MikeCheck: As NBA Draft looms, Jaren Jackson Jr. reflects on first-year Grizz journey and shares rookie cheat code with top incoming prospects
MEMPHIS – If the wiser, more seasoned 19-year-old Jaren Jackson Jr. of today could reach back in time and have a talk with the younger, eager and detrimentally anxious version of himself this time a year ago, the conversation would start something like this:
“I’d say, ‘Yo! Calm down,’” Jackson said of the first piece of advice he’d give himself on the verge of entering the NBA. “I was doing so much. I was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get ready. I’ve got to get ready.’ My agent was like, ‘You have to take some time off.’ Because I was pretty much on a path to burning myself out early, and I wasn’t going to really have enough in me to really be ready.”
Jaren Jackson Jr. poses with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being drafted fourth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies during the 2018 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 21, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo by Mike Stobe via Getty Images.
This week marks the one-year anniversary of when the Grizzlies selected Jackson with the No. 4 overall pick in the NBA Draft. At the time, the 6-foot-11 power forward was an 18-year-old prospect who initially had major reservations about leaving Michigan State after his promising freshman season.
By all accounts, Jackson passed his first-year test in the NBA while enduring a turbulent season in Memphis. He became the first rookie in league history to amass at least 50 blocks, 50 steals, 50 made three-pointers and shoot at least 50 percent from the field. And despite being limited to 58 games with a deep thigh bruise that shut him down after the All-Star break in February, Jackson was a first-team NBA All-Rookie selection.
The Grizzlies own a top-five pick for the second straight year entering Thursday’s NBA Draft in Brooklyn, with expectations they will use the No. 2 overall selection on 19-year-old Murray State point guard Ja Morant to partner with Jackson. That potential pairing would form one of the league’s youngest and most dynamic foundations.
If anyone knows what it’s like to go through this process, it’s Jackson. That’s one of the reasons he’s eager to return to New York this week to work with the NBA on its comprehensive coverage of Thursday’s Draft. Jackson recently sat down with Grind City Media to reflect on his rookie season, vivid memories of his own draft week and what rookie cheat codes he’d pass onto the top incoming players as they transition into the NBA.
Grind City Media: The saying is that time flies. But does it feel like an entire year has passed since your draft week?
Jaren Jackson Jr.: Probably so, just because when you go through a season, you kind of forget about a lot of the things you did to prepare for it. But when you think of it like that, it was long. You did a lot of stuff to prepare for the NBA Combine and the draft. And after the combine, there’s still a lot of time before you get with your team at the draft. So yeah, it’s been a minute. It’s kind of the same process every summer. You have to train the same way.
GCM: If you had a chance to go back and write a letter to Jaren Jackson Jr. last June, what would you tell yourself about preparing for what was ahead?
JJJ: I’d say, Yo! Calm down. Because I was doing so much. I was so like, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get ready. I’ve got to get ready.’ My agent was like, ‘You have to take time off.’ Because I was pretty much on a path to burn out early, and I wasn’t going to really have enough in me to really be ready for camp and training for my team, because I was just trying to live and jump and do everything every day. Yeah, it was working for my workouts and my workouts were good. But I had to find different times when I’d take time off and focus on my body, understanding recovery is important. And I didn’t really value it as much. I just thought that if you work and just keep doing things, you’d be fine. But you have to do other things and take care of yourself.
Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the Memphis Grizzlies drives on Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on November 5, 2018 in Oakland, CA. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson via Getty Images.
GCM: Looking back, why was it so hard to let go and enter the draft after your freshman year at Michigan State?
JJJ: You are with your college teammates so much, it’s like family. It’s like you’re leaving your family. So I didn’t want to leave. God knows I didn’t. I was really back and forth on it. I didn’t really think of it from a professional standpoint at all. It was all kind of emotional, not wanting to leave. So I honestly didn’t give it a lot of thought. My first impulse reaction was, ‘I’m not trying to leave.’ But, you know, I left. Coach Tom Izzo wanted what was best for me, which obviously – well, not obviously – but it was best to leave. I’m happy I made it, because I honestly don’t think I would have been as happy. But I honestly loved my teammates and all that stuff. I wanted some stability for once. I had been moving around my whole life. I’ve had a different coach every year since I was a freshman in high school. My first two years, I had one coach, and then switched my junior year, changed schools. So I had another coach. Then I went to college and I had another coach. So I didn’t want to leave. I said I want one coach. I come here and get another coach, and now I have another one after that. Some familiarity is good sometimes.
GCM: How much has it taught you about being able to adjust, being resilient?
JJJ: If you just focus on yourself, you can focus on anything. You just have to prepare for the absolute worst. That’s what I do. I prepare for, like, not necessarily the bad. But I prepare for, like, we’re going to have a crazy training camp. It’s going to be hard. We’re going to be running. I’m going to be ready for all that stuff. I’m going to get into the best shape possible. I’m going to be locked in. I’m going to be looking at film. I’m going to be looking at plays. I’m going to be ready for anything they throw at me. I’m going to get with (new Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins) early, just to get on the same page to know what he wants. And I want to know his expectations and do what’s asked, so I can help the team do what I have to do.
GCM: Going back to last year’s pre-draft meetings with teams, you were asked how you would handle life in the NBA. To this day, what most stuck with you from those questions you faced from a year ago?
JJJ: Just how teams were trying to read how you’d react to certain things. They were about to spend a lot of money on you, so they’re trying to test you in hot water. It’s not really a friendly thing. They really do like you, but they’re not trying to be friendly. That’s not their role. They’re trying to test you to see how you react to certain stuff, because that’s how the whole season is going to be. The whole season is one big test. They want to see if you’re up for it. So you just have to be professional and tell the truth, and understand that anything they ask you, they already know the answer to it.
GCM: So what’s one example of that? What’s one of those test reaction questions you were asked?
JJJ: If there was a movie, and you were starring in it and it’s all about you, what would it be called? What would the title be? So I’m like, ‘Huh?’ Obviously, they’re looking for me to say some great answer, and I really didn’t know. So I kind of just said something about perseverance. But that’s what they’re looking for. It’s not really an answer, it’s how you reacted and delivered that response, how long you took. It’s not really about your answer, it’s about everything else; your facial (expression). They’re trying to see what they’re about to get into. They don’t want to get caught slipping, because their jobs are on the line, too. If they don’t pick the right person, they’re out of there.
Jaren Jackson Jr. #13 of the U.S. Team handles the ball against the World Team during the 2019 Mtn Dew ICE Rising Stars Game on February 15, 2019 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler via Getty Images.
GCM: Do you feel like you were way too anxious back then? Were you cool, or nervous and just hiding it well?
JJJ: I just did it. I don’t really think about it. I just kind of do it and go through it. It’s just talking. I don’t really like to do media training. But if you ever see me talking while I’m standing still and my eyes aren’t moving, I’m not into it. That’s not me. I’m just doing it. I feel better about having a conversation. There’s no good or bad answer in a conversation, and you don’t have to know everything or always be right.
GCM: You worked out for three teams last year before draft night. Memphis wasn’t one of them. Did that mean anything at the time, and does it mean anything when top draft prospects take a specific approach to workouts?
JJJ: All of my workouts were one-on-zero. So be in shape. It’s really like a test of if you can keep going. It’s not about if you can do it well. Obviously, you want to make shots, but you want to keep going. For instance, in Atlanta, they didn’t allow me to use my left hand, because they knew I was left-handed. So my workout was pretty iffy, because it was literally all right-handed, from dribbling to passing to shooting to layups to driving. And I’m so frustrated because I’m like, ‘Man, this whole workout is all on my off hand, and I can’t even get comfortable.’
GCM: And then there was Phoenix, right?
JJJ: Yes, Phoenix was my first one. And I was so locked in because I didn’t know where I was going to go, and everybody of course wants to be the No. 1 pick. I was just really locked in there. And the other workout was Dallas. And there, it was funny, because they had a bunch of people in the gym, but they weren’t talking. So they were just evaluating. I’m cool with Rick Carlisle; that’s my guy. So in that workout, you might just see like a smirk from him. He knows what I’m doing is tiring. I remember running to half-court and back to the paint, catching lobs and stuff. I remember one time, whoever threw the pass hit the rim, so that doesn’t count. And I had to run all the way back the other way to start again. And I was dying. I was so tired. All of those workouts are different.
GCM: Have you grown the most physically or psychologically in the past year? Because you’ve gone through a lot from the thigh injury to the midseason trade that changed the roster and now another coaching change.
JJJ: Probably physically, because with the time off, I was able to lift a lot. So I started my offseason lifts after I got hurt (in February). And it gave me a lot of time to really get stronger and fill out a little bit. But mentally, my battle mentally is just that I’m so hard on myself, like unreasonably so - to the point where I can put myself in a bind just by being never happy. If you watch me work out, I’m never, ever, ever happy. Like, I’m happy in the game, I’ll have fun. But, like, workouts, when I’m trying to get better, if I miss one shot, I’m (upset). I’m going to keep going hard, for sure. But I’ll be frustrated, angry. And coaches would come over and be like, ‘Yo, you’re good. Move on.’ And I’d be like, ‘Nah, bro. I missed that. I should have never missed that.’ Everything is pretty cool. I’m really kind of (low key) about a lot of things, otherwise. I don’t let it affect me. Control what you can control.
Elliot Perry, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Zach Kleiman pose for picture after acquiring the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery at the Hilton Chicago on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.
GCM: Lastly, there’s a new group coming in at the top of the lottery who are about to go through draft night. What is Jaren Jackson Jr.’s message to those guys as they get set to enter the NBA? What could only you tell another guy like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant or RJ Barrett, having been in that exact same spot last year?
JJJ: It's hard to do that now, because we’re at a point where there’s so much direction given to players by other people. There’s no way Zion and RJ and Ja don’t have a great team (of advisors) around them, telling them where to go every minute, telling them what to eat, how to work out and where, when you’re going to do this, how you’re going to do that and make this money. All of that stuff. They’re going to be locked in. Just listen to who’s around you. Trust who’s around you, but make sure you get people you trust around you. Because you can’t do this on your own. Everything levels off. If you work at it, you’ll be good. Really. It ain’t crazy. Well, it is crazy, but it ain’t. And summer league is going to be a breeze for some of those guys. It really is. But also know that summer league is not the NBA at all. Summer league is honestly like practice, if that. Maybe not even. It gets much harder from there (laughs). Trust me.
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