• Nick Boylan

First Year Focus: Jaren Jackson Jr.

Photo Courtesy of Sporting News

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the next franchise star in Memphis

While Luka Dončić is seen by many as the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, number four pick Jaren Jackson Jr. has been hot on his heels, with the big man’s production a key reason behind Memphis’ resurgence in the Western Conference.

When JaMychal Green went down with a broken jaw against the Hawks in Memphis’ third game of the year, Jackson Jr. was inserted into the starting line-up and has remained undaunted, contributing across the board for the Grizzlies.

With Marc Gasol and Mike Conley back at full health, Memphis has been one of the West’s surprises, sitting sixth in the standings with a 15-11 record. Ranking 6th in defensive rating and 27th in offensive rating, it’s been the typical grit-and grind style again in Memphis.

Despite the Grizzlies trademark style, Jackson Jr. has added a new wrinkle and attraction to the Memphis line-up, and given them a franchise player for the future.

The third-leading scorer in Memphis, Jackson Jr. has contributed 13 points, 4.6 rebounds and almost 2 blocks a game, while shooting an effective 51% from the floor and 33% on 3-point shots.

Jackson Jr’s potential coming out of Michigan State was never in question, with a high ceiling predicted after being named Freshmen of the Year, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and making both the Big Ten All-Freshman and All-Big Ten’s Third Teams.

What wasn’t expected, was the 19 year-old being able to contribute straight away, which is exactly what Jackson Jr. has done, playing 25 minutes a night, and taking over late in games.

The same week as posting a 16 point and 7 block performance against the New York Knicks, the Grizzlies called the rookie’s number during a close game against Brooklyn, with Memphis down 111-104 with a mere 33 seconds left on the clock.

Jackson Jr. proceeded to hit a four-point play, create a turnover of D’Angelo Russell and then hit the game-tying three, with the Grizzlies eventually securing the win in double-OT 131-125.

Jackson Jr. finished with 36 points (a new career high) , on 13-22 shooting, to go with 8 rebounds in the tight win at the Barclays Center. At 19 years and 76 days old, Jackson Jr. is the second-youngest player ever to score 36 or more points. The youngest? LeBron James.

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said after the game, “No stage is too big for this kid,” in high praise of his rookie’s performance.

Memphis has continued go to Jackson Jr. as the season has gone on, with his multi-faceted scoring ability translating to a usage rate of 22.9%.

Over a five-game stretch from November 23rd to December 2nd, Jackson Jr. put together a mind-boggling stat line:

  • 18.6 points

  • 5.2 rebounds

  • 2.8 blocks

  • 57.9% FG

  • 50% from 3

  • 90% from the FT

Not only is Jackson Jr. stuffing the stat sheet, there is an argument to be made that the Grizzlies rookie is the best performing big-man of the 2018 NBA Draft class, outperforming number one pick DeAndre Ayton.

While Ayton might be averaging more points and rebounds (15.8 and 10.1 per game respectively), the per 36 minutes stats swing in Jackson Jr’s favour, with both averaging around 18 points, but Jackson averaging a huge 2.6 blocks and 1.4 steals, to Ayton’s 1.1 and 0.6 in the same categories.

Ayton is clearly the superior rebounder, averaging 10.2 rebounds per game against Jackson Jr’s 4.5, but their respective frontcourt partners heavily influence this stat.

Marc Gasol’s team-leading 8.8 rebounds per game takes away Jackson Jr’s chance to impact the glass, with the former Spartan playing more as a stretch-four and spending less time in the paint. In contrast, Ayton plays much closer to the basket and is tasked with more of a rebounding/interior presence role, especially when his current frontcourt partner TJ Warren averages only 4 rebounds per game.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Jackson Jr. isn’t having the perfect season by any means, with an average of 3.8 fouls per game and having accumulated at least five fouls in 11 games. Quite often being too aggressive on defense, it’s something that needs work but isn’t uncommon for a rookie big man and is something fixable.

Already Jackson Jr. has impressed with his defensive IQ and quickness, not only blocking shots, but also on the perimeter, seen here with a steal on Dončić and the coast-to-coast finish.

Seeing his minutes in December decrease to 21.2 per game from 27.1 in November, Jackson Jr. has seen Green return from injury and start to play more ahead of the rookie through December.

Despite this recent setback, Jackson Jr. is still well-placed to continue his contributions for Memphis, whether that’s coming off the bench or in the starting line-up, with the Grizzlies having a 2.1 point better defensive rating per 100 possessions with him on the floor.

Comparisons to Anthony Davis have been made, and their rookie year numbers aren’t far removed, as seen below.

Without heaping exaggerated pressure or praise on a rookie 24 games into his career, Jackson Jr. does have the potential to be one of the best players from one of the best draft classes of recent memory.

Ever since his first Summer League game against Utah, where Jackson Jr. had 29 points and rained in 8 3-pointers, his potential has raised eyebrows, including coach Bickerstaff’s.

"That was the moment where it was like, this kid has a chance to be special,'" Bickerstaff said.

Even other coaches have noticed Jackson Jr’s talent, with LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers also heaping praise after the Clippers overtime win over Memphis.

Showing the ability to shoot from 3-point range, and score off the dribble, as shown below with a thunderous jam against the Nuggets, the youngest player in the NBA is in a perfect environment to showcase his well-balanced game, fitting in nicely with Gasol.

With the “unicorn” style that’s becoming the norm for NBA big men rather than the exception, Jackson Jr’s ability to play both ends and contribute to a winning team rightfully has Memphis fans excited about their next cornerstone.

All stats courtesy of ESPN, NBA Advanced Stats and Basketball Reference.

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