The past three seasons of Jaren Jackson’s career have unfolded a little like the Goldilocks fable. As a rookie, he averaged 13.8 points on 59.1 percent true shooting and shot 35.9 percent beyond the arc. His defensive knowhow and aptitude were staggeringly advanced for someone so young and wide-eyed to the NBA. Two-way stardom looked imminent.
As a sophomore, he averaged 17.4 points on 59.3 percent true sooting and drilled 39.4 percent of his long balls. Yet his timing and recognition of angles defensively seemed to regress from the season prior. He’d become somewhat of an offensively inclined youngster whose defensive consistency waned.
Year three was largely derailed by a meniscus injury and he suited up for only 16 games, never fully finding a comfort zone on either end. Last season, he emerged as a titan of a defensive force and earned an All-Defensive First Team nod, becoming the youngest player since Serge Ibaka in 2011-12 to make a First Team appearance.
However, his outside jumper escaped him to the tune of 31.9 percent and he endured an uncharacteristically poor finishing campaign. His 53.5 percent true shooting was well below the 59.2 percent clip he amassed during his initial two healthy years.
After missing the first 3.5 weeks of the year due to offseason surgery repairing a stress fracture in his foot, Jackson is merging his offensive and defensive artistry. He’s asserting himself as the star Memphis hoped it was selecting fourth overall back in 2018. Through 17 games, the 23-year-old (yeah, he’ll still be 23 through mid-September of next year!!) is averaging 15.9 points on 60.8 percent true shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks. He’s shooting 34.7 percent from deep and a career-high 58.8 percent on two-pointers. His plus-4.8 Estimated Plus-Minus is 19th league-wide.
Despite some recent, nationally televised bouts with foul trouble, Jackson is averaging the fewest fouls per 100 possessions (5.6) of his career. On a per-minute basis, he’s squarely in the mix for the NBA’s foremost defender, bringing a brilliant blend of recognition, ground coverage, dexterity and paint protection.
Last season, he led the NBA in block percentage at 7.4. This season, he’s at 11.1 percent. Despite missing 16 games, he’s seventh in total blocks (52). The defense is truly mesmerizing and game-breaking; Memphis is 10.5 points better defensively when he’s on the floor. All of that generally existed a year ago as well, though. What’s truly propelling him to stardom are his offensive strides.
Most importantly, Jackson’s balance and lower body stability have progressed immensely. In 2021-22, many of his shot attempts out of drives, face-ups or post-ups occurred from funky, arduous angles with him out of sorts. Despite his 6-foot-11 frame, he often struggled to endure physicality or inflict it without losing balance. That’s the case far less frequently this year and his creation potency is the leading beneficiary.
According to PBPStats, 39.2 percent of his shots are classified as self-created and he’s posting an effective field goal percentage of 58.8 on them (league average is 49.1 percent). Last season, 42.9 percent of his field goals were self-created and he posted an effective field goal percentage of 42.3 percent on them (league average was 48.3 percent).
Whether it’s attacking from the slot, gyrating and slithering his way from the top of the key or flowing out of face-ups, putting the ball on the deck leads to a lot more profits nowadays. Whereas he shot 43.9 percent on drives in 2021-22, he’s up to 55.6 percent this year, per NBA.com.
The chances of maintaining silky touch inside have skyrocketed because he wields control. Rather than defenders dislodging him on his driving routes, he’s discarding them for critical slivers of space in the paint. He’s not operating from a deficit anymore and dictates the tempo, which helps explain his career-best .407 free-throw rate (.308 his first four years). His rim frequency (38 percent) is the highest it’s been since his rookie year, too.
The helter skelter vibes of last year’s off-the-bounce endeavors have been succeeded by patience and effectiveness. The process is just much less chaotic and much more replicable because he’s on balance, thanks to improved lower body stability. The full scope of his 7-foot-4 wingspan can be deployed as a face-up and low-block scorer when he’s not trying to recover from being knocked off-kilter and simply get a shot up toward the hoop.
One of the pillars of his breakout is the lefty push shot. According to Cleaning The Glass, he’s shooting 56 percent (27 of 48) between 4 and 14 feet, a mildly unsustainable mark. Yet I don’t think he’s in line for a massive nosedive, even if regression to some degree is likely unavoidable. He had so, so many shots from that range roll around and out last season. Better luck on them this year almost felt inevitable. Plus, his newfound asset of balance eases those looks, especially when he’s playing the 4 and/or firing over small defenders.
Jackson’s development as a driver and interior scorer work in tandem with his renaissance beyond the arc. Defenders are caught in a bind, forced to discern on the fly if taking away the jumper or sitting on the drive is the proper decision. Because he launches on moderately high volume and proficiency (.430 three-point rate, 35 percent shooting since 2019), the opposition respects his long ball. He’s long leveraged that respect into downhill escapades, but physical limitations curtailed his exploits once he actually found himself in such situations. He’s addressed those shortcomings.
Already the bedrock of Memphis’ top-five defense, Jackson is an immensely valuable complementary scorer in 2022-23. His maturation as an efficient secondary option would always be critical for the Grizzlies’ long-term outlook. It remains critical, but is no longer a hypothetical existence preserved by the optimism of youth and time. It’s the current reality, one that makes him as dangerous as ever moving forward.