25-under-25: Jaren Jackson Jr. is a young phenom like no other

Jaren Jackson Jr. is impacting the game on the defensive end in a way few can match. He ranked No. 6 on our list of the best young players in the NBA.

Apr 19, 2023; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) handles the
Apr 19, 2023; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (13) handles the / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Jaren Jackson Jr. ranked No. 6 on The Step Back's 2023-24 25-under-25, ranking the best young players in the NBA. Check out the rest of the list here.

There are bad rim protectors, average rim protectors, good ones, great ones, and even incredible ones. Then, there is Jaren Jackson Jr. The 24-year-old Michigan State alum was far and away the best rim protector in the league last season. Opponents shot 47 percent when meeting Jackson’s length, instincts, and verticality at the rim last season. No one else forced opponents to shoot worse than 50 percent. Brook Lopez was second, at 50 percent exactly. 

As the fourth pick in the 2018 NBA draft, one of the greatest draft classes of all time, Jackson was selected because of his defensive potential. He has more than delivered on his upside on the defensive end.

Jackson is the ideal modern-day defensive big man. He’s quick on his feet, has great hip mobility, incredible instincts, and can jump out of the gym. If you were trying to build the perfect defensive big man on NBA 2k, Jaren Jackson Jr. would be the result. 

His three blocks per game led the league last season, and he tied for second in total blocks with Nic Claxton and only trailed the Milwaukee Bucks Brook Lopez who played in more games. What makes Jackson such a great rim protector is not only his amalgamation of physical prowess but his instincts as both a traditional big man and team defender. Many big men tend to fall into two categories as shot blockers. 

They are either your standard camp near the paint and deter/block as many shots as possible, or in the modern game we see more bigs who thrive in a roamer role, such as new Portland Trail Blazers center Robert Williams. Players like Williams are at their best when operating like a free safety, given the green light to drift and track the game, waiting for threats to happen and responding instead of playing the role of a constant and obvious deterrent. Jackson Jr. is excellent in both those roles, making him a unicorn as a defensive center. 

On the first two plays of this highlight reel alone you can see this. On the first one, Jackson Jr. helps on the Embiid drive and meets him at the summit to block a shot that essentially guarantees the win for the Memphis Grizzlies. He lets a wry smile out afterward too. On the second play, he snuffs Jakob Poeltl in the post and blocks the follow-up attempt by Sochan. 

Jackson Jr. offers more than just shot-blocking on the defensive end, he is also comfortable guarding positions 1-5 and switching out onto the perimeter. Not only can he be flexible in his role as a rim protector, but also in just about any defensive scheme. His instincts and athleticism enable him to play drop, blitz, switch, and any defensive scheme and role you can think of perfectly. There are plenty of great defenders in the NBA right now, but none of them can do ALL of the defensive things that he does, and none of them at as high of a level as he does. 

There are still minor question marks about Jackson Jr. on the defensive end. He averaged 6.8 rebounds per game last season, which was a career-high. He joined Team USA for the 2023 FIBA World Cup this summer was their primary big man, and quickly became their weakest link. Old school post-play — which many big and bruising European bigs thrive at — tortured him, and he got destroyed on the backboards, averaging less than 3 rebounds per game for the whole tournament. 

Rebounding is not that simple though. While individual rebounding stats are often a good indicator of, well, a good rebounder, the action is still very much a team effort. Lopez, who we noted earlier was the second-best rim protector in the league last season, averaged more than five rebounds per game (6.67) for the first time as a Milwaukee Buck for the 2022-23 season.

When the Bucks first signed Lopez in the summer of 2018, he had a label of being a weak rebounder. That’s why the Bucks were able to sign him for just over $3 million, and he went on to anchor their championship-winning defense in the 2020-21 NBA season. Lopez, while not being the best at grabbing individual rebounds, is an excellent team rebounder. 

Jackson Jr. operates in a somewhat similar space and is at his best when assisting a rebounding machine such as Marc Gasol, Jonas Valanciunas, or Steven Adams — all centers he has shared the floor with during his career in Memphis. 

Questions about his rebounding are not the only thing Jackson Jr. will face next season. Collectively, with the Grizzlies, they will need to win games without star point guard Ja Morant who is serving a 25-game suspension. The noise of Morant’s off-the-court antics has defined this team for the past season plus. Jackson Jr. and others will need to lead by example and make it clear that is not who they are, and that they are committed to winning above all else. 

Lastly, Jackson Jr. needs to continue to grow on the offensive side of the ball. He averaged a career-high 18.6 points per game but his 3-point shot has regressed significantly since his injury-plagued 2020-21 season. On over 500 attempts in his career pre-injury, Jackson Jr. shot 38 percent from three. On nearly 700 attempts in the two seasons since, 33 percent. He needs to get back to where he was and establish himself as one of the best two-way big men in the game. If he can do that, he might be one of the best of all time when he hangs it up.

dark. 25-under-25. 25-under-25 FINAL. See who else made our list of the best young players in the NBA