Back before the start of the 2021-22 NBA season, I tweeted something that hasn’t aged particularly well. Since I’ve tweeted many things that haven’t aged well in retrospect, it’s important for me to be specific.
If Jaren doesn’t average 20 this year (assuming health), then I think you’ll have to reevaluate his 2nd star status.— Nathan Chester (@NathanChester24) August 2, 2021
Everything is in place for him to take a leap. https://t.co/CpSVpmYgIO
Now this turned out to be a ludicrous take, but not for a reason I could have foreseen. Jaren didn’t average 20 points last season. In fact, not only did he not take an offensive leap, but it was his worst offensive season of his career in almost every metric. Yet he was so awesome defensively that it hardly even mattered, as he led the league in total blocks and anchored the NBA’s sixth best defense. He became arguably the league’s best and most impactful defender, an unrelenting menace whose lateral agility empowers him to be just as comfortable guarding on the perimeter as he is blocking shots in the paint.
However, the distinction of being the league’s best defensive player no longer does Jaren Jackson Jr. proper justice. I’ve been closely following the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA for nearly 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what he’s done defensively so far this season. He doesn’t just dominate the game defensively; it’s like he’s playing a different game entirely. Opposing players who drive into the paint think that they’re playing NBA basketball, when they really are just participating in Jaren Jackson’s “whack a basketball” competition.
For many NBA players, the paint is their bread-and-butter. But with Jaren Jackson Jr., it now becomes their graveyard. With his dexterity, second-jump verticality, and preternatural instincts, he has transformed into a horror movie villain that allows for no happy endings inside the paint, even for perhaps the most dominant big man of his generation:
Watching his highlights is a mesmerizing experience. If you’ve ever played organized basketball, they may even make you cringe, especially if you were a point guard like myself; and NBA guards have to operate with a constant level of fear when Jaren Jackson patrols the paint. And that is the overall impact of Jackson Jr.’s defensive skill: it is not just the blocks, but the mere sight of Jackson Jr. that can disrupt an opponent’s ability to get off a clean shot.
Of course, some of this may sound hyperbolic and maybe even premature. NBA.com didn’t even list Jackson as one of their 10 candidates for Defensive Player of the Year because he’s only played 11 games so far this season (they did have Dillon Brooks at three on that list, for what it’s worth). If you’re a reasonable person who also happens to hate fun, you could easily argue that some regression over time may be in order. But even if there is, it would probably just mean that his performance this season would be downgraded to “best individual defensive season this year” from “best individual defensive season ever.”
If you don’t believe that, here are three numbers to remember: 3.5, 12.6, and 50.8. The first two numbers are related; Jaren Jackson is leading the league with 3.5 blocks per game, but even that reality doesn’t do his defensive dominance full justice. In 1989, Manute Bol posted the highest BLK% (10.8) for a single season in NBA history; Jackson currently has a 12.6 BLK%, with there being just as much difference between him and 2nd-place Bol as there is between Bol and 9th-place Mitchell Robinson in 2018-19. He is also defending the rim better than anyone else in the league this year, as opponents are shooting a league-low 50.8% at the rim against him. He’s simply an unstoppable behemoth, and there’s no real way to counter him.
Despite his impressive ability to switch onto the perimeter, the Grizzlies primarily utilize him in drop coverage, which aims to prevent easy looks in the paint and from three while also goading the opponent into taking more inefficient mid-range shots. Still, while drop coverage is the league’s primary preference, it can be exploited by skilled mid-range scorers since most bigs in drop coverage simply can’t adequately cover that area of the court while also protecting the rim; even the most well-executed defensive schemes have to give something up against the best players in the world.
However, conventional reality doesn’t apply to Jaren Jackson Jr. Even as the Grizzlies primarily employ him in drop coverage, his length and mobility allow him to still harass mid-range shooters. Opponents are shooting 7.4% worse on mid-range shots with Jackson as their primary defender, which ranks him in the 96th percentile. No one anywhere is comfortable or safe.
I could go on and on. I think it’s only fair considering my past complaints that I mention his foul trouble, which has constantly haunted him throughout his young career, has been virtually nonexistent as he currently has more blocks than fouls. I also haven’t even touched on his rapidly improving offense, although you can read associate editor Shawn Coleman’s excellent piece from yesterday if you want an in-depth analysis of that area of his game.
But I will offer one stat regarding his offense. He, again, currently has the highest BLK% for a season in NBA history. Among all the players who rank in the top 100 in that category throughout NBA history, he currently has the second highest scoring average per 36 minutes (25.2), coming in behind only Joel Embiid’s 2016-17 season (28.7). Yet Embiid ranks only 92nd on that list with a 7.6 BLK%. So if Jackson continues on his current trajectory, it will be fair to say that no one has ever combined such dominating defense with such prolific offense.
And that is the joy of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s game. It’s the realization that you’re watching someone not just become great but also generational. It’s the understanding that you’re experiencing a basketball trail blazer that wears Beale Street Blue rather than red and black. It’s unprecedented and uncertain; you may not know exactly where this will all go or what he will ultimately become, but you know you’ve never seen anything like it.
I’ll end with this. A married friend told me recently that he no longer likes to go to weddings anymore. When I asked him why, he jokingly said that after getting married, it isn’t enough for him to merely be happy; he needed others to be miserable.
It makes me happy watching Jaren Jackson Jr. making opponents of the Memphis Grizzlies miserable, with one blocked shot at a time.