Playoff Lessons: Playmaking Improvements Are The Next Steps In Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Development

The playoffs teach young players invaluable lessons about what is required of them to take the next steps into stardom. The 2023 postseason featured a number of young stars who entered this summer with some new focal points for their offseason workout plans. In our Playoff Lessons series, we’ll highlight some of those, starting with Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr.

Jackson is only 23 years old. It’s easy to consider him an established, weathered veteran, given how long he’s graced NBA headlines, bursting onto the scene as a defensive wunderkind in 2018-19, regressing on that end a year later, making offensive strides, and enduring various injuries — all for one of the league’s livelier squads. But Jackson is just now approaching the prime of his career as he readies for his sixth campaign, coming off the best season of his career.

He earned his first All-Star appearance. He became the third player 23 or younger to win Defensive Player of the Year, joining Kawhi Leonard and Dwight Howard. He was an All-Defensive First Team honoree for the second consecutive season. He averaged a career-high 18.6 points on a career-high 61.3 percent true shooting. After 2022-23, the Memphis Grizzlies are not a one-star team fueled by Ja Morant’s intrepid skillset. Jackson is a full-fledged star alongside him as they and Desmond Bane try to break through in the Western Conference arms race.

Jackson’s second playoff run as an All-Defense stopper unfurled much better than 2021-22. He played nearly 10 more minutes per game and averaged 2.2 fewer fouls per 100 possessions. This past spring, he logged 37-plus minutes four times in six first-round games against the Los Angeles Lakers. A year prior, he did so just once in 12 postseason outings, when he struggled to aptly juggle defensive influence and discipline. Whether it was LeBron James, Anthony Davis, or any other Lakers offensive figurehead, Jackson’s presence consistently invaded their intentions around the paint. The defensive showcase Jackson and Davis hosted in Round One was among the most captivating subplots of the playoffs.

Yet for all of Jackson’s defensive artistry, his offensive exploits stumbled. His true shooting fell to 54.6. He shot 48.3 percent on two-pointers, compared to 58.5 percent in the regular season. Just as he terrorized the interior for Los Angeles, the favor was returned to him offensively. The Lakers scouted his tendencies and exploited his deficiencies. While he grew immensely as a driver, face-up operator, and mismatch scorer last season, the remaining steps ahead to further his offensive maturation were evident. The playoffs magnified lessons about his game that should ultimately benefit him and enable him to become better suited to avoid similar pitfalls moving forward.

In Game 1 of the first round, Jackson vaporized Los Angeles with 31 points on 13-of-21 shooting and notched four assists to one giveaway. As the series evolved, though, Los Angeles incrementally extinguished his flame; he finished the series averaging 18 points and recorded nine assists to 18 turnovers across the six games they played.

The Lakers highlighted his limited playmaking vision and sought to take away his left hand as a post scorer. Jackson hasn’t necessarily been tasked with lofty passing responsibilities throughout his career, yet he must refine his facilitating if he wishes to increasingly assume a larger burden and excel as a complementary offensive hub. His stylistic diversity to perimeter engines in Morant and Bane is valuable, and can elevate the Grizzlies’ sticky halfcourt attack if he emerges viable of continually scaling up the workload. Doubling him was a nod to his scoring, an indictment of his passing, and a distrust of his surrounding personnel. Los Angeles felt confident he would not burn its defense with lobs, laydowns, kickouts, or skip passes to open teammates, and he didn’t because that’s never been a reliable facet of his repertoire.

During the regular season, his 4.8 percent assist rate ranked in the 14th percentile among big men, per Cleaning The Glass, and his 0.22 assist-to-usage rate sat in the 2nd percentile. During the playoffs, those marks perked up to 6.8 percent (37th percentile) and 0.31 (13th percentile), but leveraging his scoring gravity into passing opportunities for his peers remains an area of improvement. Through five regular seasons, he’s never finished above 34th percentile in either category.

The Lakers forced him to play in a crowd, where he proved uncomfortable and ineffective. Memphis’ insufficient floor-spacing perhaps dissuaded him from certain decisions, though he also missed reads to credentialed shooters like Luke Kennard. He relishes playing through contact and his balance against physicality was a major point of growth last season. Yet when initiating contact didn’t fashion the space he intended, he often didn’t holster a useful plan B and it led to some precarious, off-kilter shots versus Los Angeles’ web of limbs.

Whether it’s sharpening his processing as a passer or discerning more avenues for his own scoring, incorporating counters will be integral for Jackson’s sustained offensive development. Counters are the mark of premier players. As a defender, Jackson owns them. Offensively, adding them will help him dampen the volume of plays like these.

Not every defense Jackson and the Grizzlies encounter in future playoff pursuits will be as stingy as the 2022-23 Lakers, a unit anchored by Davis’ greatness and flanked by size and range around him. Once they retooled the roster at the February trade deadline, they were the league’s top-ranked defense. Analyzing the holes of Jackson’s game through that narrow, utmost prism would be insincere. But if he can remedy struggles against that bunch, he will be well suited to handle most anything else sent his direction, and it’s not as though his struggles are contained to this specific context either. They were merely underscored on this national stage.

With he, Morant and Bane all 25 or younger, the Grizzlies have their eyes on grand plans that have not been satisfied for internal and external reasons. All brandishing lengthy, lucrative deserved contracts, they are equipped with the bandwidth to change that, however. Their last playoff exit reinforced how they can do so, perhaps no more prominently than the lessons Jackson’s scoring struggles illuminated. Time is required in adjusting to heightened defensive attention. Leveling up as a scorer often precedes leveling up as a passer during a star’s ascent. Jackson may be the in the midst of that common storyline.

The postseason is a means of indispensable education for the NBA’s foremost players. After all he accomplished in 2022-23, Jackson meets that criteria. Now comes the application of those lessons, navigating the windfalls, expectations and challenges accompanying stardom.