 39% from beyond the arc during the 2019-20 season.
However, none of this has particularly mattered when it comes to the Grizzlies overall success this season. That 20-point benchmark may have made some sense before the season started, but the Grizzlies just haven’t needed Jaren to be a primary offensive option. Ja Morant is a superstar, Desmond Bane looks to be the front-runner for Most Improved Player, and even Dillon Brooks has seen his scoring take an uptick to over 19 points per game; there’s only one ball to go around.
Also — and this is the most important part — there is not a better defender in the NBA right now than Jaren Jackson Jr. He could be a virtual non-factor offensively — which he definitely isn’t — and he would still be an incredibly impactful player. He’s currently 3rd in the league in blocks (2.2), second in stocks (3.2), and he allows the 5th-worst opponent FG% at the rim (49%).
He is simply a behemoth, a long-armed 6’11” terror who snuffs out opposing finishers inside the paint while being able to switch effectively and swallow opposing guards on the perimeter. He is indispensable to the team’s defense, as the Grizzlies defend like the 3rd-best defense in the NBA when he’s on the court, and the 25th best defense when he sits. His defense is the biggest reason why he has the 16th best plus-minus in the league at +196.
Ja Morant is the best player on the Memphis Grizzlies, but Jaren Jackson Jr. is the player that the Memphis Grizzlies absolutely can’t survive without.
But if Jaren is to truly reach stardom, his offensive game must progress. To be fair, it already has from his early season struggles. Over the first 20 games of the season, a combination of literal growing pains as well as an apparent lack of comfort coming back from a significant injury rendered him majorly ineffective inside the paint. Yet it’s his game inside the paint that has allowed him to be impactful offensively over the last few months even as his jumper has struggled.
His struggling jumper may very well be a blessing in disguise. It says much about Jenkins’ ability to develop players that Jaren became such a prolific shooter during his second season, but he’s often used him as nothing more than a prolific shooter. Jaren’s skillset is much more varied than that. If Jaren is going to become more like Giannis like Jenkins believes that he can, the Grizzlies need to use him more like Giannis. Specifically, they need to use him as a playmaker with the ball in his hands more.
While Jaren is not quite the athlete that Giannis is (literally no one is), he’s still an advanced ball-handler with a unique combination of strength and agility for his size. His work in the weight room has paid off in such a way where there’s virtually no one in the association that can keep him from the rim when he gets a head of steam.
Look at what happens when he drives against Giannis, the 2019-20 DPOY and a 4-time All-Defensive Team member.
What makes a play like this fascinating is that the Grizzlies can go to it whenever they want. They don’t have to wait for Jaren to have a mismatch against a slower big that he can exploit; he can create against anyone.
The numbers back it up: Giannis is 4th in the league in isolation scoring (5.1 points per game, 0.91 points per isolation), but Jaren actually scores more points per isolation (0.93). The difference is obviously in frequency, as 20.6% of Giannis’ possessions result in isolations, while only 3.6% of Jaren’s do.
The takeaway is simple: Give Jaren the ball more, and get out of his way more. The Grizzlies have had issues in half-court offense, so having a 6’11 player who can create against anyone is an asset that they should lean on more. When they do, it will also give him more opportunities to make plays for others out of double-teams, which is a significant factor in why Giannis hasn’t averaged under five assists in four years. Neither Jaren nor Giannis are particularly adept or prolific pick-and-roll playmakers, but simply being a dominant scorer can open up opportunities for others.
Another area in which the Grizzlies need to use Jaren more is as a live ball-handler is in transition. Of course, they aren’t exactly hurting for transition offense, as they rank 2nd in the league with 23.1 transition points per game. Still, he is a massive asset in that area of the game that they aren’t properly utilizing.
During his rookie season, he ranked in the 96th percentile in transition scoring, scoring 1.5 points per transition possession. He was involved in 2.2 transition possessions as a rookie but only 0.8 during this season. While his overall comfort level on the court has improved, he often looks tentative when handling the ball in transition. He usually looks to give up the ball to a guard rather than attack the basket with authority. As a result, his transition game has fallen off, scoring just over a point per transition possession, which ranks him in the 37th percentile.
Among his many other talents, Giannis’ combination of strength, speed, and skill makes him the best transition scorer in the Association. Jaren has the tools to be in that conversation, but the Grizzlies must properly utilize his skillset for him to get there.
That applies to his game as a whole. At just 22-years-old, Jaren Jackson Jr. has everything that it takes to become a bonafide star in due time. But with just the right tweaks and an abundant amount of ambition, the Grizzlies can help him get there sooner rather than later.