Unicorn. JJJ. Trip. Block Panther.
In his time in Memphis, Jaren Jackson Jr. has been given many nicknames to describe both the unique skill set he possesses on the court and the alliteration in his actual name. While the nicknames due to his name may be his preference, the evolution from Unicorn to Block Panther is a great representation of Jackson Jr.’s dedication to turning his potential into production.
As a result, Jackson Jr. has earned a new title that is very familiar to Grizzlies fans...
First-Team All Defense.
For the first time in Grizzlies franchise history, the player that made that phrase popular, Tony Allen, is no longer the only Grizzlies player to earn All-Defensive First Team honors. In fact, Jackson Jr. is the fourth player in franchise history to make an All-Defensive NBA Team:
Tony Allen 6 times (3 First, 3 second)
Jaren Jackson Jr. 1 time (First)
Marc Gasol 1 time (Second)
Mike Conley 1 Time (Second)
Gasol actually has earned the highest defensive honor in Grizzlies franchise history when he was named the 2012-2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Jackson Jr. actually finished fifth in the DPOY voting this year, his first step toward earning a reputation that could make him a mainstay in that annual award’s voting for years to come. While Jackson Jr. may not yet have the reputation of Giannis, Rudy, or Draymond, he took a tremendous first step toward that level of elite defender this season.
In a snapshot, Jackson Jr.’s resume for First-Team All Defense honors speaks for itself. He led the NBA in total blocks and also had the highest combination of steals + blocks in the league during the 2021-2022 season. He also was the anchor and best overall defensive player of a defense that led the NBA in both steals and blocks per game and was sixth overall in defensive rating this season.
Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Jackson Jr.’s defensive impact this season.
The level of defensive activity Jackson Jr. showed this season has only been reached by historic defensive talents over the past decade in the NBA. Jackson Jr. produced 2 or more blocks and one or more steals in 36 games this season. The only players over the past decade to reach this threshold more than 36 times in a single season are Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and Rudy Gobert. Obviously, Jackson Jr. being a part of this company is one of the biggest compliments to how amazing he was on defense this season.
Furthermore, Jackson Jr.’s defensive activity was far more consistent than it was sporadic. During the 2021-2022 season, Jackson produced a 7.4% block rate and 1.6% steal rate. In the history of the NBA, there have been only 4 times in which a player reached these levels in steal and block rates while playing 2,000 or more minutes. The only players to reach this threshold besides Jackson Jr. are David Robison and Marcus Camby, who combined to earn 12 All-Defensive NBA honors and each were named Defensive Player of the Year during their careers.
The consistency of Jackson Jr.’s season certainly stands out. Through December 31st, he was third in the league in blocks. From February 1st through the end of the season, he was second in the league in blocks. However, the best stretch of play for Jaren was a historic month of January. That month, Jackson Jr. produced a peak to define a First-Team All defense season as well. Back in January, I described how Jackson Jr. was producing a month that could anchor the resumé of a NBA Defensive Player of the year. In fact, over the past decade, the only players to produce 50+ blocks and 15+ steals in a month are Anthony Davis and Jackson Jr. His play in January was the type of peak rarely seen by a defensive player during a single season, especially a player as young as Jackson Jr.
Of course, Jackson Jr.’s impact on defense was also not limited to his activity. In general, Jackson Jr.’s presence alone made a difference. Teams shot 7.6% worse at the rim when Jackson Jr. was on the court vs. when he was off the court, the best mark in the NBA for bigs who played 1500 or more minutes. He also was among the best bigs in the league when it came to preventing teams from consistently finding good shots. This was a big reason why the Grizzlies were able to be among the best defenses in the league despite missing Dillon Brooks for much of the season.
Jackson Jr.’s consistency and dominance during the 2021-2022 season was a byproduct of the dedication he showed to staying on the court. For one. Jackson Jr. was able to stay healthy. He played 506 more minutes last season than he had in any previous season during his career, and was able to do it after playing only 11 games during the 2020-2021 season. Furthermore, one of the biggest improvements for Jackson Jr. was also limiting his fouls. He had the lowest foul rate per-36 minutes of his career. In 57 games during the 2019-2020 season, Jackson Jr. fouled out of a game eight times. Last year in 78 games, he only fouled out of a game three times. While this is certainly an area of continued improvement for Jackson Jr., he made great strides last year.
Of course, the other factor in Jackson Jr.’s defensive production is how rare it is for a player to do what he did at his age. Over the past 15 years, the only players to produce 175+ blocks at the age of 22 or younger are Anthony Davis, Myles Turner, Rudy Gobert, Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, and Jackson Jr. He also produced just the 13th season in NBA history where a player had 175+ blocks and 70 + steals at the age of 22 or younger. While many considered Jackson Jr. to have significant defensive upside when he was drafted, few could have predicted him being this impactful this early in his career.
The other aspect of Jackson Jr.’s game that was quite rare this season was his ability to shoot the three combined with his defensive impact. While his two-way game created plenty of unique history, his overall defensive performance made Jackson Jr.’s emergence as one of the best defenders in the league undeniable. If he can regain his shooting consistency from his sophomore season and maintain his defensive impact from last year, Jackson Jr. easily would be one of the best all-around bigs in the league.
However, there is no denying he is already among the NBA’s best defenders. And at his age, Jackson Jr. still has plenty of room to grow and could earn plenty more All-NBA defensive recognition as his career progresses.