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Jaren Jackson Jr. is scratching the surface

The All-Around Development of the “Block Panther”

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Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Five Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The case of Jaren Jackson Jr. is an interesting one.

On one hand you have a player who was a top preseason pick for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, only to be outvoted by two of his teammates. On the other hand, you have a guy who turned into one of the best in the league on the defensive end of the floor, earning an NBA First Team All-Defense award in the process.

For some, Jaren not taking the next step on offense is deemed a disappointment and perhaps an argument that they are not sold on him being worth his 4-year/$105 million contract.

For me and most, Jaren’s improvement on defense, and the fact that he is only 22 years old tells me that the contract extension will look like a huge bargain. That, and the fact that he is one of the big reasons the Memphis Grizzlies were able to thrive during the 25 games Ja Morant missed.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Trip could be a good example of a player whose narrative doesn’t always fit the facts, and recency bias could be overpowering.

  • “Jaren is always in foul trouble” — Removing last year where he only played 11 games, Jaren set a career low of games in which he fouled out with 3. Now he did tie that mark in just 12 games in the Playoffs, but it’s not necessarily an issue he dealt with all season, less than 30% of games did he have at least 5 fouls.
  • “Jaren shoots too many threes” — This is debatable as his 3-point attempts per game declined for the third straight year at 5.1. But, in the playoffs, he took at least 6 threes in each of the Grizzlies last 7 games.

I’ll get into both of those here in just a little bit.

Jaren has always been a solid defender, but the jump he took on that end of the floor was both unexpected and impressive. In the 78 games in his fourth season, the “Block Panther” had 27 games of 3 or more blocks, including 8(!!) games of 5 or more. Those 27 games of 3 or more blocks is the same number he had in the 126 games he played in his first 3 seasons combined, with just 4 games of 5 or more. He also had a stretch in January and February where he had at least 2 blocks in 13 of 15 games.

Also, if you haven’t already, check out the deep dive on Jaren’s leap into first teamer status by GBB’s Shawn Coleman, which he posted over the weekend.

In Shawn’s deep dive, he talks about the evolution from the Unicorn to the Block Panther. There is still plenty of untapped potential in the offensive game of Jaren where the Unicorn can thrive on offense in the same universe as the Block Panther on defense.

Looking at the season totals, some of the numbers are not pretty for JJJ — he set a career low in FG percentage at 42%, while shooting a career-high 13.3 shots per game. There are some good things to take from it though — his 3-point attempts decreased for a third straight year; and he also averaged a career-high 4.4 FTA per game. That shows me that he is trying to work more inside and take advantage of the matchups.

JJJ will need to be more aggressive down low and learn to finish at the rim better. Of guys that played more than 800 minutes this season, Jaren was 9th on the team in shots under 5 feet at 54%. That has to get better, and I think it will as he gets used to taking contact from bigger guys down low, while also gaining that confidence.

Now to the elephant in the room — his three-point shooting. It’s part of his game that is necessary for him to solidify the ‘unicorn’ status. Jaren has plenty of confidence as he launched 401 threes, though hitting just 32% of them is less than ideal. Taking a deeper dive into that, he got better as the season progressed. In December, he shot 28% from three, but improved each month after and finished the season shooting 34% in April and 39% during May, which was the Golden State series.

The biggest takeaway from this season for Jaren has to be the fact that he stayed healthy. I don’t think the Grizzlies achieve their success this season without him. In the 25 regular season games where the Grizzlies did not have Ja Morant, Jaren played in 21 of them and averaged more points and rebounds while leading the team to a 17-4 record.

There is still the unknown on what the plans hold for the Grizzlies frontcourt. Will Jaren remain the four and the Grizzlies keep Steven Adams or bring in another big man to pair with him? Or, will the Grizz slide Jaren to the 5 and pair him with Brandon Clarke or someone else?

He has proven he can play both positions and succeed. For argument’s sake, the Jackson/Clarke duo was a +14.3 net rating in 609 minutes together, while Jackson/Adams was +8.7 in 1095 minutes.

In conclusion, Jaren Jackson has established himself as a premier defender in the league and a little rough around the edges on offense, but at his age, there’s plenty of time.

So, if Jaren can become more efficient on offense, the Grizzlies should be a frontrunner for years to come with the superstar tandem of him and Ja, as well as the breakout star in Desmond Bane.

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