Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA

The Long Two: Jaren Jackson’s extension and a new Paul George

With Kawhi Leonard out for most, if not all, of the season, can Paul George step into a primary role and keep the Clippers in the playoffs?

The Clippers are in a certain kind of NBA limbo, though not one of their own making. Kawhi Leonard’s torn ACL may have dashed the franchise’s championship hopes this season, but unlike most teams constructed around superstars, the Clippers aren’t likely to fall completely by the wayside without their best player.

Even after Leonard’s injury in June, the Clippers still managed to close out the top-seeded Jazz before pushing the Suns to six games in the Western Conference Finals. This offseason presented a decision: wait out Leonard’s return and punt on what likely won’t be a championship season, or try and salvage an unfortunate situation. The Clippers chose the latter path, bringing back veterans Nic Batum and Reggie Jackson and trading for Eric Bledsoe in an attempt to hold together last year’s Western Conference runner-up.

The approach that worked for LA after Leonard went down — putting maximum shooting and ball-handling on the floor and creating drive-and-kick opportunities — wasn’t a fluke. The question is whether it can sustain for a full season and whether Paul George, now at the helm of the offense, can hold up at the center of it.

Is Paul George ready to carry the primary load for the Clippers?

In some respects, this Clippers roster resembles a modern iteration of the scrappy ensemble Pacers teams George led nearly a decade ago — a balanced, veteran team with the All-Star wing at the tip of the spear. The key difference, however, is that George himself is a better player. Since he last played without another All-Star beside him, George has refined and expanded his game as a secondary threat in top-heavy offenses, improving as a creator and distributor while becoming one of the game’s very best shooters.

His 2019 season ranked among the most efficient high-volume scoring seasons by a wing in the last decade, and last year he was, by many statistical measures, even better. Yet the blessing and the curse of George’s game is that he has always been best as a second option. Each of those peak seasons came with a high-usage teammate soaking up the primary playmaking responsibility (and the bulk of opponents’ attention), which left George free to work in more comfortable situations. George-led offenses have reached only middling heights over the last eight seasons, and his individual efficiency and decision-making tend to buckle under too much on-ball responsibility.

For better and for worse, this year’s Clippers don’t have another star to supersede George in the team’s hierarchy. In most situations, that might preclude them from breaking into the top half of the league in offensive efficiency. But this team, even without Leonard, might have just enough complementary talent to succeed with George as a slightly elevated first option in a more egalitarian system. The upside of his second-fiddle nature is George’s ability to fit into any offensive environment and complement any kind of surrounding personnel; place enough shooting, ball-handling and intelligence around him, and his on-ball limitations become less restrictive.

George is one of the smoothest and most versatile scorers in basketball, and this season will present an opportunity for the Clippers to unlock his full arsenal. They will ask him to create with the ball in his hands, but there’s still plenty of room for him to work without it. George was one of the most efficient spot-up scorers in the league last season and has been an elite 3-point shooter off the catch for most of his career. And, despite his spotty track record as a high-volume creator, he’s still an excellent pick-and-roll and isolation scorer in moderation. A democratic, improvisational offense could be the best possible environment for George to unleash those weapons.

It could, however, expose his limitations if L.A. can’t recapture the offensive flow it found against Utah and Phoenix. Much of the answer will depend on variables beyond George’s control — Batum and Marcus Morris continuing last season’s hot shooting, Terance Mann assuming a heavier scoring load and the Clipper guards’ creating advantages off the bounce. But this was one of the best 3-point shooting teams in NBA history last season, and it remains replete with role players who don’t take much off the table. George is the star that could hold it all together, giving the Clippers a firmer foundation for when Leonard eventually returns.

Jaren Jackson is worth the bet, but will he live up to it?

Your perception of Jaren Jackson Jr.’s four-year, $105 million extension with the Grizzlies probably depends on how much room you think he has to grow. Jackson’s new deal, which will take him through his age-26 season, likely solidifies him as a long-term partner with Ja Morant (who will be extension-eligible next offseason) and, crucially, keeps from becoming a restricted free agent next summer.

As is usually the case with rookie extensions, working out a long-term commitment before the start of the season benefits both player and team here; Jackson earns generational wealth while Memphis locks him in below the maximum amount he could have gotten as a free agent. The pay structure of the deal (Jackson’s annual salary starts around $29 million in the 2022-23 season and declines to $23 million over the next three years) also benefits Memphis, who will have more flexibility to bolster its roster around Jackson and Morant by the time they hit their primes in a higher cap environment.

Still, the Grizzlies assumed a fair amount of risk by handing this much money to a largely unproven big man who has yet to make an All-Star team, struggled to stay healthy and may project just below stardom on both ends of the floor. This isn’t max money, but it’s still far more than Jackson has proven to be worth to this point in his career. The extension, then, isn’t a reflection of the player Jackson is now, but a bet on what he might become. A 22-year-old with this kind of talent and physical profile is worth betting on, but Jackson must make substantial progress in order to live up to the investment.

In theory, his ability to shoot and protect the rim makes Jackson a wildly intriguing two-way prospect and an immensely valuable partner with the downhill-oriented Morant. But through three NBA seasons, he has only shown consistent flashes on one end of the floor, leaving believers in his defensive potential slightly underwhelmed. Last year was effectively a lost season for Jackson, who played only 11 games due to offseason knee surgery and struggled to get up to speed upon his return. The prior year is likely more representative of his developmental track, and it offered exciting glimpses of a unique offensive player.

The term “floor-spacing big” doesn’t really do Jackson’s shooting ability justice. Plenty of NBA big men have developed stationary jumpers that merely keep defenses honest; very few can fire tightly-contested triples off of movement from multiple steps beyond the arc the way Jackson does. In 2020 he shot over 39 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game, relatively few of which came standing still. His release point and mechanics may be unconventional, but this isn’t a shot that needs fixing:

At 6-foot-11 with a massive reach, Jackson also poses a threat as a roll man, making him the rare player who can stretch defenses beyond the 3-point line and pull them toward the paint. Opponents must honor the threat of Jackson diving to the rim in the pick-and-roll, which, with a passer as gifted as Morant handling the ball, can create a bounty of open 3s for teammates. Surrounding Morant with four shooters (one of whom can also dive to the basket) is the surest path to the Grizzlies eventually having an elite offense, but that vision is contingent upon Jackson taking the requisite defensive strides to play center full-time — an endpoint from which he remains fairly far away.

In two full NBA seasons, he has yet to live up to his promise as the ultra-versatile switch defender and rim protector he was billed as coming out of Michigan State, which has kept Taylor Jenkins from deploying him at center and unlocking Memphis’ most deadly offensive units. At times, Jackson resembles a young Anthony Davis, turning away layups with emphatic rejections or discouraging shot opportunities altogether.

More often, however, he’ll miss cutters or drivers breaching the lane, arrive late and commit a foul or otherwise compromise Memphis’ defensive integrity. In his career, lineups featuring Jackson at center have allowed 114.7 points per 100 possessions and failed to protect the rim effectively; that isn’t all Jackson’s fault, but his inability to serve as a defensive anchor is a clear reason for that flimsiness. He has struggled to defend without fouling, and his recognition of threats at the rim is inconsistent.

Jackson should log more minutes at center this season, both because he’ll improve on defense and center Steven Adams won’t warrant the playing time Jonas Valanciunas did last season. How often and how effectively those lineups perform will affect not only the short-term success of Memphis’ season but the long-term trajectory of a team with Jackson as its defensive centerpiece. If he realizes that potential, the Grizzlies will have secured an elite two-way big man who, along with Morant, could help push the team into perennial title contention. But however high Jackson’s ceiling — or how likely he is to reach it — getting there still remains a work in progress.

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