Heading into a contract year, can Jaren Jackson Jr. re-establish himself as a core piece of the Memphis Grizzlies alongside Ja Morant?
One year ago, Jaren Jackson Jr. appeared to be headed toward a max contract extension. He was fresh off a sophomore season in which he averaged 17.4 points while shooting 39.4 percent from 3-point range on 6.5 attempts per game, which put him firmly in the “unicorn” camp.
Then he tore his meniscus during the Orlando bubble, which temporarily derailed his breakout.
Jackson missed the Memphis Grizzlies‘ first 56 games of the 2020-21 season, and he didn’t look like quite the same player upon his return. His efficiency plummeted to a career-worst 42.4 percent overall and 28.3 percent from deep across his 11 regular-season appearances.
The Grizzlies now must decide whether to sign Jackson to a contract extension in the coming weeks. If they don’t, he’ll be able to test the waters as a restricted free agent next summer. Following the 2021 NBA draft, Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman told reporters that he’s still bullish on Jackson’s long-term upside.
“I think we’re going to be our best selves over time with Jaren,” he said. “Spacing the floor, attacking, creating, defensively taking advantage of the versatility he brings to the table.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. has to prove he can be the player the Memphis Grizzlies need him to be
It’s easy to see why Kleiman believes in Jackson. He has ranked in the 80th percentile or higher leaguewide in block percentage during each of his three NBA seasons, per Cleaning the Glass, and he was in the 87th percentile in 3-point efficiency as a sophomore.
As teams place more of a premium on shooting at every position, the Grizzlies boast one of the league’s few 3-point bombers who can also protect the rim. He was one of only four players during the 2019-20 season to have four or more games in which he hit three 3s and blocked three shots.
That skill set makes Jackson a textbook fit alongside Morant, one of the league’s most athletic, explosive drive-and-kick point guards. Morant assisted on 36 of his 145 made triples and nearly one-quarter of his 353 total made baskets in 2019-20.
Jackson got off to an inconsistent start that season, but he hit his stride once he started letting it fly from deep. The now-22-year-old didn’t fare as well during his limited action this past season, but he had nearly a year’s worth of rust to knock off.
As the Grizzlies weigh a possible extension for Jackson, his injury history may give them pause. He has yet to play more than 58 games in a season, and he has already missed 101 of a possible 227 regular-season games during his first three years in Memphis.
Health isn’t the only concern with Jackson moving forward, though. He’s also a mediocre rebounder, and he continues to get himself into foul trouble too often.
Jackson is averaging only 4.7 rebounds per game for his career thus far, and both his offensive and defensive rebounding percentages ranked in the bottom 30th percentile leaguewide during his first two seasons. Although he did muster a career-high 5.6 boards per game this past year, the 11-game sample size may be too small to read into.
Jackson played alongside a board-gobbling behemoth in Jonas Valanciunas, which could be partially to blame for his dismal rebounding. He averaged 10.6 boards per 40 minutes during his lone year at Michigan State, which still isn’t optimal for a near-7-footer but isn’t as disheartening.
With Valanciunas now in New Orleans and Steven Adams replacing him at center, Jackson should have a chance this season to make his impact felt on the glass. If he continues to struggle in that regard, he may be more in the Myles Turner or Brook Lopez mold of stretch 5s who need to be paired with a dominant interior rebounder.
Fouls are perhaps even more of a bugaboo for Jackson. He has averaged 3.9 career fouls in only 26.9 minutes per game, and his foul percentage has also ranked among the bottom 30th percentile leaguewide in each of his three seasons.
The 22-year-old figures to become more disciplined as he gains more experience. Until he does, the Grizzlies might have to be extra cautious with him whenever he’s in foul trouble.
Despite Jackson’s issues with health, rebounding and fouling, the Grizzlies should be motivated to keep him in the fold beyond next season. Finding the appropriate price point may prove difficult prior to the mid-October extension deadline, though.
The Grizzlies might prefer to give him something along the lines of the four-year, $90 million extension that the Atlanta Hawks reportedly offered John Collins prior to the 2020-21 season. Having seen Collins bet on himself, turn that down and instead sign a five-year, $125 million contract this past summer, Jackson could be inclined to follow in his footsteps.
Regardless of whether Jackson and the Grizzlies agree to an extension, he’ll be looking to hit the ground running after his lost 2020-21 season. But if he can’t come to terms on an extension and heads into a contract year, he’ll have tens of millions riding on whether he can bounce back and build upon the promise he showed in his breakout 2019-20 campaign.