For those who watched the Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Memphis Grizzlies first-round series, their assessment might fall in line with how they feel about The Beatles’ Revolution No. 9. Some people think it’s one of the highest forms of entertainment that a person can consume, exquisite excellence in the midst of absolute chaos. For others it’s a bunch of noises strung together haphazardly for no other purpose than to make the experience with the finished product as unpleasant as humanly possible.
Whichever way people may lean about the series (or the song), one of Grizzlies vs. Timberwolves dizzying, screeching sounds was Jaren Jackson Jr. fouling every human being within arms’ reach. His foul totals for each game were 5, 4, 5, 6, 6, and 5. One of the most impressive young athletes in sports was not able to stay on the floor. When not fouling, he actually is one of the best defenders in the NBA, and is also one of the main options in the Grizzlies’ offense.
It would be logical to assume that the championship-experienced Golden State Warriors would be able to exploit Jackson’s hacking tendencies, and keep him glued to the bench in foul trouble, but that hasn’t happened consistently. Jackson did foul out of Game 2, but in Games 1 and 3, he recorded three total fouls in each game. With no Ja Morant in Game 4 — whose postseason is likely over with a knee injury — Jackson recorded five fouls, but he also poured in 21 points and blocked five shots in a loss.
For all the talk of the Grizzlies’ 20-5 record during the regular season without Morant, while they were able to keep the score close without him on Monday night, they really could’ve used a basket, or 14. The score at the end of the game was respectable at 101-98, but at halftime the Grizzlies led 41-38 — a score usually found in a playoff game involving Ben Wallace or New Jersey Nets-era Jason Kidd.
Jackson was all over the court in that game trying to be the Grizzlies’ Draymond Green. While those 3s that he shoots with the arc of a four-seam fastball weren’t falling, he was able to draw fouls and score near the basket to help give his team every opportunity to tie the series up with Game 5 at home on Wednesday. In the postseason, Jackson has average 15.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 2.4 blocks.
The logical question to ask about the Grizzlies is not if they’re better without Morant — who while spectacular needs to play with much more consistency on defense — it’s what does a supporting cast need to look like around this young budding superstar? Do they need to find a second star, or simply cultivate the talent that’s already there so it can blossom together? For the latter to be true, that means Jackson needs to become an All-Star level player.
Desmond Bane has been a revelation this season. A stout guard that can play defense and doubled his scoring average from 9.2 to 18.2 points per game and shot better than 43 percent from the 3-point line for a second consecutive season. That’s the type of shooting that is necessary to pair in the backcourt alongside Morant, but there needs to be somebody else explosive on that roster who provides not good, but great size.
At the 2018 NBA Draft Combine, Jackson measured at just under 6-foot-8 without shoes. His wingspan is 7-foot-5, and he can move his feet like a guard. Jackson has the potential to be the best defensive player in the NBA, and he put all of that talent on display in his 33 minutes against the Warriors in Game 4 — the most minutes that he has played in the entire series. Jackson might one day be like Deion Sanders, declaring with his play that whatever side of the court he is defending is a no-fly zone.
On offense, however, Jackson still needs some work. He should feel free to continue to shoot the ball like a squib kick, as long as he makes a strong percentage of those shots. For the playoffs he is shooting 37.3 percent from the 3-point line. Against the Warriors he had two great 3-point shooting outings in Game 1 and 3, but was 2-14 combined in the other two games. Also, for the playoffs he is shooting under 40 percent from the field.
This is where it would help him to be consistently on the court. If he weren’t always getting taken off for long stretches due to foul trouble, maybe it would be easier for him to get into a scoring rhythm. He’s a 45 percent shooter from the field for his career, but this season he shot 41 percent, and of course he dealt with a ton of foul trouble. He and his team have a bright future, but not if he’s spending most games in his warm-up gear.
The Grizzlies’ roster needs some tweaks, but it’s extremely close to championship contention. It doesn’t matter if they win the next three games without Morant, or they most likely get eliminated because 2021-22 has been a rousing success with them earning the No. 2 seed after being in the play-in tournament last season. One of the biggest changes this season was that Jackson played in 78 regular season games this season as opposed to 11. As much as Morant improved, without Jackson’s presence the Grizzlies don’t make the jump that they made from last season to this season.
Nothing will get the Grizzlies to the top of the NBA for the first time in franchise history faster than Jackson taking another step as a player. During the offseason, he certainly needs to add some moves to his offensive game to create better shots for himself, but he mostly needs to foul much less frequently. He needs to do that full court one-on-one defense drill with Morant — once he’s healthy — all summer, and do it with his hands behind his back. No team can win consistently with its best players on the bench. That goes for Morant and his health, and certainly for Jackson and keeping his hands to himself. If Jackson even only makes that adjustment next season, the Grizzlies will have to look no further for a No. 2 than No. 13.