MikeCheck: Hungry and healed, Jackson eager to build on promising but shortened rookie season

MikeCheck: Hungry and healed, Jackson eager to build on promising but shortened rookie season

MEMPHIS – In every sense of the phrase, Jaren Jackson Jr. has fashioned himself a student of the NBA game throughout his promising but injury-shortened rookie season.

Patience has been his hardest lesson to learn.

“I’m not resting on anything,” Jackson said of his debut journey through the league. “There’s still so much to learn. I’m glad I was able to go through the ups and downs of my first year to really feel it out.”

One feeling Jackson might be struggling to adjust to these days is abandonment. First, his solid rookie campaign was limited to 58 games for treatment of a lingering thigh bruise that shut down the 6-foot-11 power forward after the February All-Star break. Then, despite some encouraging moments in March, the Grizzlies finished 33-49 to wrap up a second consecutive season outside the playoffs.

He’s got everything going for him. You can see how much potential he has. He’s going to be a huge part of (the Grizzlies’) organization.

Steve Kerr

And now, Jackson can only watch as a fan from afar as an intriguing NBA postseason plays out.

When Damian Lillard hit a shot from just past halfcourt to cap a 50-point effort and clinch Portland’s first-round series win over Oklahoma City, Jackson took to social media – just like everyone else.

“Dame hit one of those shots u take counting down on a hoop as a kid by yourself,” Jackson posted to Twitter the other night, accompanied by emojis and a 3-2-1 countdown with an alarm clock.

The next night, as Houston eliminated Utah and the Clippers beat Golden State for a second time on the road to force Game 6, Jackson was back on Twitter sharing inspiration for his own postseason aspirations.

“Mannnn watchin the playoffs makes me a different typa hungry,” Jackson posted.

Even from an outsider’s vantage point, Jackson is locked in on taking the next step in his development to ultimately lead the Grizzlies back to the playoffs as active participants. What’s also clear is that whichever direction the Grizzlies take in the next phase of a turbulent retooling process, Jackson is the foundational building block.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

As the Grizzlies face significant questions at most positions this offseason because of age, injuries, fit or potential free-agent status, there’s should be no doubt about Jackson’s status as the 19-year-old cornerstone of the franchise at power forward. Surrounding Jackson with ideal teammates and a coaching staff that maximize his development is the main priority for Memphis’ restructured front office.

Despite his age, Jackson is already mature enough professionally to avoid being overwhelmed by any potential burden as the face of a franchise so soon.

“I don’t feel pressure, really,” said Jackson, the fourth overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. “If there is any pressure there, you’ve got to embrace it, because that’s what it comes with. My work ethic will speak for itself. I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing. I’ll talk with coaches about my role and responsibility, that’s based on the makeup of our team next (season). When that conversation happens, I’ll be able to tell y’all what’s going on. But for now, I’m just working on my game.”

That versatile game allowed Jackson to become the only rookie in NBA history to record at least 50 made threes, 50 steals, 50 blocks and also shoot at least 50 percent from the field. That still-relatively-raw game was also already promising enough to place Jackson in the elite company of Anthony Davis, Bill Walton, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Chris Webber in producing at least 500 points, 60 blocks, 50 percent shooting and 30 steals over their first 41 NBA games.

And that game remains filled with so much untapped potential that Hall of Famers and legends such as Alonzo Mourning and Kevin Garnett routinely check on Jackson to share wisdom and workout tips to ensure he remains on a path to potential greatness.

If there is any pressure there, you’ve got to embrace it, because that’s what (being an NBA player) comes with. I’m just going to continue doing what I’m doing … When that conversation happens, I’ll be able to tell y’all what’s going on. But for now, I’m just working on my game.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

Even with high levels of individual production and impact, Jackson was essentially only a tease this past season as he averaged 13.8 points and 4.7 boards while ranking second among rookies in blocks, third in field-goal percentage and fifth in rebounds.

Some of the same coaches Jackson is watching in the playoffs now were high on his progress during the regular season.

“For a guy that size and that age, you can see how much better he can become and how good he already is,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Jackson during the season. “He’s got everything going for him. You can see how much potential he has. He’s going to be a huge part of (the Grizzlies’) organization.”

Jackson headed into the offseason just getting his feet back under him – literally. He sat out the last two months of the season to recover from the thigh injury as the Grizzlies erred on the side of caution to avoid any setback that would delay his summer development.

After season-ending exit interviews, Jackson said he was about 90 percent healed from the bruise and was ready to get into a normal offseason regimen. Those workouts over the summer are expected to include a mix of sessions back on his college campus at Michigan State, another round of training in Los Angeles with Garnett and conditioning at the Memphis practice facility.

Jaren Jackson Jr. drives past Draymond Green

“Eat right, sleep, work out,” Jackson said of what his schedule would entail in the coming months as the Grizzlies work to get a coaching staff in place to build his development. “Obviously, I can work out with my coaches, but also get with somebody who can look at my film, focus on it and work on things that directly translate to what I’m doing. Don’t do any time-wasting stuff.”

Looking back, Jackson can appreciate the challenges that came with adjusting to the NBA after one college season. A week into the regular season, he assumed a starting role and was thrown into the fire.

“Early on, I felt a little nervous, just because those were my first games,” Jackson said. “After that I was cool. I went from looking at Minnesota and Rutgers (in college), to, like, James Harden in my first game. So it was a little different. It was going from playing good college players to getting switched onto guarding Chris Paul.”

Now that things have slowed down, Jackson has specific areas of his game he’s eager to strengthen for Year 2.

“My motor; just continue to improve on that,” said Jackson, who also aims to cut down on one of the NBA’s highest foul rates of any player this season. “My ball-handling, because it’s becoming a guard’s game. You’ve got to have guard skills to play any position, really. My shooting mechanics, and a little bit of everything. I’m still so young, so I have time to work on everything. There’s definitely nothing you can’t get better at.”

Jackson will soon learn if he’s done enough to garner an NBA All-Rookie First Team nod. Rookie of the Year frontrunners Luka Doncic and Trae Young along with No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton are likely locks as First-Team selections in voting that was tallied at the end of the regular season.  Jackson, Marvin Bagley III, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Colin Sexton are among other candidates to fill out the First-Team and Second-Team rosters.

“I’d be honored to be a part of something like that,” Jackson said of the NBA awards that will be announced in the coming weeks. “I definitely think I’ve worked hard, and that’s what should stand out.”

Power Forward Subplots

Jackson and small forward Kyle Anderson are the Grizzlies’ lone two players under contract beyond the next two seasons. So Memphis could move forward with some stability at the forward spots should both return from season-ending injuries in complete health next season, as expected.

With Jackson sitting out, the Grizzlies got an extended look at Bruno Caboclo – and liked what they saw enough to flip his 10-day contracts into a deal that extends through next season. Caboclo’s length, defensive instincts and ability to stretch his game to three-point range make him an intriguing prospect to bring off the bench next season. Ivan Rabb made some progress in his second NBA season, but still leaves plenty to be desired as a tweener at the power forward and center spots.

While Rabb is likely entering a make-or-break summer with the Grizzlies, Two-Way prospect Yuta Watanabe is also facing an offseason that could answer early questions about his NBA potential. With plenty to prove, both Rabb and Watanabe should be prime candidates to anchor the Grizzlies’ summer league teams under a new coaching staff. The position could also use a veteran boost from the trade or free-agent market.

Bottom line

Jackson will either be returning as the clear anchor of a rebuilding squad or as no worse than the No. 2 option on a team that retools with Mike Conley returning to lead the way. The Grizzlies could also build around Jackson with assets they would presumably acquire from a potential Conley trade this summer.

In any case, Jackson is the key to the franchise’s present and immediate future. The Grizzlies are committed to developing him the right way and building a roster that fosters Jackson’s growth into stardom. Should Memphis keep their top-8 draft pick this summer – which conveys to Boston should it drop to No. 9 in the May 14 lottery – it would give the Grizzlies another promising young prospect to blossom alongside Jackson for the next several years.

After a turbulent rookie season that has him moving on to his fourth coach in as many years, stability is now essential for Jackson to reach his potential in Memphis.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Leave a Reply