'That's Pretty Interesting': Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. not shying away; dreaming of Thunder raining 3s
Also: A Ben Simmons-Jimmy Butler mixtape, some deception from J.J. Barea and an extremely mad Marc Gasol
NEW YORK -- "At least one play every two or three games," Garrett Temple said, "it's like, what the hell?" Jaren Jackson Jr., who turned 19 a week before training camp and is the youngest player to appear in a regular-season game this year, routinely stuns his Memphis Grizzlies teammates. Against the Dallas Mavericks two weeks ago, the 6-foot-11 Jackson caught a pass in the left corner, with DeAndre Jordan closing out on him. He drove baseline, but Jordan cut him off, so he hit the big man with an in-and-out dribble and made a lefty layup on the other side of the rim.
Temple was on the court, but heard guys saying "Oh!" on the Grizzlies bench. He also heard one Dallas player say, "Oh, shit!"
"It was hilarious," Temple told CBS Sports.
Like everyone else in Memphis, Temple has been impressed with Jackson's maturity on the court. He knew the rookie "could cause real havoc on the defensive end," but has seen him surprise people with his offensive game. What makes him different, though, in Temple's estimation, is his mentality.
If Jackson has a rough start to a game, in the locker room at halftime he'll be hard on himself: Man, I can't guard nobody. If he's playing well, he'll tell his teammates his defender can't guard him: Give me the ball! Temple, a genial, 32-year-old veteran renowned for his leadership skills, can relate to the fact that observers might overlook Jackson's fire.
"The competitive nature is the most glaring thing to me because of his personality," Temple said. "He's just so nice."
Temple said this last Friday at Barclays Center, just before Jackson scored 36 points on 13-for-22 shooting with eight rebounds and two assists in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. It was the highest-scoring and perhaps best overall performance by a rookie this season, especially considering the way it went down.
With 30 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies trailed 111-104 as Mike Conley drove to the rim. The point guard kicked it out to Jackson, who drilled a 3-pointer as Rondae Hollis-Jefferson fell into him. It was a four-point play, and Jackson helped force a Nets turnover before nailing another 3 on the next possession to force overtime. Memphis overcame 300-1 odds, per Inpredictable, to get the victory.
"He's playful, he loves to have fun but he's a competitor at the end of the day," Temple said. "He wants to win. He wants to destroy his opponent."
Jackson told CBS Sports that he's not particularly concerned with whether or not people understand his drive. "I just do me," he said, adding that he is his own biggest critic. Sounding like a polished professional, or maybe just like a young player whose father had a 13-year pro career, he said he's not out to prove anything to anybody, only to produce on the court.
Jaren Jackson Sr. didn't force his son to get into basketball, preferring to let him come to it on his own. As a kid, Jackson dabbled in swimming and downhill skiing. He took up the sport because it was fun, he said, and that remains his primary motivator.
"It's always fun," Jackson said. "It's basketball. It's like the most fun thing we do. If you take it away from us, we're upset. It's like taking candy from a baby -- they get upset!"
It took no time for Jackson to make an impression on the Grizzlies. In his first summer league game in Utah, he made eight 3s and scored 29 points. "That was the moment where it was like, this kid has a chance to be special,'" coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. Since then, Memphis has marveled at the breadth of his game and the fact that he doesn't need to be pushed or prodded. It would be understandable if a young player had trouble fitting in or finding himself on a veteran team with playoff aspirations, but Jackson said it has been "real easy" for him.
"We've never had to worry about Jaren being late, Jaren missing things, not working hard," Bickerstaff said. "From Day One, that's who he showed up as, and that makes it easy."
Jackson took JaMychal Green's starting spot due to an early-season injury, and never relinquished it -- before returning, Green told Bickerstaff he saw what Jackson was doing and didn't want to disrupt anything. Bickerstaff said everyone respects the way he approaches practice, shootaround and game preparation.
Nonetheless, Temple described Jackson as goofy. When he is not working on his skills or watching film, you might even call him immature. It probably helps that he is directly contributing to winning -- Memphis is 13-9 and its starting five has a plus-10 net rating -- but clearly knows how to strike the right balance between silly and serious.
"I like to annoy these guys in my free time," Jackson said. "Yeah, joke around a lot. Dance a lot. They would just say it's being me. Just having fun. They're kind of used to me now, so I gotta step it up, find other ways to annoy them."
In today's NBA, most teams wouldn't play someone Jackson's size at power forward, especially next to a 7-foot-1 center like Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies get away with it because he roves all over the court like a wing and can shoot, pass and dribble. "It's perfect, to be honest with you," Bickerstaff said: Both bigs can protect the paint and make 3s, pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll. Gasol knows that they're asking a lot of a rookie, and he's proud of how fast Jackson is learning.
"When I was 19 I was carrying bags for my team back in Spain," Gasol told CBS Sports.
In his 11th year with Memphis, Gasol sees it as his responsibility to help the future face of the franchise reach his potential. "The ceiling is so high you can't even see it," he said, listing the tools Jackson already possesses: His ability to take players off the dribble, his shooting, his post-up game, his defensive instincts, his fearlessness defending guards and his desire to "block every shot."
Gasol noted that Jackson can be over-aggressive on defense. "He's going to learn when to use his energy," he said, and experience will bring a better understanding of opposing players' tendencies. Jackson's biggest weakness is that he fouls too much, but it is hard for anyone to be mad at him for the occasional gaffe when his heart is in the right place.
"You know he's going to give it his all," Temple said. "Even though he may make a few mistakes, he's making mistakes hard, which is what you want out of young guys."
On the perimeter, Jackson has been empowered to take advantage of matchups rather than simply swinging the ball and setting screens. "As a team, we trust him to make a move," Temple said, and Jackson is happy to assert himself.
"By shying away, I'm not helping them," Jackson said. "So I'm just doing my thing."
What Jackson will be doing in a few years is a mystery, even to those who see him daily. Gasol cannot even imagine where his game will go.
"Zero clue," Gasol said. "Even if I try to, I can't really tell you. People like to compare games. Obviously people that have watched a lot of basketball try to go back and see. There's players who are unique. His game is so different that you don't know."
"I don't know, either," Temple said. "I don't really compare him to anybody. I hate doing comparisons, especially somebody that's that young, but he has the possibility to be a real good player in this league. He has the possibility to be the best in the class in my opinion -- in a really good class. He has that upside."
In the summer, Jackson and Kevin Garnett climbed the Calabasas Stairs and did a private workout for an NBA Digital-produced mini-documentary you can watch on Facebook. In it, Jackson compared himself to Kristaps Porzingis and Garnett compared him to Chris Bosh. Two days after Jackson's explosion in Brooklyn, Bickerstaff made an even loftier comparison: Garnett himself.
Dreaming of OKC raining 3s
On the first possession of the Oklahoma City Thunder's game in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Paul George created a corner 3 for Terrance Ferguson, who swished it. The next time down the court, George hit a 3 off a dribble-handoff from Russell Westbrook. There was nothing unusual about these plays, except for the fact that they don't happen enough for the Thunder. They entered the game dead-last in 3-point percentage at 31.1 percent.
Oklahoma City has always had spacing issues, and its front office has always prioritized athleticism and defensive versatility over shooting. Considering league trends, though, it is stunning that this is still such an issue. The Thunder actually went from 30th in 3-point percentage in Westbrook's MVP season to 24th last year, but they have regressed.
In fairness, this is a talented and tough team, with the NBA's third-best net rating. Oklahoma City is playing well, but isn't it a problem that it isn't shooting well?
"Yeah, it's concerning," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "But I think everybody has a recipe or a formula how they have to play. You're going to have to overcome certain things. The best teams in the league that shoot the basketball at a high rate are not going to shoot it great every single night. And you can't be a team where, OK, if you don't shoot it well, we're just going to lose. You have to have things that are built in to be able to win."
For Oklahoma City, that means defending like crazy, offensive rebounding better than anybody, forcing a ton of turnovers and playing with pace. Donovan thinks the Thunder should be elite at getting to the free-throw line, too, but they have only been average in that area this season.
Asked to assess his team's attack, George sounded like he was playing for a team that ranked top-five in offensive rating, not 19th: "I think our offense is good. We're playing the game how we want to. We're playing it the right way. We're making the game easy for ourselves."
He continued: "We play however we need to to win. We find guys to shoot open 3s. We've got guys that can make and set themselves up for 3-point shots. We got guys that can attack, make plays at the rim, one of the best, if not the best offensive rebounder and finisher at the rim. Honestly, I think there's not one thing offensively we can't do. It just depends on how the game is going."
Against the Nets, the Thunder missed seven straight 3s after their hot minute. They shot 7-for-28 from long range in the first three quarters, trailing by as many as 23 points. They escaped with a 114-112 win, though, as George scored 25 of his 47 points in the fourth quarter. One of the many luxuries of employing star players is that they can bail you out.
Another note about that final frame: OKC went 6-for-10 from deep, with George making four of his six attempts and Jerami Grant pitching in with an important one. This is where I must disagree with the man who left Barclays a hero: The Thunder are decidedly not making the game easy on themselves. While Donovan insisted he likes the shots they are generating, there is no guarantee that they're going to start falling consistently. They have made a league-worst 30 percent of their wide-open 3s, per NBA.com -- two years ago, they finished the season shooting 32.4 percent on those shots, also dead-last.
Oklahoma City, back in action on Friday when it visits Chicago (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), is fun, but its great, enduring flaw is frustrating. If it could just add a little more shooting without compromising its identity, if it could just be average rather than awful from behind the 3-point line, it could be electric.
When Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons started wearing headbands, Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said, tongue-in-cheek, that it represented a "bonding of defensive brothers." The two of them don't just have chemistry on one end of the court, though, so here's a mixtape of them teaming up:
If you don't recognize the song, read the New York Times' Scott Cacciola's story about it.
I was bummed out when I put on Sunday's Mavericks-Clippers game and didn't see Luka Doncic in the starting lineup. The game greatly exceeded my expectations, though, due in no small part to some heroics from the immortal J.J. Barea.
Barea scored 24 points, with four assists and five rebounds for good measure. He also faked everybody out with an assist camouflaged as a 3-point attempt:
Here is a snippet of conversation about Marc Gasol from a recent Lowe Post podcast:
Zach Lowe: "He does not hide his displeasure on the floor when something bad happens. He is always gesticulating, mouth agape."
Mike Conley: "You can see it all, man. You can tell when he's upset, for sure."
Here is Gasol, late in Sunday's game in Philadelphia, literally stomping mad:
10 more stray thoughts: Minnesota Robert Covington has been a revelation … I miss Josh Okogie, though … I really miss Caris LeVert … The Jim Boylen era is off to a rollicking start … Malcolm Brogdon's efficiency is mind-blowing … Fifty-one percent of P.J. Tucker's shots are corner 3s, which must be a record … You probably saw Jokic's pass of the year, but did you see his one-handed catch and finger roll? … We hardly knew ye, Danuel House … Let's not act surprised that the Spurs don't feel like the Spurs anymore … I have no Markelle Fultz takes, but after reading this interview, I desperately want to know the root cause of of his impingement issue.
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