The revolving door has been working overtime in Memphis this summer. The first move was shipping out longtime franchise pillar Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz, a move that officially ended the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies era and began ushering in a new generation.
Before making a few shrewd free-agency moves to help set the rebuild in motion, the front-office brain trust knocked its draft night out of the park. Ja Morant was the obvious selection after Zion Williamson with the second pick, but it didn’t stop there. They traded down from 23 to 21 to grab athletic freak and college superstar Brandon Clarke.
Clarke made strides toward a successful rookie campaign with an awesome Summer League stretch that ended in MVP honors, while Morant’s blend of vision, athleticism and scoring presence are enough to make any hoop head’s mouth water.
Even with the two rookies providing a bunch of promise, last year’s fourth-overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. is still the prize piece of the Grizzlies’ makeover. Still just 19 years old himself, Jackson burst onto the scene last season before a quad injury cut his debut season short.
In the 58 games he did play, the 6-foot-11 combo big averaged 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in just 26.1 minutes per night. He was efficient, too, shooting 50.6% from the field and nailing 35.9% of the 2.4 3-pointers he attempted each game.
With an exquisite blend of size, defensive staunchness and silky shooting, Jaren Jackson Jr. is the stereotypical modern big man. Kristaps Porzingis made a name for himself with his shooting and rim protection accompanying huge size. Despite being smaller, the 6-foot-11 Jackson is cut from the same unicorn-like ilk.
He has a funky-looking release on his jumper, but it works. He can thrive as a spot-up shooter or pick-and-pop option, shooting 36.7% on all catch-and-shoot looks last season. The big man can even do a little bit of work as an isolation 3-point shooter, another extremely rare skill for a big man to hold.
As he learns to hone his shooting touch and pick his spots more efficiently, Jackson is going to become a menace from behind the arc. The Grizzlies finished 25th in both 3-point volume and efficiency last season, and while adding Morant and Clarke is a huge plus for their future, it doesn’t make them any more dangerous from range. If JJJ can come back as a more potent shooter, it will do wonders for his squad.
Even with his offensive potential clear for all to see, the former Michigan State man is still very much a work in progress on that end. His slender frame gives him problems at the moment, especially in post-up and pick-and-roll scenarios.
He has really encouraging touch around the mid-range and post area, but his relative lack of strength forbids him from being able to lock down adequate post position regularly. This forces him to take longer, more contested hook shots and floaters, which dramatically decreases his low-block efficiency.
Jackson has only been old enough to drive a car for three years, so it’s not surprising that he still needs to put on some bulk. If and when he does, he will able to convert post-up opportunities at a higher rate than the 0.93 points per possession (51st percentile) he did last season.
While there is a chance Jackson can’t unlock his vast offensive potential, wagering that he will be a defensive juggernaut is a safe bet. Hell, he is already of one the most fearsome defenders around. That bold statement is something not many 19-year-olds can lay claim to. Especially ones on a 33-win team that finished in the bottom half of the league in defensive rating.
Triple J finished his debut season seventh among power forwards in defensive real plus/minus and defensive player impact plus/minus. He isn’t quite on the elite plane of big men, but he is right under it and figures to be jousting with those heavyweights as soon as next season.
His slight frame still hampers him at times with the burlier big men of the league. However, he makes up for most of his physical downfalls with exceptional timing and defensive IQ. As a shot-blocker, he has all of the tools to become one of the best rim protectors in the world. Whether it’s help-side swats, chasing down transition runners or taking on bigs one-out, Jackson is already a shot-blocking connoisseur.
Coming straight out of a single collegiate season and into the big leagues, JJJ held his opponents to just 43.6% shooting overall. That number is extremely impressive, considering that bigs usually shoot at or over 50% from the field. Add in the fact that it often takes bigs awhile to fully grasp the concept of NBA schemes and athleticism, and it’s mind-blowing to think of how good Jackson could become. Seriously … Imagine the type of damage he could do to would-be scorers when his body fills out and his mind is fully wrapped around defending NBA players and systems regularly.
Fresh faces are always easy to get excited about, and collegiate studs like Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke make that process run that much smoother. However, with potential to be a floor-spacing big man with solid touch in the midrange area and around the rim, combined with his defensive expertise, Jackson can’t be disregarded. In fact, when talking about the Grizzlies’ young core, Jaren Jackson Jr. should be the first name that comes up.