Is Jaren Jackson Jr. the NBA’s next great unicorn big man, or is he the second coming of Myles Turner?
Every time a 3-point-shooting, shot-blocking big man comes into the NBA, he instantly gets slapped with the “unicorn” label. Memphis Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr. is among the latest examples.
The No. 4 pick in the 2019 NBA draft got off to an inconsistent start last season, but he began to find a rhythm once he started letting it fly from deep. Jackson wound up drilling 39.4 percent of his 6.5 long-range attempts per night, which put him in rarefied air.
No player 6-foot-10 or above had ever drilled more than 2.3 triples per game before his age-22 season, but Jackson hit 2.5 per game last year. That puts him ahead of sharpshooters such as Danilo Gallinari, Kristaps Porzingis and, oh, right, Kevin Durant.
Unfortunately, Jackson is slated to miss the beginning of the 2020-21 season as he continues to recover from the torn meniscus he suffered during the Grizzlies’ seeding games in early August. Once he returns, he’ll be entering a quietly pivotal campaign, as he’ll become eligible to sign an extension with the Grizzlies next offseason.
With point guard Ja Morant looking like the primary franchise cornerstone in Memphis, Jackson must prove he’s the long-term sidekick to the reigning Rookie of the Year.
Jackson’s leap as a 3-point bomber complemented Morant brilliantly last year, and the two pushed the Grizzlies into playoff contention far earlier than anyone reasonably anticipated. If both continue along their current trajectories, they’ll quickly become annual fixtures in the All-Star Game, even in the loaded Western Conference.
Jackson does have two areas in which he must prove himself further before the Grizzlies hand him a blank check, though.
What’s next in the development of Jaren Jackson Jr.?
Without question, the first is rebounding. Among all qualified players 6-foot-10 and above last season, Jackson had the third-lowest total rebounding percentage (8.5), ahead of only Robin Lopez and Davis Bertans. According to Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 17th percentile league-wide on the offensive glass and the ninth percentile on defensive rebounds.
Jackson does play alongside a board-gobbler in center Jonas Valanciunas, who averaged 11.3 rebounds in only 26.4 minutes per game last season, and Jae Crowder was second on the team with 6.2 per game before his midseason trade to the Miami Heat. Brandon Clarke figures to fill that void in Jackson’s absence, but the big fella is giving off serious Myles Turner or Brook Lopez vibes with his inauspicious start on the glass.
The Grizzlies also need to figure out whether Jackson can be their center of the future, or if he profiles more as a long-term 4.
Last season, Jackson logged 76 percent minutes at power forward and the remaining 24 percent at center, according to Cleaning the Glass. They were outscored by 0.6 points per 100 possessions at the 4 compared to a whopping 9.8 points per 100 possessions with him at the 5, the latter of which ranked in the 16th percentile league-wide.
Jackson measured in at 6-foot-11.25 in shoes and 236 pounds with a 7-foot-5.25 wingspan at the 2018 NBA draft combine, and he was listed as 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds last year. However, Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks raised eyebrows last week when he told reporters that Jackson is “maybe 2-3 inches” taller, which goes beyond the typical training camp #MuscleWatch hype. (He did also say Jackson is bigger and stronger, because of course.)
If Jackson is now a legit 7-footer and is closer to 250 pounds than 240, he soon might have the heft to bang with bigger centers such as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. He turned only 21 in mid-September, so such a growth spurt wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it could significantly alter his long-term NBA outlook.
Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian referred to Jackson as “somewhat of a lineup skeleton key,” as he could slot in at power forward and allow the Grizzlies to go with a two-big look or slide to the 5 and let them bring in another shooter. That sort of versatility will make the Grizzlies an increasingly difficult opponent as both Morant and Jackson continue to grow into their games.
Even if Jackson starts at the 4 alongside Valanciunas upon his return, combinations featuring Jackson at the 5 and Clarke at the 4 should become a fixture of the Grizzlies rotation. Such lineups had a net rating of plus-0.2 last season in Clarke’s rookie campaign, and it’s natural to expect further improvement given their respective ages and relative lack of NBA experience.
Given Morant’s penchant for flair and his scoring ability, he already appears ticketed for NBA stardom. Jackson’s unique skillset means he likely isn’t far behind, but how close he comes to reaching his upside could wind up determining the Grizzlies’ ceiling.