Memphis Grizzlies

Only one thing was holding back Jaren Jackson Jr. and now he’s dominating

Jaren Jackson Jr. has stayed on the court more consistently lately, and his shooting and scoring are adding up to an offensive onslaught in December.

The Memphis Grizzlies are in a hurry.

“Towels? Anyone got towels?” Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ prized sophomore and NBA breakout stud of December, traipses out of the shower with shampoo left on his head and soap smeared across his arm.

He needs a towel.

As teammates head to the bus en route back home following a four-game road trip, Ja Morant is addressing the media. In his first game back from injury, Morant finished the best dunk of his young career, this one a monster jam over Suns center Aron Baynes that capped off a statement win for Memphis. The rookie is trying to downplay the slam as Jackson barges into the media scrum at Morant’s locker to borrow a spare towel sitting on the chair next to Morant.

The locker room busts up. It gives Morant an excuse to move on from a question about how good the dunk was, and the media scrum disbands. Morant packs up and leaves. There is no time to spend on this win. The next game is coming too quickly.

Jackson hurries to dry off and get going. He’s behind because he stayed on the court after his teammates for an interview with Memphis’ local television broadcast. A little more attention has been on Jackson recently amid what is far and away the most dominant and illuminating stretch of his career.

Since the start of December, Jackson is averaging 22.0 points per game, taking on a huge portion of the Grizzlies’ offense and using hot 3-point shooting to score more efficiently. The combination of a 28.6 percent usage rate and 62.1 true shooting percentage Jackson has posted this month would be among the best in the NBA this year.

“He’s seeking out shots and being aggressive at the same time,” says first-year head coach Taylor Jenkins. “There’s some times where we have to rein him back a little bit, but more often than not, he’s let the offense come to him, and he’s finding the right balance between attacking and trying to score.”

The mechanics of Jackson’s shot would lead any onlooker to believe the man would never put it in the basket. Since high school, the book on Jackson was that while his shot often went in, the low release point and inconsistent lower body would make it impossible to find nylon against pro athletes. After nearly 300 attempted 3s in the NBA, Jackson’s 38 percent mark says otherwise.

Confidence comes with reps, and Jackson is understandably feeling himself a bit more right now.

Most shooters who are inconsistent in college build their shot from spot-up looks in the corner outward. Jackson took only 96 triples at Michigan State, making 40 percent of them. He only took about three per 36 minutes as a rookie under J.B. Bickerstaff. But Jenkins saw something different, quickly finding ways to incorporate Jackson’s unreal ability to make difficult 3s on the move.

Legs flailing, the mere idea of a set shot ignored, Jackson lets it fly. He credits confidence from coaches encouraging him to take those shots, as well as seeing the ball go in for his recent flame-throwing.

“Me finding my shot a little bit better, that’s been good for me,” Jackson says.

Prior to this stretch — heck, even during the scoring onslaught — the gameplan for Jackson was easy to craft for opposing teams.

“When we talked about him last year, the main focus was to get him off the court because of what he was able to do if he was to stay on the court,” says Solomon Hill, who was traded from New Orleans to Memphis during the offseason.

I ask Hill what his first impression was of someone so athletic and versatile when he took the floor with the Grizzlies for the first time. Hill chuckles before responding, “I figured out why he didn’t stay on the court when we played against him. The foul trouble was something that’s real, it wasn’t like a one-time thing. But then you also see his ability.”

Is it possible that fouling is the one thing holding Jackson back from unleashing like this for the rest of the season? The big man averages 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes, and his overall foul rate puts him in the bottom quarter of the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

During a season in which Jenkins has flipped through rotations ad hoc, chemistry is at a premium. Jackson, a massive part of the team’s future, needs time on the court with his teammates to get used to them and Jenkins’ system.

“As a teammate of his, we’re a whole different team with your ability to stay on the court and stay out of foul trouble,” Hill says. “It’s definitely a breath of fresh air.”

Many of them are icky charges when teams force him to try to go right or drive off the bounce when he’s not ready. Others are the byproduct of not quite knowing where to put his chest and hands when someone is coming toward him full speed at the rim. Many seem to come because referees know Jackson fouls a lot, and are quick-triggered with him now.

All of it is a bit more extreme than most young bigs, but nothing that a smart player like Jackson can’t solve.

“A lot of it is just continuing to do your work early, having an urgency and awareness as the players are developing, knowing the situations that might come before the actual action happens,” Jenkins said. “Put yourself in the right situation not just with your mind, but also your body, your footwork, your hands.”

The calls don’t seem to get to Jackson. Frustration boils over from time to time on the court, but it doesn’t overwhelm him.

Jackson’s energy after a foul call isn’t much different than before the win in Phoenix, when he’s on the bench with Morant, singing and dancing along to the music playing over the PA. Assistant coach Niele Ivey laughs at both of them, but it feels like a real team, rare for groups who are relatively young and relatively bad.

Other parts of Jackson’s game are coming along because of the extra talent around him. One thing the Grizzlies are not is young. Veterans like Hill, Jae Crowder and Jonas Valanciunas take pressure off Jackson, Morant and the other youngsters.

That means the predictability of Jackson’s game doesn’t hurt Memphis too much. Though Jackson goes left every time, it often works. He shoots 43 percent between 4-14 feet, per Cleaning the Glass. Not many players this young and this big have scoring touch like Jackson.

Teams foul Jackson a lot for the very same reasons refs call fouls on him. When a guy is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, much gets lost in the forest of limbs. Still, the guys who are big enough to contest his shot aren’t fast enough to keep up, and the guys who are quick enough can’t match Jackson’s physicality.

In the modern NBA, Jackson is the best kind of matchup problem — and the figurehead of the next generation of unicorns.

The most devastating small-ball big men — like Pascal Siakam or Anthony Davis — aren’t the guys who can simply defend up a position, but true big men who are skilled enough to survive in a spaced-out game. Together with Jenkins, Jackson is becoming the type of player who dominates in that environment.

I ask Hill, a six-year veteran who played with Davis in New Orleans, who Jackson reminds him of. He responds with a long pause. A deep breath. Then a smile.

“I think the NBA tries to find certain comparisons to people, but Jaren puts himself in his own box,” Hill says. “That’s what [Jaren] is able to do, his game and his adaptiveness grows because he came in so young in a transition phase in the league. He can do it on the block, he can do it if you go under a pick-and-roll. You look at him as like a big wing.”

Jenkins’ system takes advantage of versatility, but it is tough to master. The coach calls it “random motion,” though Jackson’s responsibilities within it are anything but random. As he comes off screens, he needs to know whether to catch and shoot, attack a closeout, reset with a dribble handoff, or reverse the ball. If he curls around a screener and doesn’t receive a pass, he has to know whether to cut inside or space out to the perimeter. Standing in no man’s land without any energy kills a possession.

One of the big changes from last season was taking Jackson out of the dunker’s spot and involving him more in the flow of the offense. Jenkins has said he met with Jackson and told the youngster he will not put a max on Jackson’s nightly attempted 3s. Because Jenkins’ system can put players in position to not touch the ball for several consecutive minutes, the coach wants to create mini packages of smaller sets that involve Jackson.

“It can be hard sometimes to figure out where that shot is coming,” Jenkins told The Athletic. “It’s definitely on me as a coach to find the right time to get him the shot that he needs.”

Right, now they’re finding nirvana. But any little spurt, positive or negative, within the NBA season can be disregarded because the sample is so small. Jackson’s recent explosion only dates back nine games. While Memphis has won four of its last five, the grueling NBA calendar can make it difficult to stop and smell the roses. Sometimes, a towel can be more pressing than the big win you just finished off.

Though that may be true, any time a player starts to overcome the one thing holding him back and show the type of player he truly can be, small samples be damned. It’s huge.

“Winning builds rhythm,” Jackson says.

Lately, Jackson has been able to stay on the floor more and impact the game. At the same time, Jenkins is learning how to balance Jackson’s aggressiveness with better game awareness.

Even if the Grizzlies don’t have the time to luxuriate in it, the ramifications of Jackson’s growth are huge. He is scoring like a madman against defenders who know what’s coming, finding a role with a smart coach, and taking the Grizzlies to a new level.

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