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Jaren Jackson Jr. is what the NBA unicorn was always supposed to be

In an NBA world where too many players get the unicorn moniker, the young Grizzlies big man actually embodies what the term once meant.

A collage of Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson is the type of big man every team wants in the modern NBA.

Four years ago, then-Thunder superstar Kevin Durant was asked about Kristaps Porzingis, a athletic, sweet shooting tall man that was capturing New York’s attention. As Durant laid out Porzingis’ long list of attributes, many of which were once the domain of smaller players, he suddenly found the perfect word to sum them all up. “That’s like a unicorn in this league,” he said. Just like that, a new NBA term was born.

In the years since, the combination of skills Porzingis possessed have become ubiquitous, if not required to succeed at the highest levels. For big men, novelty has become necessity. If they all need to become more unicorn-like, then how can any really embody the term? What does it mean to be a unicorn in these times?

The answer has come in a new class of bigs defined more by their versatility and tantalizing possibility than their status as top scoring options. They are unicorns, but really, they’re shapeshifters, much like Kirby in Super Smash Brothers. From Lamar Odom, to Al Horford, to Draymond Green, to Pascal Siakam, to Bam Adebayo, these NBA Kirbys have added something new and repurposed something old to further build on their ancestors.

Now, the Kirby lineage of basketball unicorns is poised to add a new member to its group: Jaren Jackson Jr. The second-year big man is not the best player (Ja Morant), best prospect (Morant, Brandon Clarke, or maybe even DeAnthony Melton), loudest leader (probably Dillon Brooks, to be honest), most seasoned veteran (Andre Iguodala Jae Crowder), or most engaging personality (OK, maybe he is) on the delightful Memphis Grizzlies, somehow the West’s No. 8 seed despite possessing a roster of kids. If their rebuilding project goes as expected, he may never be any of those things.

But at the ripe old age of 20, he’s already showing why he’s on track to be the all-important connective tissue that allows all of those other players to be themselves. Jackson is a basketball chameleon, and the rest of the Grizzlies’ young core have already become the beneficiaries of his many color changes.

Jackson’s list of special skills runs deep, but his accurate three-point shooting at a heavy volume vaults to the top of the list. His unorthodox motion — take a drink every time an opposing announcer refers to it as a “shot put” — belies his remarkable accuracy. He’s currently approaching 42 percent from downtown on 6.5 three-point attempts per game. The only other bigs to approach that accuracy on that volume: Karl-Anthony Towns, Ryan Anderson, and Davis Bertans.

These aren’t just your run-of-the-mill open pick-and-pop jumpers, either. He takes stationary threes.

Pick-and-pop threes.

Transition threes.

Threes on the move.

Step-back threes.

Threes off screens.

And threes like whatever this is.

The diversity of his three-point shot profile would be staggering for a wing. For a big man? The only word to describe it is ... unicorn-ish.

Jaren Jackson Jr’s 3PAs

Pick and pop 60 25 41.66666667 23.25581395
Transition 43 22 51.1627907 16.66666667
Ball screens, pindowns, dribble handoffs 38 20 52.63157895 14.72868217
Stationary (corner) 24 6 25 9.302325581
Stepbacks or ISOs 22 9 40.90909091 8.527131783
3rd man on a pick and roll 20 11 55 7.751937984
Stationary (above the break) 19 6 31.57894737 7.364341085
End of clock heaves 18 3 16.66666667 6.976744186
Offensive rebounds 14 5 35.71428571 5.426356589
SB Nation tracked, watched, and categorized every Jaren Jackson Jr. three-pointer this season. Data as of Jan. 15

The fact that Jackson can take and make so many different kinds of threes enables the Grizzlies to deploy him in so many different spots on the court. He has no obvious sweet spot, which means there’s rarely a worry he’ll catch the ball somewhere he doesn’t belong. He can toggle between playmaker, primary scorer, screener, and floor spacer, depending on what the Grizzlies need at that particular moment.

Better yet, he can do all four within the same play, which ensures Memphis’ sets always have secondary options. A pick-and-pop that the defense covers effectively can quickly swing into a dribble handoff, post-up, or second-side screening action, and it’s difficult for the defense to peg exactly where Jackson fits in to those sequences. In an instant, he’s flipped from the big man screener that gets a guard open into the primary option on a flare screen to get him a three.

And if that shot isn’t there, he can quickly flow back into being a screener for a guard curling up from the corner.

Or — and this is spicy — he can invert the traditional big/guard setup and act as the ball-handler immediately.

Jackson’s perimeter shooting opens all of those options, but that only scratches the surface of his offensive versatility. He holds his screens and rolls hard to the rim in open space, much like a more traditional big would. Jackson was initially more comfortable diving to the basket when backup Tyus Jones was on the floor, since Jones would often look for him instead of driving himself. Of late, though, Jackson’s chemistry with Morant is growing. Just ask the Rockets.

Jackson’s also a nimble ball-handler for a man his size, especially going left. When he attacks closeouts, he dips his body low enough to the ground to angle off shot-blockers and retreating defenders alike. Considering how often he puts the ball on the floor in space, it’s amazing that he only turns it over on 10 percent of his possessions. For reference, only seven other players taller than 6’10 finish more than 20 percent of their team’s plays while turning it over less often.

Jackson’s sudden low center of gravity allows him to absorb contact and sneak his shoulders through defenders to get to the rim. He’s more comfortable attacking left, but he’s beginning to come back to his right hand effectively when defenders overplay. This wrong-footed, gliding righty finish resembles the kind of move that makes Siakam such a difficult cover.

Jackson’s ball-handling skill is increasingly becoming a boon for Clarke, who loves to slip screens and dunk on fools. Jackson’s shooting already opens the lane for Clarke’s dives to the basket, but now the two are even hooking up on pick-and-rolls like this.

Defend Jackson too much like a guard, though, and he can punish smaller defenders in the post or stand along the baseline in what’s commonly known as the “dunker spot,” named because of finishes like this.

We’ve yet to discuss Jackson’s defensive potential, which is what got him drafted so high in the first place. He’s showing he can stone smaller players on switches, using his quick feet and long arms to envelop the space those penetrators need to thrive.

His shot-blocking instincts are terrific, as are his pick-and-roll fundamentals. Once he builds more upper-body strength and gains more experience, shot alters like this will become more common.

For now, fouling is a major weakness that constantly holds him back. Jackson commits 5.3 fouls per 36 minutes, thanks to overly jumpy feet that combine with his still-developing core strength to produce too many sloppy infractions. His diverse array of skills won’t do much good when he’s on the bench.

But remember, Jackson’s only 20. His consistency comes and goes, but that tends to happen with big men who possess uncommon skills and a willingness to experiment. Retaining Jonas Valanciunas was a shrewd move; his reliability is a useful foil to Jackson’s tantalizing possibility. JV gives Memphis the luxury of choice. They can sit him to ramp up Jackson’s learning curve, but they can also use the two together or play Valanciunas alone during one of Jackson’s tapering periods.

There’s a world in which Jackson becomes a star, especially if he further improves his right-handed dribble and cuts down on his propensity to foul. At the same time, that aspiration may prove to be a poisoned chalice if it requires Jackson to turn one of his many skills into a mega skill that becomes the foundation of his game. When you force an NBA Kirby into a specialized role, even one as well-regarded as being the main star of a team, it often takes away from the essence that makes them so valuable.

That’s why the Kirbys who have laid the groundwork for Jackson followed unique development paths. Siakam didn’t take a jump until he was freed to fail on Toronto’s second unit. Adebayo always had potential, but needed a defined starting role and a playmaking vacuum to rise to the occasion this season. Green may not have redefined the center position if not for David Lee getting hurt in training camp. They needed to walk their own unique paths to properly develop their unique games.

Jackson has something his ancestors didn’t: an opportunity to be himself from the jump. He’s one of the pillars for a rising young team, free to fail, learn, and develop consistency without too many short-term stakes. On top of that, he’s in an era where unique big men are treasured instead of scorned, with a young coach in Taylor Jenkins that happily embraces his perimeter skill instead of forcing him to be the kind of burly big man that he’s not. That makes Jackson a unicorn, even among his unicorn-like peers.

Let’s hope the destination is as fun as the journey promises to be.