SAN FRANCISCO -- Head and shoulders above the field in the Rookie of the Year race, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is a walking highlight reel. He explodes to the basket with reckless abandon, often finishing with gravity-defying dunks or acrobatic layups that would make Cirque du Soleil casting managers scribble down gushing margin notes. He's , deservedly so, but we can't look past the other emerging Grizzlies talent primed to help lead Memphis to prominence in the post-Grit N' Grind era.
Despite being a quarter of the way into his second NBA season, 6-foot-11 Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. is actually just over a month younger than Morant. And while Morant gets most of the headlines, Jackson's development from year one to year two is setting a trajectory toward becoming an All-Star, maybe more, once he fully achieves his potential.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2018 draft, Jackson has improved his scoring by nearly three points per game in almost identical minutes, and he's making a higher percentage of his 3-pointers (37 percent, compared to 36 last season) while drastically increasing the volume from 2.4 attempts per game last season to 5.7 so far in 2019-20. He's already scored 20 or more points in nine games this season, after accomplishing the feat 11 times in 58 games as a rookie.
On the defensive end, he's used his 7-foot-4 wingspan to be an agitating disruptor, blocking over a shot a game while altering countless shots both at the rim and on the perimeter.
"I just think my patience is a little bit better and my short-term memory is getting better in terms of not letting plays linger -- little things like that, I just think that's improved a lot," Jackson told CBS Sports after the Grizzlies' 110-102 victory over the Warriors at Chase Center. "And my aggressiveness, just being able to continue to stay aggressive through the whole game."
Memphis coach Taylor Jenkins, who was hired this offseason partly due to his track record in player development, acknowledges the fine balance between pushing his players to get better and having enough patience to allow them to grow and thrive. The balance becomes especially difficult when you're dealing with 20-year-olds who also happen to be your best players.
"Obviously a lot's being thrust on his shoulders to be a little bit more of a dynamic player on the offensive end, continuing to grow being a rim protector, paint protector, a guy that can switch on the defensive end," Jenkins said of Jackson. "There's so much being thrown at him, so we definitely have to be patient, but at the end of the day we're always driven by trying to push these guys to be the best that they can be because the better they are, the better we are."
While Jackson's talent is obvious, early in his career there are two main areas of concern: A lack of rebounding, and an inability to stay on the court due to foul trouble. Jackson is averaging almost as many fouls (a league-leading 4.2 per game) as rebounds (4.8) -- not a good ratio for a big man you hope will anchor your defense for years to come. Jenkins views rebounding numbers as a metric that can guide Jackson's development, and has talked to him about getting boards "outside of his area." The fouling issue dates back to last season, when then-coach JB Bickerstaff talked about working with Jackson on showing his hands to the referees to avoid fouls. This season, it's been more of the same.
"It's just watching tape, being honest with him about -- sometimes it's bad luck, you know, it's a product of some other situation that caused that. There's some that he can get better at," Jenkins said of Jackson's consistent foul trouble. "I actually think he's trying to be a little bit more active, and showing his hands. He got a couple tough breaks, but showing film, it's daily vitamin work where he's doing breakdowns to continue to have that defensive identity and mentality where he's being solid and urgent early so he doesn't get any cheap ones."
Jackson said he needs to work on verticality (jumping straight up when contesting a shot rather than leaning into the offensive player), and that he needs to be smarter and more selective about when he chooses to go for blocked shots -- a lesson that many veterans have eventually learned the hard way. Both of these mistakes were on display in the Grizzlies' 115-108 win over the Suns on Wednesday. In the first clip, Jackson is boxed out by Aron Baynes, but picks up an unnecessary foul going after a rebound he has no chance of grabbing. Second, he leans into Mikal Bridges on a drive as he jumps to alter the shot, and swings his right hand down to swat at the ball, which earns him a foul.
"You've just gotta watch film and know when to pick your battles better," Jackson said. "Because as a big you're gonna go down there, you're gonna have to block a lot of shots, but sometimes they may have to score something or you may just have to let it go so you can stay in the game."
Jackson has fouled out of five games already this season, and has picked up four or more fouls in 10 others. In addition to frustrating himself and his teammates, the foul trouble keeps him off the court. He's only playing 27 minutes per game this season, which is likely affecting both his development and the Grizzlies' chances to win games.
Like so many young players, Jackson occasionally falls victim to his own athleticism. It's easy to want to challenge every shot when you've already put together a jaw-dropping highlight reel of rejections.
With both Jackson and Morant, it's easy to want more. We see another 20-year-old, Luka Doncic, averaging a 30-point triple-double and it makes you wish other young players' growth was equally as accelerated. That's simply not the case for most players of this age, however, and Grizzlies fans appear willing to be patient as the team rebuilds around its two young prospects.
After years of competing for titles, Warriors coach Steve Kerr is finding out what it's like to coach multiple first- and second-year players this season, and he's learning the same patience that Jenkins is employing with his budding stars.
"I just think that there are common themes with young players these days," Kerr said. "You can watch them, whether they're your own players or other players around the league. You can see the mistakes that they make are very similar. It's a good reminder that a lot of the players who are coming into this league are really, really young. They're maybe a year or two out of college. The game is very different -- the pro game is very different from the college game -- so the mistakes that you see are very similar from one game to the next."