25-under-25: Jaren Jackson Jr. will set the Memphis Grizzlies’ ceiling

Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Rondone-USA TODAY Sports /

The term unicorn is overused but it still fits for Jaren Jackson Jr. and he and his Memphis Grizzlies are ready to show you why.

Jaren Jackson Jr. of the Memphis Grizzlies is a man of many tastes. He is into high fashion and has music albums available for download. How many professional athletes balance such different interests with the style and swagger that the 23-year-old big from Michigan State possesses? In a world that continues to merge and meld, “JJJ” stands out even among those that are above the crowd.

A First-Team All-Defense selection last season, Jackson Jr. came closer to fully realizing the potential that many saw in him dating all the way back to his selection as the fourth overall player taken in the 2018 NBA Draft. He was sold then by that regime as a player worthy of the “Grit and Grind” moniker that Memphians had come to look upon with reverence, a player that would make Marc Gasol blush with his rim protection and do Tony Allen proud on the perimeter on defensive switches. The sky was quite literally the limit for Jaren — as good as he should be defensively, he could be perhaps even more special offensively if his game came along.

Four years into the Jaren Jackson Jr. experience, and the Memphis Grizzlies are seeing that game continue to age and develop even as he takes larger strides on the NBA stage. His ability to impact the game as a shot blocker is undeniable (98th percentile in block percentage last season) and his national recognition is further acknowledgment of Jaren’s force. But as his defensive game has climbed, his offense has in some ways stagnated with growing expectations and opportunity. This reality has a player with the potential of being among the best two-way players in the entire NBA at his own personal crossroads.

His payday has been secured. He is seen as a second-in-command cornerstone alongside Ja Morant moving forward for Memphis. But the Grizzlies have championship aspirations now, and in order for those to come to fruition more is required of the Grizzlies unicorn.

As his place in the Memphis hierarchy has become entrenched, his decreased offensive efficiency goes from noticeable to concerning pretty quickly. Each season, as his usage has increased, his points per shot attempt have worsened. It fell off the proverbial cliff last season, with a career-high in usage (23.5 percent, 91st percentile among bigs per Cleaning the Glass) being paired with 107.4 points per shot attempt (15th percentile). That gap between scoring production and actual activity in offensive scheme is only rivaled in the NBA last season by the likes of Julius Randle and Cade Cunningham.

One (Randle) was seen as a major reason for a team’s fall from grace. The other (Cunningham) was a rookie playing on a bad team whose numbers were expected. But Jaren, fortunately, posted such a disconnect on the second0best team in the entire National Basketball Association in terms of regular season record.

Jaren Jackson Jr. has to make the most of Ja Morant and Desmond Bane for the Grizzlies

How? Ja Morant (and to a lesser extent Desmond Bane), that’s how. But even the meteoric rise of the superstar known as “Big 12” leads us to a reason to pause. Because the theoretical pairing of Jaren and Ja together for the next (hopefully) decade or so should strike fear in the hearts of everyone who will share this era with them. And yet, these two have not quite found one another as a symbiotic offensive partnership yet.

There are reasons for this — namely, playing time together. Morant and Jackson Jr. are like ships passing in the night — whether it is due to injury, foul issues for Jaren (an area he improved last season, but was still below average in at 44th percentile), or rotation decisions (Taylor Jenkins prioritizes having one of Jaren or Ja on the floor more often than not) they have not had as much time together to build chemistry as perhaps you’d like.

Couple that with Jaren’s unique perimeter-based game for a 6-foot-11″ big man — his screen game is not a strength, so pick and roll or pop sets aren’t as impactful as they could be — and Ja seemingly thriving more in the two-man game with Steven Adams than Jaren isn’t as surprising as perhaps as it should be. Jackson Jr. could be initiating such sets himself depending on the matchup — he is that versatile. But it doesn’t vibe as succinctly with Morant’s audaciously aggressive style as it should just yet.

So why be high on Jaren Jackson Jr. after four years of improved defense, but decreasing offensive efficiency? Because as bad as Jaren’s scoring season last year was — and it was bad (5th percentile in effective field goal percentage, 11th percentile finishing at the rim, only 40th percentile from 3) there is plenty of reason to believe that better days are ahead. Morant, Desmond Bane, and others will continue to take on the load of scoring and the attention of opposing defenses. As that occurs, Jackson Jr. should see increased opportunity to use his frame and get to his spots within his rhythm offensively.

That alongside his already elite defensive play should make the Grizzlies even better. But all this assumes health for Jaren and between knee issues and the most recent foot injury that is far from a guarantee. That’s the trouble with unicorns — when they’re finally seen for what they are, you expect to be privy to that special talent consistently. Whether taken by injury or simply not competing at the level required of a player of his talent, it stands out more when the production isn’t there.

But that doesn’t remove the ability that lead to those expectations all those years ago. On one end of the floor, JJJ has risen to the challenge. And as his teammates grow and learn alongside him, his two-way potential should come closer to fruition. Because the cream usually rises to the top — and despite this being his fifth NBA season, Jaren Jackson Jr. is still finding his place positionally as an NBA player.

He’s a big that plays like a wing, with flashes of a guard’s handle and the desire to launch 3s like a Splash Brother. He is a defensive force of nature, capable of defending positions 1-5 on the floor for extended periods of time. And he’s far from a finished product, just like the franchise he’s helping move closer to championship contention.

If the Memphis Grizzlies have the NBA’s brightest future, no player except Ja Morant will decide what that looks like more than Jaren Jackson Jr. And even Ja has his issues defensively. For Jaren, the possibilities are truly limitless. Where his ceiling realistically closes will decide if, when, and how many championships are held on Beale Street in the years to come.

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