The Memphis Grizzlies are getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back "very soon," according to Jaren Jackson Jr. The 21-year-old big man spoke to reporters on Zoom on Friday, and while he didn't specify exactly when he expects to make his season debut, he confirmed what executive Zach Kleiman said a week ago: It's happening at some point in April.
"Definitely this month," Jackson said. "So, I'm excited about that. Woo, woo! This month!"
Jackson has been recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, an injury he suffered playing in the NBA bubble last August. Initially, he didn't know how serious it was, as evidenced by the fact that he finished the game against the New Orleans Pelicans.
"I didn't know what was going on," Jackson said. "I was just playing. Playing hard, like I do. And if I ever have a chance to be out there, I'm going to be out there. So yeah, when it happened it was definitely tough. After that, went through a bunch of emotions not being around my guys. It's definitely hard not being around them, and I just want more than ever to just play with them. It's crazy. I have no words on that. It's a feeling I can't put into words."
Jackson had no trouble expressing that he's proud of how the Grizzlies have played without him. They've gone 22-23 this season, including a 4-4 stretch early in the season with Ja Morant sidelined because of an ankle injury. This is good for ninth place in the West, which means they'd be in the play-in tournament if the season ended today.
"They're doing great," Jackson said. "We've had a bunch of injuries, a bunch of weird things that's happened. I mean, we're in a COVID year, so pretty much just playing out this year has been a win for us. But, you know, we have better—we have higher expectations than that."
That they've done this well with an enormous part of their bright future watching from the sideline is a testament to their defense. Memphis ranks 20th in offense and 28th in halfcourt offense, per Cleaning The Glass, but has made up for it with its seventh-ranked defense, which forces the second-most turnovers in the NBA.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Jackson said. "Coach puts us in great positions to be in the right rotations at all times. We're always helping each other, we're always talking, we're loud. And we rely on our instinct, which we work on in practice. Defense is a staple for us. Whenever we lock down, we win games. That's always been huge for us, and we're going to continue to do that. I'm going to continue to help them when I come back with rim protection and versatility, trying to switch on guards and trying to make sure I'm solid on defense. That's just going to be probably the main thing. That's what takes teams far in the playoffs, so you always have to dial in on that."
The last time we saw Jackson, he was one of the more versatile bigs in the league. He is not just capable of defending smaller players on the perimeter; he enjoys doing so. The reality, though, is that his shooting is by far the most important skill he brings to this particular team. Memphis has been starved for spacing all season, ranking 29th in 3-point frequency and 28th in 3-point accuracy, per CTG. No matter how many floaters the Grizzlies make -- and they do make a ton of them -- this is not a viable formula. Last season, Jackson shot 39.4 percent from deep and attempted 8.2 3s per 36 minutes. This season, Grayson Allen has attempted a team-high 7.4 3s per 36 minutes. Defenders go under Morant's screens and, aside from Allen and rookie Desmond Bane, Memphis' role players do not have gravity.
Jackson's shooting will make it easier for Morant to get into the paint. This is particularly true when he's at the 5 spot, but even at the 4, he will make Jonas Valanciunas' rolls and post-ups more difficult to defend. Jackson's combination of footwork, deep range and quick release make him the kind of shooter opponents have to worry about at all times. Lots of bigs can make an open 3, but only a select few are dangerous in the pick-and-pop, coming off pindowns, in transition and even off the dribble.
During his eight-month absence, Jackson has "grown so much," he said. He has watched film with Grizzlies coaches and paid more attention to his nutrition. He said he feels "stronger than I've ever been, for sure" and is "excited to put it all together." When he comes back, however, his team might be fighting for its play-in life. After Memphis hosts the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, it will play four games in six nights in Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta and New York. A three-game homestand against Indiana, Chicago and Dallas will follow, and then it'll be back on the road to visit Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, the Clippers, Portland (twice) and Denver again. This daunting month will end at home with a third game against the Blazers and the first half of a home-and-home against Orlando.
This schedule is not a death sentence. These Grizzlies have already blown out the Clippers and beaten the Heat. They lost by a single point in previous meetings with the Nuggets and Bucks. And even if they do hit a rough patch, even if Jackson's return can't save them, it will not be some sort of catastrophe. Memphis is still relatively early in the rebuilding process, and in the long term it is trying to be much more than a lower-rung playoff team. Given that they lost an absolute heartbreaker without Jackson in last year's play-in, though, and given how they've managed to survive for the last few months, it will be a shame if the Basketball Gods do not allow them to get through this hellish stretch in decent position. Four of Memphis' final five games of the regular season are against the three teams right beneath them in the standings, which in theory means it can control its own destiny. Ideally, the Grizzlies' young core will be healthy this time.