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Jaren Jackson Jr. is the Grizzlies playoffs X-Factor

Jaren Jackson has made a massive impact for the Grizzlies success, and his room for growth can help him take Memphis where they want to go.

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New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Jaren Jackson Jr. had a great season. He’s emerging as one of the league’s premier defenders, serving as a catalyst for the Memphis Grizzlies leap into a top-5 defense — after starting out as the lowest-ranked defense in the league over the first month of the season. Jackson led the league in blocks per game (2.3), total blocks (177), and total steals + blocks (250).

His defensive prowess and impact should launch him into the finalist group for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He should definitely be on First Team All-Defense, and I’d probably start a riot (but actually a Twitter rant, or a column on this very blog) if he doesn’t end up on it.

At the same time, while he’s played at a near All-Star level this year, Jackson still feels like an X-factor for the Grizzlies’ playoff endeavors.

Jaren Jackson shot a career-low 41.5% from the field this season — even lower than his 11-game percentages from last season — and 32.5% from 3, some steps below his 39.4% mark his sophomore year. It’s a bit off from that leap that we expected coming into the season, though he’s made up for that with a massive jump defensively. Nonetheless, if you told me that the Grizzlies finished with 56 wins (2nd-best in the league) with Jackson having those shooting splits, I’d be astonished. That’s a testament to the leaps across the roster, Ja Morant’s MVP rise, Taylor Jenkins’ coaching, the team’s depth, and (of course) Jackson’s defensive dominance.

Overcoming his shooting inefficiencies will be important for the Grizzlies goal of achieving postseason glory.

Despite the drop-off in his percentages, Jackson still remains a solid threat from 3-point lead. Obviously, when you play those percentages with his volume, he’s going to hit outside shots. He’s 5th among all big men in games with 2+ three’s (38) — ironically, one of these players is postseason foe Karl-Anthony Towns.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

With his outside jumper on, it opens up the floor so much. Starting with himself, that sort of attention gives him more opportunities to pick and choose his spots getting downhill, something that’s unique for a player of his size. From there, he can get into good low-post positioning and find his footing inside. Even then, he tends to drive without great footwork. So while he can generate spacing with his outside shooting, he’ll need to maintain his control to capitalize on clean looks as well.

Jackson’s shooting can also open up the floor immensely for the rest of the offense. He’s the only big man that’s any sort of outside threat, and the only way to open up much more is sliding Dillon Brooks into the 4-spot in smaller lineups. If his outside shot isn’t on and trends closer to his sub-30 percent, the defense could clog the paint and shut down driving lanes. That would be bad for the Grizzlies’ dribble-drive attack powered by Ja Morant.

If Jackson’s outside shot is on, it gives them more ways to deploy him. They can utilize him in pick-and-pops, run him through staggered screens, or have him curl out to the corner. His mobility and his versatility just give the Grizzlies more offensive variability, which is crucial for postseason game-planning.

That postseason variability doesn’t apply to just outside shooting. Jackson uses his body well to position himself inside for points in the paint. He also has a solid left-hand that he tends to use as a driver and finisher. The Grizzlies need to get him going inside the arc as well to put him in an offensive rhythm.

Jaren Jackson’s calling card this season has been his defense. He doesn’t have really any weaknesses. He can protect the rim, block shots, generate steals, switch out to guards, and even take on wing assignments. There’s not much of anything Jackson can’t do defensively.

At the same time though, he does have a kryptonite: fouling. Jackson’s foul issues have bene persistent since coming into the league, as he ranked 2nd in total fouls this year — though his average fell to a career-low 3.5 a game. This aspect of his defense, and frankly his offense in terms of screening and drive control, is important for him to stay on the floor.

There are two sides to it, as both he and Taylor Jenkins both need to navigate the managing his minutes through foul trouble. They can’t afford to have him sitting too long. It’s too important for the team’s defensive stability, and for his overall rhythm on both sides of the ball.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

There’s nobody on this roster with the two-way impact of Jaren Jackson Jr.

His defense has taken a leap to the point where he’s a transformative player on that end of the floor. It’s most evident when the Grizzlies are in crunch-time situations. He’s had shining moments on some of the league’s premier centers down the stretch of games — Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Rudy Gobert. We've also seen this in wildly-intense games against teams like the Warriors, Nuggets, Nets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Knicks (don’t laugh, they were down double-digits!).

The way that he can anchor the defense, while also switching on to everything and sticking with guards, is elite. And when you have him do so with guys around him capable of wreaking havoc defensively, it creates a fortifying defensive machine that initiates stops and defensive events for transition offense.

Jackson’s offense is what can take his game and the Grizzlies to a whole new level. He has the potential and capabilities to be a star-level offensive player. I’m not just referring to that 3-game sample of “Bubble Jaren” — which was fun, and I even wrote about the awesomeness of those flashes. But what about his sophomore season where he became the 4th 7-footer in NBA history to shoot at least 39% from 3 on 6 or more attempts? Or this season where he stepped into the primary center role with Steven Adams in “health and safety” protocols? It’s all there for him to find his rhythm and take off as an offensive weapon.

And it’s not even like he needs to average 25 points a game like he did in the bubble to make this impact. He doesn’t have to with weapons like Morant, Bane, and Brooks around him. Raising his efficiency inside and outside the arc is going to be pivotal for the team’s offensive system. Doing so will ensure that his two-way presence is felt quite emphatically.

Indiana Pacers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

There’s been this narrative here lately where a young big man makes a leap in the playoffs for everyone to see, and it results in their team going to the NBA Finals.

Over the past 3 postseasons, we’ve seen this example from Deandre Ayton, Bam Adebayo, and Pascal Siakam. They were pivotal in helping their teams make it to the NBA Finals. Though only 1 of these players were on teams that won the championship, they played a big role in achieving maybe he hardest part: getting there.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is capable of making that same presence felt to help his team reach the Finals. Granted, is there a pathway for them to make it to the Finals if he maintains his production? Perhaps. This Grizzlies team has been, far and away, the 2nd-best team in the NBA. They have the lineup and style versatility to matchup with any team in their conference. They have the profile of a contender.

Nonetheless, if his two-way impact is felt — getting his offense a hair closer to his defense, and handling his fouling— the Memphis Grizzlies could end up in the NBA Finals.

And that isn’t hyperbolic to say. His talent level is that high. He’s the X-factor for this Grizzlies team, and he might be one of the biggest X-factors in this postseason.

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