The 2019-20 campaign was supposed to be a promising one for the Memphis Grizzlies, insofar as it was supposed to give their gobs of young talent the opportunity to gel and build towards a brighter future. That happened sooner than most anyone could have anticipated, and as of this writing, the young Grizzlies sit at 28-26 on the season, a mark that gives them a four-game cushion as the 8-seed in the Western Conference.
Ja Morant grasping many of the intricacies of being an NBA point guard certainly helps, as does Jaren Jackson Jr. getting back to 100 percent after being shut down for the final 23 games of last season due to a deep thigh bruise. Jackson, still only 20 years old, has taken a step forward this year, especially as a scorer. The big man has started every game this year, averaging 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in 28.1 minutes a night while connecting on 39.7 percent of the 6.3 threes he attempts each game.
No matter what happens the rest of this year, Jackson and the Grizzlies are one of league’s most fascinating teams, one that is simultaneously ahead of schedule and still has so much room to grow. Jackson sat down with Dime at the MTN DEW Courtside Studios in Chicago to discuss his squad, his love of anime, and more.
The thing that makes this Memphis team so fascinating is there’s this exciting young core. It’s you, it’s Ja, it’s all these guys. How much excitement is there in the locker room about being part of something basically on the ground floor?
Great question. Ok, I think at the end of the day, when you’re young, people always say little things about you being young, and we always look at that and say, “At the end of the day, you’ve got to put five players on the floor and you’ve got to beat us.” So we don’t really look at age ever. And to be in a situation like this where everybody is young and hungry and wanting to thrive, it just helps you compete, because everybody’s wanting to help each other get to the next level.
The newest piece of that core is Justise, he’ll be coming in sometime soon. How do you think he’s gonna fit alongside the rest of the group?
Easy, he’s a great guy at the end of the day, so in terms of chemistry, he’ll fit right in. But he’s defensive-minded, he’s so versatile offensively and defensively, but we can use him in pretty much any way.
I was at the draft and I remember seeing you running around and doing some stuff, and when Ja got picked, I remember you had this big smile on your face, were super stoked. Why were you so excited when Ja got picked and did you expect him to be this good this quickly?
Yeah, for sure. I’m not really shocked at anything — well, no, I’m shocked at a lot of things he does in games, but the way it all turns out, no, I knew he was gonna be like this. I could see it just from how he was playing in college, he has such a good feel for the game, he was gonna be able to pick up the pro game probably quicker than college and easier. I mean, in college, he was doing so well and people are triple-teaming him. In the league, you really cant do that. So yeah, I knew he was gonna thrive.
How much fun is it being next to a guy who, he has this crazy bounce, he can hit shots, he’s such a smart player and knows where to get you the ball wherever you want it?
It just makes the game easy, man. He’ll find you anywhere. He just sees … he’s got the goggles on. He’s always got the goggles on, he’s always looking for you, he’s gonna dime you. Just be ready, that’s what it is. And once I got the timing down with him, it just made me really anticipate better when he’s gonna throw me the ball.
The guy I’m most interested to ask you about is someone who I think is slept on, league-wide, and that’s Brandon Clarke…
Brandon Clarke, I knew he was about to say that.
Everyone who saw him in college knew he was gonna be good, still falls into the 20s and now you and him are two wrecking balls down there. How is having a guy as unique as him make your life easier when you’re on the floor together.
BC’s so explosive. [laughs] At the end of the day, he compliments me really well because he can push the ball, he can shoot, he can jump over anybody, which just makes our break really special, because you have to worry about so many different things. You have to worry about shooting, you have to worry about lobs, you have to worry about Ja’s passing ability and my shooting ability. He just makes it easier for me, too.
It’s like all the pieces just seem to fit perfectly.
You guys got off to a bit of a rough start, I think 6-16, something like that. You’re now two games over .500, the 8-seed in the West. How’d you guys manage to turn it around?
I didn’t even realize we were 6-16. Everything gets better with time, the chemistry just got better, we meshed better, we had better practices. When you’re able to do all that, everything kinda lined up and, yeah. Film, big key, film, man. We watched so much film, so we were able to see a lot of the mistakes we were making. And our staple is defense, so when our started getting better, our offense was kicking ass … did I just say kicking ass? Good god, it’s been a long day.
This past offseason was interesting because it was the first time in how long you weren’t spending your summer being recruited, getting used to life in a new place, all that. What were your focuses this offseason and where do you think the biggest area was that you grew as a player?
First off, it was recovering from injury, making sure my body’s right, my mind’s right, that’s huge. Coming back from injury was tough and that was the first time I ever really had to do it, so it just made me stronger at the end of the day. My focus was get better at all costs, there’s nothing else to do this summer, especially when you’re in Vegas, under 21, ain’t nothing else to do but just hoop.
Who are the people that you primarily leaned on as you were working your way back from injury for the first time?
My medical staff, all my coaches, those were a lot of people in my corner. My dad, my mom, that was really it, there was really no one else to talk to. I always have my friends, but at the end of the day, as far as working on my craft level, I just need them, that’s all I need.
What do you have going on with Dew?
Today I was upstairs with A’ja doing a debate for Mountain Dew Courtside Studios. It’s just an opportunity for the fans to connect with us on a different level, see the game on a different level, see the game from a different lens. They do a really good job, man, especially how they use the space upstairs, it’s crazy. The way they incorporate the fans is beautiful.
Why do you think it’s important to give fans that kind of look at the game?
They’re the reason we do this. Fans are pretty much what drives anything in life, but especially sports and especially basketball in a game that’s growing so quickly and internationally. It’s important to give back, and it’s fun, at the end of the day, because at one point, we were all fans. Now I’m on the other side of it, I always know how it feels to see your favorite player, see somebody you like or enjoy seeing related to anything NBA. I love it, it’s what we do.
My last question, a bit out of left field. I know you’re a big fan of anime.
If you were someone like me who’s never gotten into that, where would you recommend I start?
Well, what else do you watch?
Uh, basketball and whatever I have on in the background.
You have Netflix?
What Netflix? Trust me, I’ve seen, like, every show.
Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that kind of thing.
I wouldn’t dive into some crazy, like, uptempo anime because it’s just gonna put you off, you’re gonna be confused, ’cause there’s a way to watch. When you watch enough of it, you understand, like, “Ok, this is why they’re being over-dramatic here, this is what the filming is like, little things like that.” So I would say watch Death Note.
Why Death Note?
Dime editorial director Martin Rickman: Cowboy Bebop would be good for him, it’s a little slow, but you like Breaking Bad, don’t you?
You finished it?
I finished it too, you see the movie?
I didn’t see the movie.
I didn’t see the movie, either, I heard it was bad. It looked kinda weird, it doesn’t look like there’s enough characters in it. But that’s just me, it just looked like Jesse’s alone. God, I hate Walt’s wife.
I would say Death Note just because it’s not really anime because there’s no action, it’s like real life because it’s about … you know what it’s about?
It’s basically about a book that drops from the sky from a different realm and if you write a person’s name in it, they die. Imagine finding a book and you have the power to kill anybody, so this guy’s basically deranged and he wants to kill all the bad people, or in his opinion that are bad. But it’s his opinion, and he starts losing control a little bit and he’s trying to kill every criminal. It’s controversial because he’s killing everybody, so the crime rate’s going down, everything’s getting better, but it’s still not ok, you can’t do this … but is it ok? And then you get the supporters of him, and it’s is it wrong to kill him, is he the outright ruler, and then eventually, it’s about his capture, because it’s one season. So it shows everything and it’s so good. It’s probably, if you look it up, it’s the No. 1 ranked anime of all time.