The following is a defense of Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. being selected as a 2023 NBA All-Star. But really, it's a defense of defense.
Discussion of the Western Conference "snubs" after All-Star reserves were revealed on Thursday largely surrounded De'Aaron Fox, Anthony Edwards and Anthony Davis, with many choosing Jackson as the undeserving selectee. And yes, strong cases can be made for all three stars, but keep in mind that the All-Star reserves are picked by NBA coaches, and there's a reason coaches love Jaren Jackson Jr.
You guessed it. Defense.
"He's absolutely in that conversation for Defensive Player of the Year," Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said of Jackson. "You know, the impact he makes for us every single night is phenomenal. His care factor for the defensive side is phenomenal. That continues just to grow one year after another."
The shot-blocking numbers speak for themselves, despite unfounded Reddit-based speculation and accusations of biased home scorekeeping that were quickly disproven. His 3.3 blocks per game would lead the league, by far, if he had played enough to qualify, and his 5.8 blocks per 48 minutes rank him among the top 10 single seasons for players logging at least 27 minutes per game since blocks began being tallied in 1973-74.
He covers so much ground and his timing is so precise that he can recover and erase shots at the rim even when trailing the play.
He's also so nimble and athletic that he can block shots on the ball as well as off -- the sign of a transcendent rim protector.
What stat-hounds and Reddit users alike have failed to recognize, is that even if his home numbers were cooked in the blocks and steals department -- that's not even the point. Blocked shots do not always equal rim protection. From Bill Russell to Hakeem Olajuwon to Rudy Gobert, oftentimes the best rim protectors don't get the opportunity to send shots into the seats, because opponents don't even bother shooting when they're anywhere in the vicinity.
"The focus last year in the playoffs was not to try to challenge him at the rim going out one foot and thinking you're gonna lay it up over him, because that's not going to happen," Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said of Jackson. "So you've got to really attack the paint with the idea of keeping your feet on the ground, giving yourself options with a jump stop, moving the ball back out to the perimeter and forcing their defense to react. Otherwise, he's just loading up and you're having to score over the top of him."
Here's a four-time champion coach basically admitting that his team must forego the idea of shooting layups when a player is on the court. Think about that for a second.
On top of his rim protection, at 6-11, Jackson also has the ability to switch onto perimeter players to contain penetration with his lateral quickness and contest step-back jumpers with his incredible length. Generally, the Grizzlies play drop coverage, so he doesn't switch a ton, but Jackson is in the 95th percentile defending against pull-up jumpers, per Synergy Sports. Watch here as he sticks with Edwards (his competition for an All-Star reserve spot), and forces him into tough, contested misses.
With his diverse skill set and elite rim protection, it's hard to overstate Jackson's impact on the Grizzlies' defense. Prior to his season debut on Nov. 15, Memphis was 20th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Since Jackson rejoined the team, the Grizzlies have been No. 1 in the league, allowing 109.4 points per 100 possessions.
And that's just their overall defense. In minutes with Jackson on the floor, the Grizzlies' defensive rating lowers by eight points, from 112 to 104. For reference, the last full season a team finished with defensive efficiency that low was 2017-18.
So when you hear people complaining that Jackson made the All-Star team despite "only" averaging 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, they're basically explaining to you that they don't understand the defensive side of basketball. It's not necessarily their fault, either. Scoring sells, and the league markets accordingly. You're never going to see a precise defensive rotation with perfect verticality on an Instagram post with the caption, "JJJ has entered the chat."
That's why, when NBA coaches decide that a player like Jackson is worthy of All-Star selection due in large part to his defensive efforts, it's best to take their word for it.
Another common argument about Jackson's selection is that he hasn't actually played that much more than Davis, who has better offensive numbers and is, at his best, at least close to on par with Jackson defensively. Most point to the fact that, at the time the All-Star reserves were announced, Jackson had played only 12 minutes more than Davis this season. However, you have to keep in mind that Jackson only plays 27 minutes per game, so in reality Jackson has played six more games than Davis this season, which is certainly enough to serve as a tiebreaker along with the Grizzlies' success relative to the Lakers.
CBS Sports HQ Newsletter
Your Ultimate Guide to Every Day in Sports
We bring sports news that matters to your inbox, to help you stay informed and get a winning edge.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Part of the reason Jackson plays fewer minutes is that he's in foul trouble more often than he'd like, but even in games when he avoids the whistle he still rarely eclipses 30 minutes -- he's only done it seven times this season. In fact, Jackson is averaging a career-low 3.3 fouls per game, which has led to more aggressive defense and more success for the Grizzlies. Even in their recent skid of seven losses in eight games, they're still allowing just 109.8 points per 100 possessions with Jackson on the floor.
"With six fouls, he's gonna have some because he's going to be aggressive," Jenkins said of Jackson. "I think he even knows that, hey, I'm gonna probably get three or four a game, just because of how aggressive I play. ... But I think he's made a substantial increase there because he's got the care factor. He's aware of the situations that have put him in trouble, and then he's also just put in the work and watched a lot of film."
As much as NBA scoring has exploded over the past decade -- the average offensive rating has gone from 104.6 in 2012-13 to 114.1 this season -- elite defense is still essential to succeeding at the highest level. Coaches clearly know this, which is why they rewarded Jackson (and Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday, another controversial selection) with All-Star appearances.
Hopefully, next year when All-Stars are announced, we can remember that defense is half of the game, and should be considered just as important as scoring.