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Unleashing the Unicorn

A year after emerging as one of the best defenders in the NBA, Jaren Jackson Jr. has become a clear advantage for the Grizzlies on both ends of the court.

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Philadelphia 76ers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Over the past few years, as the Grizzlies have had plenty of success while also being one of the youngest teams in the NBA, Grizz Nation has become familiar with plenty of phrases regarding the roster.

“Getting to the Next Level”

“Potential into Production, Progression”

“Sustainability, Consistency”

“Development”

“Final Version”

“Evolution”

I have used each of these terms many times in describing several current Grizzlies. Each of these terms, at one time or another, have been applicable to names such as Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke, and John Konchar. Hopefully, they will continue to be effective descriptions of talents such as Ziaire Williams, Santi Aldama, Jake Laravia, and David Roddy. Even veterans such as Steven Adams, Tyus Jones, and Dillon Brooks have seen their games progress and evolve over the past few years.

The fact that so many Grizzlies can be mentioned is proof of how effective the development and growth of this roster has been over the past few seasons. And yet, there is one clear omission from the list of names above, and that is for very good reason. While there are numerous instances that can be used to show how well several Grizzlies have evolved in the recent past, the current progression of Jaren Jackson Jr. may be one of the best examples to date.

Philadelphia 76ers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season for Jackson Jr. is already one of the best examples. Though Jackson Jr. had shown flashes of his ability to be a difference maker on defense over his first three seasons, the fact he was able to do it on a nightly basis defined his fourth year in the league. The impact of Jackson Jr. was not solely due to his elite defensive playmaking; it was because he truly became one of the best rim and shot deterrents inside the arc in the entire league. The end result was Jackson Jr. not only anchoring one of the best defenses in the NBA, but also earning what could be the first of many inclusions on the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team.

One of the main reasons as to why Jackson Jr.’s production had been inconsistent through his first three years in the league was due to injury. Jackson Jr. had to work his way back from a stress fracture injury this past offseason. However, this time, Jackson Jr. returned to action quicker than expected, only missing the first few weeks of the season. More importantly, he has picked up right where he left off in terms of playing a critical role in helping the Grizzlies play winning basketball and being one of the best defenses in the NBA.

Of course, it starts with his rim protection. After leading the league with 177 total blocks and a 7.4% block rate in 78 games last year, Jackson Jr. is already at 40 blocks and a staggering 12.6% block rate this year. He truly arrived as one of the best defenders in the league in January of 2022, when he produced historic block numbers within a calendar month. Through the first five of games that month, Jackson Jr. had 16 blocks. Through five games so far this month, he has 22 blocks. This includes setting a new career high, and tying the Grizzlies franchise record, with eight blocks on Monday night. Jackson Jr. was also the first NBA player in over four years to have eight blocks in a game while playing less than 25 minutes.

The disruption Jackson Jr. causes inside the arc allows other Grizzlies to have an easier time focusing on their assignments to make the defense more effective. When considering each NBA team’s past ten games, the Grizzles are limiting opponents to making only 39.8% of their FGAs, the best mark in the league. With only a third of the season completed, it may be legitimate to point out that Jackson Jr. has not played enough games yet to be considered a Defensive Player of the Year Candidate. However, if he maintains this level of impact, he could become a clear favorite for the honor.

And yet, as amazing as it is to witness Jackson Jr. taking his defense to an even higher level than last year, it feels even more significant to suggest he is currently playing the best offense of his career. While that may be a hard case to make considering he has only played 11 games this season, a bit of context adds some validity. Over this 11 game span, Jackson Jr. has 202 points and is shooting 51.1% from the field and 36.4% from beyond the arc. The only other time Jackson Jr. has produced this level of offensive production over a 10+ game span was three years ago, in December of 2019, his second year in the league. That season also happens to be Jackson Jr.’s best offensive season to date.

It would seem logical that the secret to Jackson Jr.’s offensive success so far this season is due to him regaining his accuracy from three that he showed in his sophomore season. And to an extent, that is true, as his 36.4 3P% mark is by far the best he has had over the past three seasons. Furthermore, his three point production is not just the product of one or two big games. He is consistently making multiple threes. In the seven games that Jackson Jr. has made two or more threes this season, the Grizzlies are 7-0.

Detroit Pistons v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

However, the true key to Jackson Jr.’s offensive success this season is the confidence at which he is using his size and skill to succeed, and at times dominate, in the paint. So far this season, 28.5% of Jackson Jr.’s shots are at the rim, the highest amount since his rookie season. He is also making 69.2% of his shots at the rim, a significant improvement from last year, when he made only 61.5% of his shots at the rim at a significantly lower frequency.

Furthermore, Jackson Jr. has also made tremendous strides in producing in the paint as a whole. This season, Jackson Jr. is attempting 3.4 non-rim shots in the paint per game. Of the 57 players in the NBA this season that are averaging 3 or more such shots per game, Jackson Jr.’s 59.5 FG% is 4th in the league (min. 10 games). To show how significant of a stride this is for Jackson Jr’s offensive arsenal, his previous best in this area of the court was just over 42% during his rookie season.

The end result of Jackson Jr.’s prosperity in the paint so far this season is, by far, the best production inside the arc of his career. He currently is producing the highest 2P% (61%), eFG% (58.4%), and TS% (62.7%) marks of his career. He also is being assisted on only 58% of his two point shots, while also producing dunks more than at any other point in his career.

The data above validates two points about Jackson Jr. so far this season. First, he is becoming more consistent at confidently creating his own shot. Secondly, his decision-making on when to produce on the perimeter or dominate in the post is more effective than ever. This offensive balance is allowing for Jackson Jr. to consistently create advantages when the ball is in his hand. As a result, he is becoming a mismatch that opposing defenses are struggling to stop.

It may seem logical that opponents could counter this success and try to disrupt Jackson Jr.’s rhythm by fouling him more often. However, that actually benefits another strength of his game. His current .401 FTr and per-36 mark of 6.8 FTAs are by far the best of his career. When you consider that Jackson Jr. is one of only six players 6’11” or taller to shoot 75% or better from the line (min. 800 FTA) since he entered the league, getting to the charity stripe is a welcome outcome for Jackson Jr. and the Grizzlies. The key is that because he is now a consistent and legitimate threat in the paint, if teams are trying to limit that by sending him to the line more often, it becomes a win-win situation for the Grizzlies.

The fact that Jackson Jr. has regained his form from three and is now producing better than ever in the paint also helps calm any concerns that his current offensive output may not be sustainable. With his ability to shoot the three or score close to the basket, and the knowledge of when to use which option, Jackson Jr.’s offensive game has depth to still be productive if he struggles in a certain area. Furthermore, his success from the charity stripe benefits the Grizzlies, as he is one of the team’s best free throw shooters. If opposing defenses find one way to limit him, Jackson Jr. can find another way to remain valuable on offense.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

For a few years, my opinion of the best version of Jaren Jackson Jr. is one that could combine the offensive output from his second NBA season with his defensive impact from last season at the same time. So far this year, Grizz fans are consistently seeing that combination on display. In fact, due to his production in the paint on both ends of the court, Jackson Jr. has shown at times he can be even more dominant and impactful on offense and defense than we have previously seen in his career.

In other words, the best way to describe Jaren Jackson Jr. so far this season is that this is the best version we have seen of him in his career. However, I feel it is valid to suggest we still have not seen the final evolution of Jackson Jr. But make no mistake, when many in the Grizzlies fanbase and around the NBA discuss Jackson Jr. having All-Star and even All-NBA potential, what we have seen this season is exactly what they are referencing. There simply is not many other NBA talents who can provide this combined level of impact on both ends of the court. Jackson Jr.’s impact on winning is also clear, as the Grizzlies are 68-32 in the 100 combined regular season and playoff games he has played in since last year (min. 15 minutes played.)

While Jaren Jackson Jr. has earned many nicknames in his NBA career, the best way to describe his season thus far is that the Unicorn has been unleashed. And what is extremely exciting is that the final version and full evolution of Jackson Jr. is still yet to be seen.

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