Memphis Grizzlies X-Factor: Jaren Jackson Jr.

After two seasons competing for a playoff spot, the Memphis Grizzlies opted to shift their eyes a little closer toward the long-term view this summer, when they traded arguably their best player, Jonas Valanciunas, and the 17th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Steven Adams and the 10th overall selection. With that newfound focus on the future, while still balancing success in the present, it illuminates the vitality of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s development for this team’s ceiling. Using this season as a springboard to further clarify where exactly and how he thrives is paramount.

If two preseason games are any indication, Jackson will seemingly open the year alongside Adams in the frontcourt as starting power forward, but the hope should be he soon reaches a point where he becomes a two-way force and can credibly play the 5 for long stretches. Despite struggling offensively in the postseason this past spring, the dichotomy of his defensive chops between the 4 and 5 were evident. As a 4, tasking him with navigating screens, constantly playing on the perimeter and darting into help-side rotations proved challenging. Yet as a 5, his spatial awareness and mobility empowered Memphis to run an aggressive drop scheme against ball-screens.

And while he’s been less effective as a switch defender since his rookie season (which could partially be explained away by injuries), the foundation exists for some enticing coverage versatility, which is a hallmark of recent NBA champions. A defensive pick-and-roll duo of Jackson and De’Anthony Melton would be marvelous, and it’s a possibility if Jackson cleans up some holes in his arsenal.

The issue, however, is not everything about Jackson’s game is currently conducive to thriving as a center. His balance, center of gravity and underdeveloped core strength lead him to lose control of his limbs and foul. A lot. Like, all the time. For his career, he averages 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes in the regular season. Across five playoff contests, the mark stands at 5.5. It’s why he’s never averaged more than 28.5 minutes per game in a season. A starting center — or any high-minutes starter, really — cannot constantly be flirting with a sixth foul by night’s end.

Similarly, those same problems inhibit his defensive rebounding. That skill can be overstated in value, but somebody needs to conclude a possession with a rebound to kickstart the offense. Jackson is routinely outmuscled on the glass. Given Ja Morant’s transition dynamism, the Grizzlies would likely prefer to avoid a gang rebounding approach and trust their center to hold down the fort, so everyone else can fly into the open floor for easier scoring chances.

Rectifying some or all of these shortcomings to allow for full-time duties at the 5 would see his offensive game shine. Having canned 37.4 percent of his career triples, he’s one of the NBA’s best stretch bigs and even displays some off-movement prowess. He’ll launch from funky angles with a quick release and is one of a select few centers to routinely draw hasty closeouts and invoke concern from the defense.

When he’s at the 4 instead of the 5, odds are higher that more mobile defenders stay attached on the perimeter and contain his off-the-dribble attacks, which he busts out by leveraging that versatile jumper. Emerging as a viable full-time center this season (or soon) would reduce those occurrences, pair Morant with a stretch 5 to amplify his slashing nature (though, an interior play finisher is still welcomed too), and provide Jackson mismatch after mismatch on the offensive end.

Last season was largely a wash for Jackson. He returned in the thick of a playoff race and then had to wrangle with the top-seeded Utah Jazz for five games. There were still signs of everything he could offer, though. The Grizzlies will be competitive this year, as they simply roster too many good players not to. But their off-season signaled long-term priorities over the interim. Jackson’s growth sits squarely near the top of those priorities and this season is precisely the opportunity to achieve some of that crucial growth.