When playing the game of basketball, one of the very first things you’d probably think of is taking a three. It seems quite counterintuitive to be taking these farther shots when there are other areas to shoot from that are closer to the rim. However, it is this same mentality that is so profound among NBA players.
Since the turn of the century, the average number of threes taken per game has progressively increased. Just last season, the average number of threes taken in a game by one team was just over 34. Twenty years ago, that number was less than 14. The three-ball has been such a growing trend for years now as more and more stars grow more comfortable and efficient from these long distances. In turn, more and more young athletes grow up and want to take these shots, which has led to many of the NBA’s rising stars carrying such a skill.
With this revolutionary style of play becoming the norm among basketball players, we see this pattern spreading to all players regardless of physical attributes, size, and position. What was once a skill reserved for shorter guards is now a valuable trait that even the tallest of players practice. As such, the term “stretch-big” has popularized among the crowds as NBA teams become more attracted to big men who bear the capability of stretching the floor.
In fact, 6'11 Karl-Anthony Towns shot an astounding 41.2% from three on essentially eight attempts per game this past season. Not only that but 7’3 Kristaps Porzingis finished the year with over 400 attempts and was one of eight total players that attempted 300+ three's while being 6'10 or taller.
Among these eight players, is none other than Memphis’s own Jaren Jackson Jr: the perfect archetype of a modern-day big man and a player who I strongly believe can become a star.
As mentioned before, the ability to shoot has become more prominent among big men over the years—a duty that Jaren Jackson Jr (JJJ) carries out exceptionally well.
Coming into the NBA out of Michigan State, Jaren had already shown flashes of star potential. While only having averaged 10.9 PPG in the 35 games played in college, he was an extremely efficient scorer at all levels as he finished his collegiate career with shooting splits of 51.3 FG%, 39.6 3FG%, and a 65 TS%.
Standing at 6’11, you’d assume that JJJ is a strong presence inside—an assumption that is not false. In college, Jaren was a force to be reckoned with as he could put the ball on the floor even as a big man. Additionally, he was a brute inside with superb finishing capabilities even through the toughest of contact. Furthermore, the young big was an extremely agile player and has footwork comparable to that of quicker and smaller forwards. Overall, he was a strong presence inside and an effective athlete that showed signs of promising interior offense.
Although he has the potential to be a powerful inside scorer, JJJ was also a phenomenal shooter at Michigan where he made 96 threes in 35 games at a remarkable rate. Even if we overlook his position and size, as a player, Jaren has good shot mechanics and can fire off threes in quick succession. In college, Jaren was able to prove himself as a particularly reliable catch-and-shoot player while also displaying moments of putting the ball on the floor and side-stepping off of pump-fakes.
On the other end of the floor, you could argue that Jaren made just as significant of an impact as his 7’4 wingspan and footwork created the backbone of his defensive versatility. With his length, JJJ demonstrated his shot-blocking prowess with a keen skill of helping off the weak side, rotating, and switching onto several players in one possession to close out with his freakish wingspan regardless of the hand. All things considered, his versatility on defense culminated onto the stat-sheet well as he averaged three blocks per game.
Moreover, his length was just as beneficial on the perimeter as it was on the inside. Even when beat off the dribble, his long arms remained in front for a contest even if his man was slightly ahead. Not only that but his aforementioned footwork was quite stellar for his frame as he could step up and switch onto multiple positions.
Overall, with this kind of unique skillset on both ends of the floor, especially as a 6’11 big man, his potential is extraordinarily high. Just through his lone season at Michigan State—where he won Big Ten Freshman Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year—is enough to advocate for his chances of becoming a future star. Coming into the league, the praise for such a young talent was evident as he drew comparisons to guys like Myles Turner and LaMarcus Aldridge, which, considering Jaren’s talent as a scorer and defender, are fairly accurate.
However, as he made his way from college into the NBA, his presence on the court in the last two years for the Memphis Grizzlies (who drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2018) remained substantially impactful.
In a rookie season that had JJJ make it to the All-Rookie First Team and fourth in the Rookie of the Year race, the young Memphis big man continued to impress many with his versatile two-way game that we saw in college.
In Jaren’s first year in the league, he came out the gate with 13.8 ppg while shooting an exemplary 50.6% from the field and 35.9% from three—shooting splits that is quite remarkable for a rookie, let alone a rookie big man. Even in the NBA, JJJ remained an above-average shooter as well as a perimeter threat that opposing defenders had to respect. Immediately coming into the league, this young prospect was making an impact, proving to the Grizzlies that he may as well be one of their future cornerstones following the Marc Gasol and Mike Conley trades.
Thus, it was in his sophomore year this past season where Jackson made outstanding strides. After an already promising rookie season, Jaren jumped from 13.8 ppg to 17.4. Although his field goal percentage took a drop, it’s understandable judging that he took three more shots per game. Even then, his three-point field goal percentage, his effective field goal percentage, and his true shooting percentage made at least somewhat of an improvement.
It was clear how well his offensive capabilities benefited Rookie of the Year winner Ja Morant as JJJ played second fiddle exceptionally well. With Memphis’s star point guard wreaking havoc inside with his athleticism, Jackson bombarded opponents with his shooting as he ranked third in three-pointers made among players 6’10 or taller. In fact, JJJ’s total of 145 three-pointers made exceeded that of former all-stars Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Vucevic. Adding on, his 39.4% shooting from the perimeter ranked in the top 40 of all qualified players across the entire league. Not to mention, he did this while attempting over six threes a game.
Very rarely do we see this much potential in someone as young as Jaren Jackson Jr, and it’s clear that Memphis struck out with his selection. While it’s true big men have begun to expand their offenses to the three-point line, not many can shoot and defend at a high level. Jaren so happens to be one of the exceptions.
It was evident back at Michigan State that Jaren would be a defensive phenom and thus far, he has yet to disappoint. In his first two seasons, JJJ has oozed with talent on the defensive end with his versatility and IQ.
This past year, Jackson blocked 1.6 shots per game which also happened to be 2.6 per 100 possessions. Even then, he also posted a block percentage of 5%, which is a metric that estimates what percentage of the opponent’s two-point field goal attempts are blocked by a certain player. To put that into perspective, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year in Rudy Gobert had a block percentage of only 4.8%.
As such, this greatly attests to Jaren’s impeccable defensive awareness as he—a 6’11 21-year-old—bears the capability of even being able to cover guards in the pick-and-roll As mentioned before, his versatility is exemplary as Jaren is both agile and long. As a result, even if he were to be beaten off the dribble, his 7’4 wingspan makes up for the speed discrepancy he may have with faster players.
Overall, Jaren Jackson Jr is a bright prospect with not just fascinating scoring ability but marvelous defensive instincts. With his long wingspan to his defensive versatility, awareness, and IQ, he’s a daunting menace to any opponent whether it be switching along the perimeter or rotating to cover interior shots.
It’s this kind of two-way potential that seamlessly fits the mold of a young star big man.
Alas, there is no positive without the negative. It’d be wrong to commend a player so greatly without acknowledging their flaws.
For starters, on the offensive side of things, Jackson’s shot creation and passing were indeed subpar at best as 60.8% of all his shots came off the catch. If anything, Jaren’s rookie to sophomore improvement could be partially attributed to the addition of Ja Morant, however, that isn’t to discredit the leaps he’s made on his own. Nonetheless, one would hope that, if JJJ wants to grow into an elite two-way player, his scoring abilities make further strides in the sense.
Although, if there’s anything to be optimistic about, it’s the fact that Jackson continued to display the same flashes of stepbacks, sidesteps, and fakes as he did in college. Additionally, although not as frequent of a shot, JJJ successfully hit 53.7% of all shots that came off 36 dribbles—a promising sign that has shot-creation can improve. Whether or not this evolves into consistency could very well be the difference between him being an all-star and a superstar.
Staying with his scoring, he also seemed to have some trouble at times when it came to scoring in the post. While he already has several different go-to moves that were quite significant in his game like the turn-around jump hook that he could pull off with both hands, doing so against larger and bulkier big men was a challenge. As of now, JJJ weighs in at 242 pounds so this isn’t to say he’s frail or lacking in muscle. Nevertheless, his comfort when covered by other great defenders in the league should be another focal point down the line.
Switching over to the defensive side of things, arguably the biggest hole in Jackson’s game is his defensive discipline. As versatile as the youngster may be, it’s quite clear that there were times where he was possibly too ambitious—biting on many pump-fakes. As a result, Jaren ended the year as number one in fouls per game with an atrocious 4.1 a night. Adding on, another key concern for the big man was his rebounding. Standing at almost 7 feet tall, you’d think he could be the anchor of your rim protection. Alas, Jaren didn’t even crack the top 100 in rebounds per game as he only grabbed 4.6 a night during the 2019-20 season.
While these concerns are awfully prominent, especially for a big man, they are still areas where one can improve. With the right mentorship and development, there should still be much optimism for Jaren’s future.
Are these questions to his game significant? Of course. But they should not be casting a shadow on what he already does well. As he enters merely his third year in the NBA, he’s already shown to be one of the best players under the age of 25 with exceptional skills on both ends of the court.
Even if he barely improved and remained the same player for his whole career, he’d still be quite a good one. It’s whether or not he continues to make advances in his game that could decide how high his ceiling is. Regardless, Jaren Jackson Jr is all you want in a young big man. He has an astounding three-point shot with superb defensive aptness. There aren’t many players that you can say make as great of a mark on offense and defense as Jackson can, let alone someone also as young as him.
With his potential and room for growth, what’s stopping him from blossoming into a superstar? Quite frankly, he’s the epitome of a modern big.
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